("The Scapegoat," by William Holman Hunt, 1854, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
He shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
The origin of the word "Scapegoat" comes from this passage in Leviticus. Growing up, my mom was (and still is) the "Queen of Malapropisms"--there are some absolutely hilarious ones she's done over the years, the funniest being the time she very seriously related going for a ride on the "spitoon boat." (Pontoon boat, in case you wondered.) Well, she never got the word "scapegoat" right. She would say, "I'm not going to be anyone's escape-goat!"
Turns out she was more right than I realized. The Hebrew word "Azazel" means "that which is put out," or "that which is sent out." Over the years it was mistranslated into Greek, and later, Latin, as "The goat which is put out," but this passage gives us a possible glimpse into some of the superstitions of the ancient Hebrews and maybe even a glimpse of their gods before they embraced Judaism. One gets the feeling that this ritual was a hold-over from a time there was a spiritual need to appease this mysterious Azazel--some of "God of bad stuff banished from the village."
Growing up in northeast Missouri, I could sit down and relate over the years all the "community scapegoats" I remember. Most recently, I think about a former mayor of Kirksville, who was convicted for burning her bar down one New Year's Eve. I watched people who didn't really know much about her blame her for every ill in town, and I watched her friends rally around her. I kind of didn't have much of an opinion one way or another. She wasn't one of my favorite people in the world, as I had been involved in an issue where she had gotten a settlement from an entity of which I was on the governing board of the entity who had been sued--the settlement wasn't enough, she wanted "air time" to tell us all what a bunch of awful people we all were--but none the less, I wasn't convinced she deserved all that had happened to her in this bar incident.
What I have come to realize is unhealthy people, small people, people full of themselves and not of God--scapegoat. People who feel hyper-responsible for things out of their control instead of trusting God, are at risk of feeling scapegoated.
Hospital laboratories are often scapegoats. Almost every day on the job, I hear at least one complaint that "the lab screwed up my test on so-and-so." It is one of those times my obsessive-compulsive nature is useful, because when I hear that, it's very important I simply don't allow scapegoating, for my own feelings of self-worth and the morale of my lab employees. It's important I delve into the details and, yes, accept the responsibility for the gaffe if it truly is something we did, but point out "where the wheels fell off" if we did not do it. In patient care, the goal is to take care of the patient as best we can. That means educating and correcting things at the place where the system broke down. What I usually find when I get yelled at that "the lab screwed up this test," is that it wasn't ordered correctly on the floor, or the specimen was drawn improperly, or there was a delay getting it to the lab, or the patient had a treatment or a medication that interfered with the results, or there was an order entry problem on the computer. Yes, sometimes, laboratory personnel run the test improperly. But that is just one of many potential "somethings" that went wrong, and it does not benefit patient care if the lab simply rolls over and says, "I'm sorry," when we did not do it. That just creates a convenient scapegoat for others not to be educated and improve patient care in ALL aspects of the hospital.
This scenario is why I get really irritated at people who tell me "Well, you don't understand, because you don't work with people. You just sit behind a microscope." That is a gross insult of my role in health care. I work with people every day--the people of various health care teams--and I work with them at their most heated, most angry, and most irritated. I have to "proclaim the truth" when the truth is not popular or the ears involved do not hear it. It means that I have to be diligent in ferreting out that truth and be as authentic as I possibly can be.
There's a place, I've decided, that we simply have to both take our sins, and the sins of others, and put them on the altar, pray over them, and turn them into the desert wilderness to fend for themselves. Just let them go and let them be what they are, and move on, and let them move on.
I've had times in my life where I have felt very, very scapegoated, and by people who I thought ought to know better. The sad part is some of them were people I trusted. Some of them I never trusted. Some of them were just there, and didn't know any better. The times that I have scapegoated someone else, usually there was a tremendous hurt I was feeling that seemed to have nowhere to go. I have often felt remorse or regret when I recognized I scapegoated someone else, and I think it's hard to ever go back when that happens. It is what I remember when others have an itch to scapegoat me. These days, part of how I get past most forms of "poor treatment by others," is I remember the times I have been the one to treat someone else poorly and think about what feelings of mine were behind it.
It's why the altar is a superior place to take our hurts, our confusion, our anger. Our tendency with scapegoating is that it takes three dimensional people and turns them into two-dimensional cartoons of themselves. When we come to the altar, and acknowledge all that there is in both the humanity and the divinity of the Sacraments, we see a deep, multi-dimensional image of Christ and of his kingdom. It has room for all three dimensions of "us." If we can see it in ourselves, we have no choice but to accept it in others. There is room at the table for all of it.