Reading chapter 7

Rohr pictureRichard Rohr writes,


The high priest shall take two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and he shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for a scapegoat. He shall sacrifice the goat chosen for the LORD as a sin offering…  When he has finished atoning…he shall lay both his hands on the head of the scapegoat, and confess over it all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:6-22)

The text above comes from the instructions for one day of the year – the Jewish Day of Atonement. However, every day of the year we try to shift blame to other people – and Rohr calls this ‘scapegoating’.

This is the basic human delusion – we always want to think someone else is the problem. And scapegoating can be very effective – blaming others can make us feel better about ourselves; hating or fearing another group can bind us more closely to our own social or religious group.

The nature of criticism

The unconverted ego always wants control, and deeply resists any call to change. Yet Jesus and all the prophets called for change – metanoia (usually translated into English as ‘repentance’, but the word really means a ‘change of mind and heart’).

The Bible tells us story after story of people who were called to change/metanoia, yet resisted the call. Over and over again, people (often the nation’s leaders) said they valued justice, love, truth and fairness, but their actions belied those values.

Human beings seem to have an endless capacity to miss the point.  The New Testament word for ‘missing the point’ is hamartia (usually translated as ‘sin’ but really meaning to miss the mark). We are always shooting at the wrong target. God calls for mercy and justice; but we shoot our arrows towards a different target – protecting and perfecting ourselves.

The mystery hidden from the foundation of the world (Psalm 78:2)

The blaming pattern appears in the very first chapters of the Bible – Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, Cain blames Abel… The theme leads all the way to Noah’s ark (Genesis, chapters 3 – 9 ).  In these stories, God’s love is still seen as conditional, determined by the worthiness of the receiver. The authors of these stories were not ready to understand a love that is determined only by the abundance of the Giver.

In Deuteronomy we will find some new understanding of God’s love (see Deuteronomy 7). Here we see Israel beginning to move toward recognition of God’s nonviolence:  God tells the Israelites that they haven’t been chosen because they are better than any other people; their election is absolutely free from God’s side and undeserved from theirs.  (They would never have come to this idea of God on their own – so the passage has all the earmarks of a ‘breakthrough’ and authentic ‘revelation’.)

So why, in spite of this and other revelations, does the Bible appear to teach violence, and God appear to condone it?  We must remember that the Biblical text includes everything: the deep human insights and genuine revelations from God’s Spirit, and the justifications for violence and hatred.  In other words, not everything we find in the Bible points us in the right direction.

But how can we trust that we are moving in the right direction?  Rohr tells us: By noting ‘the trim of the sails’! Where is the ‘tack’ of the text directing us? The Bible’s sails are set for a God of suffering and humble love, as we will finally see in Jesus.

The scapegoat ritual (Leviticus 16:6f)

The ancient scapegoat ritual was a classic displacement ritual, which placed the sins of many on one. Immediately after the scapegoat instructions comes the ‘Law of Holiness’ (see Leviticus chapters 17 – 27) which largely defines holiness as separation from evil). But Jesus did not define holiness as separation from evil so much as absorption and transformation of it – wherein we pay the price instead of asking others to pay the price for us.

Only a minority of Christians ever got this point.  Instead, we turned it into a cosmic transaction between Jesus and the Father. (Traditional atonement theories asked a lot of Jesus but little of us, except for thanks.)   Then we, who worship the scapegoat, Jesus, became the primary scapegoaters ourselves. After all, our task was to separate ourselves from evil, wasn’t it?

That is the lie! Any exclusionary process of thinking, any exclusively dualistic thinking, will always create violent people on some level.  So we will pose the great spiritual problem in this way: “How do you stand against hate without becoming hate yourselves?”

Jesus is clearly the greatest example of a scapegoat in the scriptures.  We find two other scapegoats in the New Testament: John the Baptist and Stephen. John the Baptist was a rather all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinker, who raised his anger against power and paid for it (see Mark 6:17f).  But Stephen forgave his persecutors, and was released into a transformed state that we can call ‘risen’ (see Acts 6:8-8:1).  Perhaps Paul’s presence at Stephen’s death was the beginning of his own transformation; a chapter later, he is becoming Paul.

The idea of Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ is first mentioned by John the Baptist (John 1:36).   The Lamb is not a natural or logical God-image; yet at the Bible comes to an end, we see the Lamb enthroned at the center and judgment seat of all things (Revelation 5:6-8:1. Some have called this part of Revelation ‘the Lamb’s War,’ which is a totally different way of dealing with evil – absorbing it in God, instead of attacking it.)

Preparation for the Lamb’s War in the Hebrew Scriptures

There is little direct nonviolent teaching in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, in the book of Judges (chapters 6-8) God repeatedly tells Gideon to reduce the size of his army – because Gideon needs to trust in God’s power, not force.  Here the text is moving us from trust in violence to a growing trust in nonviolence.

The message continues and broadens in the prophets, who denounce military alliances, and Israel’s tendency to trust in military force. This is why most of the prophets were killed: their messages never supported empire, or security, or power.

Isaiah is already moving toward inclusion and away from tribalism, declaring that Israel’s vocation is for the sake of the whole earth.  The prophet’s Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-10; 52:13-53:12) understand redemptive suffering, and lay a strong foundation for a nonviolent spirituality.  The message of Isaiah’s Servant Songs is repeated in Jesus’ teachings on Servant leadership (see Mark 8:31f; Luke 22:24f, John 13:14f). 

Only when we recognize God as the true Source of power are we ready for for a totally new kind of Messiah with a new kind of kingdom.

Paul, the converted persecutor

The New Testament presents Paul as a transformed accuser, a converted persecutor.  In the midst of his fiery persecution, Paul suddenly realized that in the name of love he had become hate, in the name of religion he had become a murderer, in the name of goodness he had become evil.

Both Peter and Paul understood Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership.  Paul became a servant to the gentiles; Peter saw the Holy Spirit come down upon gentiles, and concluded: “Remember, we believe that we are saved in the same way as the Gentiles are – by grace” (see Acts, chapter 10).

Paul recognized the dark side of religion, the scapegoating mechanism, and the self-serving laws of small religion.  Our later fascination with domination power, which set loose a spiral of violence throughout Christian history, finds no basis in Jesus and his first disciples.

Jesus, the forgiver

Jesus has no part in the myth of redemptive violence. His life and teaching are starkly opposed to our instinct to destroy what we perceive as the source of our problem. In Jesus, we see the practical names of love: forgiveness and inclusion. These are also the two practices that undercut human violence.

To oppose violence, Jesus has to diminish the very things that people use to justify their violence. He speaks critically against his own group whenever they try to use his message for group arrogance or to justify violence. How different Christian history would have been if we had listened to him!

The only thing more dangerous than the individual ego is the group ego. That’s why Jesus calls his disciples away from their jobs (see Mark 1:18, Luke 5:28) and their families (see Luke 14:26, Matthew 12:48f).  He is moving his disciples away from a narrow world view – and not surprisingly, we often find outsiders understanding him and responding to him more than insiders: the Roman centurion (Mark 15:39); the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21f); the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:10; the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26f); the Samaritan Woman (John 4:4f); Zacchaeus the tax-collector (Luke 17:19f;  and the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:39f).

What does Jesus usually say to outsiders? “You have great faith.” He does not ask them to join his group but simply says, “Go in peace – your faith has made you whole” (see Luke 7:50). This is his message: Holiness is nor found through separation and exclusion,  but in the radical inclusion (read ‘forgiveness’) of the supposedly contaminating elements.

Jesus turns around Leviticus’  Law of Holiness (with its detailed rules for separating the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’) to identity the act of separation itself – and the accompanying attitude of superiority – as the sin! Jesus teaches us that if we put our energy into choosing the good – instead of the negative and largely illusory energy of rejecting the bad – we will overcome evil in a much better way, and we will not become evil ourselves!

People like Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi make difficult enemies for empires, because they cannot be used or co-opted.   Any worldly system actually prefers violent partners to nonviolent ones; it gives them a clear target and a credible enemy.

The passion accounts demonstrate that the world’s violent power systems are wrong. The Gospels go out of their way to point out that it was the political and religious leaders who judged Jesus to be the problem. So it is all the more amazing – but follows the pattern – that Christians ever blamed Jews for the death of Jesus.

Bad power, which always eliminates its opponents, killed Jesus.

Some questions for your reflection:

Sr. Joan Chittister writes,”What we see depends on where we are.  To see differently, we will have to move our point of view.”  (from ‘The Monastic Way’, February 2016)

Sr. Joan also writes, “Awareness is the beginning of empathy, the beginning of human connections, the end of self-centeredness.”

Think about a person or group whose thoughts, ideology, or values you currently ‘bump up against’. 

How do you develop empathy for that person or group?

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