Blaming the Scapegoat

Post by Kathleen Schwab

This year I am teaching American Literature to my Late High School students. Right after Easter Break we read two of the most frequently anthologized American short stories: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

I realized as I was writing up discussion questions that these two stories have a great deal to say about Easter. Although neither is written from a faith perspective, they explore the universal human experiences of guilt, shame, and fear, and how people attempt to make sense of these powerful emotions.  

If you haven’t read “The Lottery” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” I will summarize them enough to explain my points. (Or you can quickly read them using the links above. They are fantastic.) In “The Lottery,” a village holds a once a year lottery to select one person. The reader doesn’t discover the purpose of the lottery until the end, although the rising sense of dread as the drawing progresses signals that this tradition involves something awful. And it does: the winner of the lottery is stoned to death by the rest of the villagers.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” takes things a step further. Le Guin describes the ideal city of Omelas: happy, industrious, wealthy, and benevolent. Then she asks how such a wonderful place could be possible, and presents a shocking answer: the happiness of the city is built on a brutal sacrifice. One child is tortured and imprisoned in darkness to ensure happiness and light for everyone else. The suffering child is known to all citizens, but no one attempts a rescue, because the success of the city depends on the sacrifice. I’ve taught these stories to teenagers, and I can tell you they are transfixed. Remember being a teenager? A person’s vulnerability to the group unexpectedly turning on him or her is at an all-time high. They know these tales say something important about life.

Both stories deal with the idea of the scapegoat, someone or something that a community projects its sin and suffering onto, and then punishes. In ancient times communities would use a literal goat for this purpose, and once a year they would symbolically transfer all the sin and trouble of the group onto the animal, and then drive it out into the wilderness. The idea was that with the goat gone, all the bad things would be gone too, the group would be cleansed, and everyone could go on with life.

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Modern people may think we are beyond such primitive practices. We are too advanced to project our failures and mistakes onto something outside ourselves, aren’t we? But we’ve all seen it happen in families, workplaces, and communities. Problems crop up, everyone is restless and angry, and suddenly the group has fixed on one or more members as the problem. The person assigned the blame may or may not have anything to do with the original issue.

While it is true that the more dysfunctional the system is, the more prone to scapegoat, I think something else is also going on: a deep need we all have to get free of darkness and trouble. We know somehow that the road to escaping the darkness in life involves pain. And that quiet voice inside us is right. The scales must be balanced, and all the awful impulses in the human heart, all the atrocities of our history, must be paid for somehow.

Jesus’ death and resurrection have the potential to bring us this balance. In journeying with Him through the Stations of the Cross we do something the modern world doesn’t often allow: we enter into sin and suffering, and walk the path, step by step. We drink the cup, along with Him. Walk this road by His side, and you will gain a companion in suffering forever. Our culture often makes light of our pain, but He takes it seriously.

He is the villager stoned to death to ensure a good harvest, the child sobbing in the dark in Omelas. But unlike these images our culture’s literary imagination has created, He is God, and His story is not over when the price is paid. Instead, He returns to life. And He offers us something greater than the old story of a sacrifice to cover sin. The old story means that once people pay the blood price, they can carry on with life as usual, until the next year rolls around, the tension builds up, and they must find another scapegoat. The death of Our God, and His return to life, breaks the old wheel.

And participating with Him each year, mourning Good Friday, and then celebrating Easter, has the potential to set us free from the drive to scapegoat. We look to Him to release the darkness, and we lose the need to pin the blame on anyone else.

He pays the price for sin, and offers us a place in the Kingdom of God, a place where we finally move beyond the earthly cycles of sin and sacrifice. We can begin, at last, to live simply to enjoy fellowship with God.