Scapegoats are Unnecessary




“The goat shall bear on itself
all their iniquities to a barren region.”
Leviticus 16:22

“I will not forgive you.” I hear the plea once again—yet my response remains resolute: “I will not forgive you.”

I am in a role play. Frank is on his knees begging me, his ‘brother,’ for forgiveness. I desperately want to utter the words, “I forgive you.” Yet I cannot.

This role play took place during my clinical training in a group session for religious therapy with eight patients at Georgia Mental Health Institute. It was my task and privilege as Chaplain to care for these and other adult psychiatric patients.

Frank’s offense toward his brother is minor. Yet his brother’s refusal to forgive brings an agony intensified by Frank’s schizophrenia. This brain disorder changes the way in which Frank thinks, feels and relates with others. So his separation from his brother intensifies the suffering he already endures.

Frank is stuck in despair. He needs to realize he is powerless to secure the forgiveness of his brother for even a minor offense. Frank’s mental health will improve if he can forgive himself and accept that his brother will not forgive him—or even relate to him.

More than three millennia ago, the sins of the community are confessed and laid upon a goat, Azazel, at the hands of the priest. Azazel rids the community of its sins when it is sent into the desert to die. Azazel is the scapegoat.

Likewise, Frank is the scapegoat for his brother and is also sent forth to wander in the wilderness. This is a significant aspect of Frank’s journey to a psychiatric facility, receiving treatment for an acute exacerbation of his illness. As Azazel is driven into the desert to bear the sins of the community, so Frank bears the sins of his brother as he is delivered into the isolation of his illness.

My supervisor, Kempton Haynes, deserves credit for creating this role play. At its conclusion, he gently asks Frank what he has learned from this experience. Frank replies tearfully, “No matter what I do, I cannot make my brother forgive me.” Frank has had a breakthrough: What he previously knew in his mind has now penetrated his heart.

Frank is not alone. While many families go to extraordinary lengths to assist their suffering loved ones, others do not. Instead, these relatives treat them as “the black sheep of the family.”

Instead of receiving treatment and support, patients such as Frank often come to psychiatric facilities cast in the role of “the identified patient.” They are considered the crazy ones while other family members think of themselves as being fine. If we fix the patient, they say, then the problems of the family will also be settled.

Don’t believe it.

Family dynamics are complex. Though some of us try harder than others to learn, grow and work well with their family members, all of us share some measure of responsibility for the brokenness in our families. The key is to avoid fixing blame on a single person. In a healthy family, blame is shared: Each member takes responsibility for their own shortcomings.

The truth is that every human being has shortcomings–be they cognitive, emotional, or social. All of us need to recognize our limitations to perceive clearly, think rationally, respond emotionally, and relate skillfully with others. Moreover, as the Apostle Paul observes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

We do not need black sheep or scapegoats. Instead of blaming others, we can take responsibility for our own deficiencies. Instead of sending others into the wilderness to carry our transgressions, we can reach out to those with whom we share our sense of brokenness.

Judging others and making them outcasts is harsh and unnecessary. Jesus has taken the sins of the world upon himself, including ours. He is the ultimate scapegoat. We need not transfer blame. Instead, let us receive God’s forgiveness. Then we are free to include others who, like us, are in need of God’s inclusive love.

©2003 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.

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