Formation: Scapegoats and the end of Sacrifice

In the 21st century it seems obvious that blood sacrifice is primitive, unnecessary, violent and superstitious - an ancient practice that was based on a false view of reality and of God (or the gods). Christians, however, have been immersed in a story that sees Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to appease God and to save us from our sins; a belief that seems increasingly hard to grapple with  - and so the message of Jesus seems to be making less and less sense to people. But maybe there’s something else going on in the sacrificial tradition that helps us to understand why Jesus’ death still matters.

Here I want to briefly reflect on the work of Mark Heim, in Saved from Sacrifice, who builds on the insights of Rene Girard relating to scapegoating in anthropological history. René Girard posits that as humans developed into homo sapiens, we developed mimetic capacity. This includes the ability to both imitate others, but also to develop an inner consciousness that develops through our interactions with others. We learn what it is to have emotions, to sense, to understand and to be human, by mirroring others. It helps to shape our internal sense of self and the development of consciousness. Humans move beyond a base animalistic drive to survive, and develop emotional dependence - we learn to desire those things that others desire. Our sense of self is embedded within human relationships.

Humans therefore experience community in unique and profound ways. This can be positive, in the sense that we respond to one another in very human ways: love, commitment, embrace of others. Even innovation and technological development comes from our ability to sense what it is that others might be wanting or needing. From a Christian perspective we might describe this as being the imago dei [the image of God]. But this can also operate in a negative sense - we can quickly become fearful of others, suspicious of their motives, doubting intentions, and this anger and fear can spread very quickly within communities (as we mirror each other). Feuds develop; one small act of violence, maybe accidental, can spiral into a cycle of retributive violence. Small altercations turn into major incidents; even war. So we also have the capacity for hatred, and for illogical wide-reaching violence and evil – something that animals do not share. The Christian tradition calls this sin.

This kind of violence can be contagious, and could threaten to wipe out entire human communities unless there is a way of managing it. Girard suggests that humans subconsciously developed a way of limiting the damage by directing the violence toward a particular individual or group within the community. This ‘scapegoat’ can take the blame for whatever is going wrong in the community and be sacrificed, and the community can now feel that things have been settled. Over time this develops into the model of sacrifice within communities. The ritual of sacrifice becomes a way to channel our violence and blame toward someone or something – and once it has been sacrificed, order is restored.

For both Heim and Girard, scapegoating sacrifice is a way by which communities can direct, control and channel violence.  The scapegoat is the innocent victim, whose innocence the community cannot see, and is ultimately sacrificed for the ‘good’ of the community. William Placher argues that “When we see other people scapegoating, of course, we see through the trick and recognize that the scapegoat is really an innocent victim. But when we do it ourselves, we always think that the scapegoat is guilty.”[1]  

Through this lens Heim believes that it is Jesus’ antagonists who view Jesus death as a redeeming sacrifice [2] but in Jesus resurrection we find the vindication of the scapegoat and victim. The one who was seen to be God’s enemy, turns out to have God on his side. The death of Jesus on the cross is therefore not an endorsement and perfection of blood sacrifice to God, but a wholesale rejection of the sacrifice of the scapegoat as a means of putting things right. Heim directly challenges any view in which the sacrifice of Jesus might be understood as a good thing (for example, in appeasing God’s wrath), except that ironically God uses it for the good of humanity. He suggests that “…the mechanism of sacrifice is the way the powers of this world contain their own violence.  But Jesus and the Gospel writers do not intend to endorse or comply with that mechanism.”[3]  

Sacrifice is used by God to demonstrate the futility of sacrifice, and so to save us. Daniel Migliore concludes that “God raised the crucified Jesus and made him the chief cornerstone of a new humanity that no longer espouses the way of violence, that no longer needs scapegoats, that no longer wills to live at the expense of victims, that no longer imagines or worships a bloodthirsty God, that is no longer interested in legitimations of violence, but that follows Jesus in the power of a new Spirit.”[4]  The logic of penal substitution, that is, that God needs Jesus to die in order to take the punishment that we deserve, is exactly the opposite of what I think the Christ story is supposed to be doing. Jesus enters into the human system of retributive and redemptive violence, experiences it, exposes it, and then invites us to move beyond it in the radical grace and life of the Spirit. 

Mark Heim:

“Is this God's plan, to become a human being and die, so that God won't have to destroy us instead? Is it God's prescription to have Jesus suffer for sins he did not commit so God can forgive the sins we do commit? That's the wrong side of the razor. Jesus was already preaching the forgiveness of sins and forgiving sins before he died. He did not have to wait until after the resurrection to do that. Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God's favor. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus' death isn't necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn't volunteer to get into God's justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us.”


[1]William. C. Placher, “Christ Takes Our Place: Rethinking Atonement”, Interpretation(1999): 8

[2]Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice, 125

[3]Mark Heim, “No More Scapegoats: How Jesus Put an End to Sacrifice”, Christian Century (2006): 22

[4]D. Migliore, 190