Ever wondered what a progressive Christian would say about the death and resurrection of Jesus? Ever wonder how that story makes any sense for modern people? Here’s an easy-to-understand explanation for those of you who, like me, can’t buy that God killed Jesus, that God required the blood sacrifice of an innocent for my wrongdoings, or that Satan somehow kidnapped humanity and God needed to pay a ransom payment to our kidnapper.
We’ll start with a simplified explanation of scapegoat theory and then apply it to the story of Jesus. It’s a long-ish read, but I hope helpful. A longer version can be found in the book Ken Wilson and I wrote, Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance.
Scapegoat Theory in a Nutshell
Dr. René Girard was a literary criticic and anthropologist who finished his career at Stanford University. His major contribution to academia was his description of the scapegoat mechanism, which he recognized and articulated after studying myth, literature, history, and culture for many years.
Girard said humans discovered a mechanism, over time, that prevents violence from breaking out in our various human groups — from smaller units like families and faith communities, to larger units like nation-states or empires. To save our various groups from self-implosion due to rivalries, group members can identify a scapegoat on which to project our collective anxiety and envy and rivalry.
Scapegoats are used to control the amount of violence that takes place in anxious groups — if we can channel angry energy onto one person or a minority of people, then we can prevent violence from becoming widespread.
Scapegoats often stand apart from the group for some reason — maybe they dress shabbily, or maybe they’re rich. Perhaps they smell bad by cultural standards, or the color of their skin is in the minority, or they’re queer, or they’re undocumented, or they’re smaller in stature than other people their age. Something sets them apart from the majority.
Once a scapegoat is identified, the larger group succumbs to a form of mob mentality and falsely accuses the scapegoat of a taboo crime in order to dehumanize them. A ringleader makes the false accusation against the scapegoat, and then the rest of the crowd mirrors the ringleader’s violent desire. Almost always, the scapegoat is innocent of the charge, but the ringleader and the crowd are guilty of it. There’s a psychological projection of the sin of the ringleader and the group onto the innocent scapegoat, who is made to carry that sin.
The scapegoat is then bullied, exiled, isolated, fired, incarcerated, killed, held in camps, and/or deported. And the violence enacted against the innocent brings a temporary sense of peace and unity to an anxious group. In other words: scapegoating works. It works temporarily in preventing wider violence. It channels rivalrous energy and redirects it from all against all, turning it into all against one.
Jesus Through a Girardian Lens
Let’s now look more closely at the story of Jesus’s life through a Girardian lens to evaluate how it fits into the larger narrative.
He was born into a large-scale system of envy, rivalry, and anxiety. Several revolts against the Romans took place before, during, and after Jesus’s life. In addition to rivalry with the Roman Empire, feuding persisted within the Jewish community, especially in regards to how they should relate to their Roman occupiers.
When the threat of violence is really bad — near at hand, like a powder keg about to go off — Girard’s theory informs us that full-scale war can be postponed or delayed by identifying a series of scapegoats to temporarily relieve group pressure. You kill one scapegoat to relieve pressure, then things get anxious again so you kill another. This was the case during Jesus’s lifetime all the way up to the time when war broke out in Jerusalem about forty years after Jesus’s death. Various “false messiahs” and rebel groups hung on crosses throughout the land during that time.
Rome crucified people who protested too boldly — thousands of them. Crucifixion represented Rome’s scorn for lower class people, and most especially those challenging and/or resisting the political power of the empire.
Jesus was not the only scapegoat of his time — he was one of many scapegoats on which people channelled their violent energy in order to temporarily avoid widespread violence. Girard tells us that, once a group uses scapegoating to maintain peace, it will do so over and over again until the violence overwhelms them.
Jesus, a Classic Scapegoat
As a Jewish man in Roman-occupied territory, Jesus perfectly suited the role of scapegoat. He was part of an oppressed minority group who likely carried the stigma of a mamzer, a child of questionable paternity — a bastard, if you will. He was different, and his followers were different — they were the poor, the religious outcasts, women, tax collectors, prostitutes, and so on.
Yet even as he stood apart, Jesus was also deeply embedded in the traditions of his own people —he understood himself as rooted in the line of Jewish prophets. Jesus spoke and acted against unjust power structures through stories, teachings, and healings. He defended the vulnerable — like the woman accused of adultery who was about to be stoned. He championed those with mental illnesses who were scapegoated by their communities — such as the man who would get chained up by his fellow townspeople and then go wander among the tombs. Jesus gained quite a following, especially among the most marginalized people but also among some of the people with more social and religious power who understood his message.
People started whispering that Jesus might be the messiah, the anointed one who would establish God’s reign on earth. Something big is happening, they said. How will Jesus upend the social systems? Will he lead a violent rebellion (as many imagined the messiah might)? Will he overthrow the Roman Empire? Will he become high priest in the temple?
He did none of those things. It turns out the best way to upend social systems is to start by loving the people right next to you — your neighbors. How do we do this? Well …
- Jesus encouraged people who had more power to use it on behalf of those who did not. (If you have two coats and someone has none, give that person a coat.) Sometimes the most revolutionary thing you can do is make a meal for someone who is sick.
- Jesus encouraged people to lay power down rather than seek power for the sake of the thing itself. (Seek first the Good Realm of God — a realm of love, righteousness, and justice — and all these things will be added unto you.) Create and support systems that take care of the vulnerable rather than take advantage. In your work, put people above money.
- Jesus taught his followers to renounce violence and love even our enemies. We’re to lay down our rivalries — we’re even encouraged to pray for people who wish us harm or who position themselves as being in competition with us.
The Roman empire encouraged the opposite of these things — as sometimes the American empire does. The American message of tells us: be as successful as you can, make as much money as you can, get as much status as you can by outcompeting with others — and do it all by picking yourself up by your bootstraps and being independent. This expectation is impossible for many people for lots of reasons; it’s toxic; and subscribing to that myth is making us sick.
Jesus tells us we need each other. We can’t do this life alone — if you have more, give to those who have less. If you have a business or you manage people in any way, take care of the people in your charge even if it means the company takes a hit. Seek the good of all humans, because when you do this we all benefit, and that’s a better environment in which to live than one where people carelessly step on others to get ahead.
As Jesus preached these things, those who hoped to keep peace with the Romans became afraid that Jesus’s message and his mass following might upend the tenuous stability.
What are we accomplishing? they asked. Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation (Jn. 11:47b-48).
The pressure was real and it was intense. Both the temple and the nation were taken away some forty years later. Sometimes entire structural systems are at stake. By the time people realize systems may crumble, the time is ripe for a scapegoat.
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up,
“You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish …”
… So from that day on they plotted to take his life (Jn. 11:49–50, 53).
Caiaphas understood the power of channeling group energy onto one person. He knew that if Jesus could be accused of blasphemy and of plotting to overthrow the Romans, enough people would rally around the charges to relieve the pressure valve.
The Crowd Becomes a Mob
Soon after, during the week in which Jesus would die, we have a story of him riding a donkey into Jerusalem. Crowds of Jesus’s followers lined the streets waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” (Jn. 12:13b).
The mob cried out in support of Jesus, giving him their clothes to sit on and laying their cloaks on the ground before him (Mt. 21:8) — but oh, how fickle crowds can be. They so quickly fall in line once a scapegoat is identified. On Sunday the mob shouted “Hosanna!” and by that Friday they shouted, “Crucify him!” What happened between those days? Girard’s theory tells us that, when fear and rivalry reach a fever pitch, false accusations against a potential scapegoat surface. Which is exactly what happened to Jesus that Passover week.
People who are otherwise inclined to support potential scapegoats almost always go along with false accusations, even if they do not entirely believe them. They will sacrifice, almost every time, an innocent person or minority for the sake of what appears to be peace for the larger in-group. Girard calls this mimetic contagion — the idea is that, once a false charge is made, humans in large groups will imitate the violent desires of the ringleaders. It’s like a disease spreading through a crowd: mimetic contagion.
It only takes one person making a public accusation against another to ignite the process. After a few people reinforce the charge, it becomes increasingly difficult for others in the group to disagree.
Two charges against Jesus materialized during that week: blasphemy and subversion against Rome. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, a Roman ruler, we’re told the crowd “ … began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king’” (Lk. 23:2). Surely not everyone in the crowd felt confident of those accusations, but on the whole they mobilized around projecting their own disloyalties onto Jesus.
Neither Pilate nor Herod could come up with anything with which to legally charge Jesus. Pilate, the Roman ruler, knew Jesus was innocent of accusations of plotting a revolt; he says so three times in the Gospel of John. Even so, the crowd of people who so vehemently cheered Jesus’s arrival into Jerusalem a few days prior now convinced themselves he needed to die.
Jesus the Dehumanized Sacrifice
The Roman authorities then dressed Jesus the scapegoat like a buffoon, with a false crown and purple robe, and beat him until he looked nothing like them. They disfigured, mocked, and paraded him around town for all to see, forcing him to carry his own cross until he could carry it no longer. The more different — the more other — he appeared, the easier to dehumanize and kill him.
We humans killed Jesus, not God. Some members of both communities — Jew and Gentile alike — representing all humankind, executed Jesus. We took an innocent man and accused, condemned, and sacrificed him because of our sin. When Scripture tells us Jesus bore the sin of the world, he was bearing our projected anxiety, sin, disloyalties, and shame. He represented all of the innocent victims — past, present, and future — who have ever been excluded and harmed and murdered.
The very words Jesus spoke as he hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” unmask the scapegoating system at work. An innocent man spoke them. Not a somewhat innocent man. Not a man guilty of many things but not the thing of which he was accused. But a wholly innocent man, carrying the envy, rivalry, and violent energy of the world projected onto him.
Jesus spoke out to God concerning all of humanity. We do not know what we are doing. A hallmark of the Girardian cycle is the complete and utter belief held by oppressors that they are innocent. They are convinced they are, in fact, the actual victims. And in his moment of execution, Jesus extended grace and mercy for those harming him. He forgave them. He forgave us. And he did it before he died and rose again — no blood or death needed.
Overturning the Verdict
The communal sacrifice of Jesus brought hushed relief to the watching crowd as darkness covered the land. The ritual killing marked the finale after a week of such intense turbulence that, after Jesus died, the bystanders simply “beat their breasts” and walked away. Those who knew him, including the women from the Galilee, stood at a distance in silence, watching. Preparations for the burial of the body started and were carried on until evening, since it was the Sabbath and they did not want to leave the bodies on the crosses through the next day. Silence, followed by the dutiful cleanup of the mess all had wrought.
Jesus’s death is unremarkable in that it bears resemblance to the stories of so many other scapegoats, including many crucified before and after him by the Romans. Yet his story also remains immensely remarkable in that he does not stay sacrificed.
Jesus was crucified and died, but Jesus also resurrected.
In doing so, God overturned our human verdict of the scapegoat. We humans declared the innocent scapegoat guilty, and God revoked our human pronouncement of guilt and declared the entire scapegoating system — the entire cycle of human violence — foolish and void. It is finished. No more. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
It is finished.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
The resurrection of Jesus thoroughly laid bare the purpose of continuous scapegoat events — which is to maintain group stability — and displayed the futility of falsely accusing and doing violence to others. Long-term peace can not be achieved through scapegoating. When we follow Jesus, we renounce our inclination to do such violence to others.
This is, in fact, the essence of what it means to follow Jesus. The Greek word for Spirit in the New Testament is Paraclete, which means “advocate,” and the Hebrew word satan means “accuser.” When we renounce our scapegoating ways — when we convert, so to speak — we move from operating in the spirit of the accusing mob to being infused with the spirit of the advocate, championing the vulnerable and oppressed — committing ourselves to loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
After Jesus rose, he appeared to many of his followers over the course of forty days before departing. He didn’t go and “dialogue” with the people who crucified him — he forgave them, but he didn’t spend his time trying to make them understand. Rather, he went to comfort and be with those who believed in what he taught — for whom it was good news. He showed those people his scars, and he invited them to touch the healed wounds as evidence that violence was done to him, but that God brought victory out of seeming defeat. God brought healing out of pain.
Forgiveness is Not Reconciliation
Reconciliation is a whole other beast. Forgiveness is not reconciliation, and reconciliation happens under specific conditions. It can only be accomplished when the ones who participate in the scapegoating mob (or the ones who sin against us or who harm us) name and take responsibility for their sins. Until or unless that happens, reconciliation isn’t a possibility.
We always hope and long for reconciliation. Reconciliation is hard work, and it’s the most deeply spiritual work we learn to do — whether we’re the ones needing to apologize and mend relationships, or the one who has been hurt.
Reconciliation is what God offers us humans. We’ve been forgiven for harming the innocent ever since Jesus hung on that cross 2,000 years ago and said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” That’s grace. But to reconcile to God we must own that we are, at times, part of the mob who crucifies the vulnerable, and we often do it without even knowing it.
To follow Jesus, we make ourselves willing to be infused with the Spirit of the Advocate, the Spirit of Love — to have our eyes opened to the scapegoating process so we can see when we’re participating. We repent of our past participation and convert to seeing the world in a different way, standing up for the vulnerable. We’re willing to make amends where such are required, and willing to “pick up our crosses,” as the Apostle Paul describes, and bear the same stigma and suffering scapegoats bear. That’s what it means to be an ally to the vulnerable — you suffer some of the same social stigma they suffer when you stand up for people of color, queer people, and so on.
When I see people fired or kicked out of their church denomination for standing with the LGBTQ+ community, or for preaching the gospel of the oppressed, I often write them and welcome them to the company of the margainalized — to the company of Jesus.
Believe it or not, this is where the party’s at. This is where the Spirit hovers. This is where joy lies in wait.