Following a talk entitled ‘Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology’ that was presented in one of the southern suburbs of Melbourne last month, a person of Indian descent spoke to me about animals and spirituality. He was concerned about the lack of understanding of the roles and importance of animals in our spiritual learning and, unlike Hinduism, he felt that modern Christianity does not know how to effectively extract wisdom from our fellow species. This conversation has prompted me to watch and consider my goat, Holly, more carefully in recent weeks and seek an understanding of the concept of ‘scapegoats’
So, Holly is a middle-aged, anglo-nubian she-goat. She has been with us since kidhood and is tame, quite verbal, friendly, cranky at times and very-much a part of our mixed-species tribe. When we first met Holly, someone informed me that goats were more like dogs than sheep; they like human companionship. Although Holly does not get a lot of human interaction, over the years she has shared her paddock with other pasture-dwelling species including kangaroos, horses, sheep and an alpaca (called Rory) who seems to be a bit of a favourite.
What have I noticed about our goat? She is strong, tenacious, wiry, versatile, adaptable, good-natured, guileless, simple-minded, willing to please and carnal. She’s a goat! I once heard a quote: ‘If you want to know what it means to be a human, meet a goat’. This wisdom probably only makes sense if you know a goat, and, it is almost impossible to put into words the meaning of this quote (so I will not attempt this).
Why then, do we have scapegoats, rather than scapesheep, scapedogs or even scapealpacas? The original idea of a scapegoat goes back to a very old Hebrew ritual. We have a detailed record of this ancient atonement ritual in the book of Leviticus (which is easily found in any self-respecting bible). In the days when animal sacrifice was practiced by most peoples of the earth, it was usually done in the context of religious ritual and/or worship, or appeasement, of a deity. It is hard for we pet-loving moderns to understand what ‘they’ were thinking in this archaic and cruel treatment of animals however, since we were not there, let us withhold moral judgement and focus on the symbolism.
We are told in Leviticus 16 that two unblemished, young, male goats were chosen and, by lot, it was determined which goat would be a sin offering (involving certain death and blood letting for the alter) and which would be the ‘scapegoat’. The scapegoat was brought alive to the priest who was to lay both hands on the head of the goat and confess over it all the sins of the people. The goat was then driven away from camp (away from it’s herd and secure food supply) into the desert. Scripture tells us that ‘The goat will carry on itself all the people’s sins to a solitary place’. So, a man was given the task of driving the goat away deep into the desert so it would not return to camp. This ritual was conducted with intricate attention to the details once a year to ensure the cleansing and ‘acceptability’ of the Israelites.
The Christian understanding of this ancient ritual is that it preempted (or prophesied) God humbling Him/Herself and entering into humanity in the person of Christ to become the ‘scapegoat’; to take the blame and punishment for the sins of human beings. Christ was to become both the sacrificial goat and the scapegoat to ensure our acceptability and holiness to live in an eternal relationship with a guileless loving God.
Other ancient peoples had similar practices involving goats. In Ancient Syria, a she-goat with a silver bracelet around her neck was driven out into the wasteland to remove evil from the community. This ‘elimination rite’ was connected with ritual purification on the occasion of the king’s wedding. Ancient Greeks practiced scapegoating rituals using humans (instead of goats) based on the belief that the repudiation of one or two individuals would save the whole community. A poor person of low-status would be chosen, treated with great dignity through feasting and adorning with expensive clothing to establish ‘worth’ (and/or purity), and then driven out of the city with stones. This ceremony was expected to appease the gods and bring relief from drought, famine or plague.
The practice of scapegoating has survived the passage of time. It may be observed all over the globe in families, classrooms, work-places, churches, clubs, communities. Psychologists would define it using terms like projection; where we avoid our own shadow, darkness, shame and guilt, instead placing it onto another person. This behaviour is often unconscious but sometimes it is quite intentional. The chosen ‘scapegoat’ may have incited our jealousy; they may be free-spirited, beautiful, successful, strong. Alternatively, if we are behaving with much cowardice, we may choose someone who is weak and undervalued to project our anger and inadequacies onto. It can be cruel and often results in the ‘scapegoat’ becoming isolated and traumatized, struggling with poor self-esteem and paranoia. Even in Christian families/churches scapegoating is common, especially when there is no understanding that Christ has removed our mental torture of guilt and shame along with the inpurities of human lovelessness (or ‘sin’ if you prefer that word).
Most people have experienced both sides of the equation; they have been the scapegoat and they have skapegoated others. We can do better. We can recognize when we are being treated as a scapegoat and refuse to play that role. We can realize that ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ and face up to our imperfections, bad attitudes/behaviours. ignorance and darkness. There is no need to be judgmental as ‘there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’. There is no need to pass the blame or guilt or shame onto another as we do not need to be perfect. When I acknowledge the truth of my lovelessness, forgiveness flows and freedom grows. My mind clears of the aggressive clatter of guilt and denial, and I have more time to spend with my goat!! Shalom.