Desire, Scapegoats, and Jesus:
A Good Friday Sermon

One of the most important books I read for my Doctor of Ministry work had nothing to do with zimzum or the need to make space in our busy lives through spiritual practices like sabbath. The book was I See Satan Fall Like Lightening by French philosopher René Girard—a longtime professor at Stanford University and a Christian. When we come to Good Friday, I cannot help but think of Girard and his ideas in relation to the Passion of Jesus. It’ll be a bit of a journey to get there, but I trust you will see the importance when we arrive at the cross.

A Good Friday sermon on John’s Passion.

Girard firmly believed that at our core human beings desire and yearn for things including objects and ideas and people. He states that the last commandment given to Moses of not coveting your neighbor’s house or donkey or worker or spouse or anything else that belongs to your neighbor is key here. However, Girard went one step further saying that what we desired wasn’t necessarily the object itself but to become like our neighbor, to have what our neighbor possesses. We see this in toddlers. A toy ball sitting at the far end of the play area isn’t really interesting to the children playing there until one of them picks it up, and then—BAM!—every child seems to want it. They desire it. They want what the one who picked up the ball has. And they will do anything they can to get it, even reverting to hitting the other child. And of course this plays out in our society as well. We call it marketing. The iPhone in our pocket is good enough until the new one comes out and friends of ours get it and our lowly outdated iPhone becomes worthless. Something to be tossed aside so we can have what our neighbor has and so we can be like them.

And when we can’t get that thing they have—that house or an impressive job, or a new love interest—well, we can get violent. Usually we don’t resort to hitting in our society, but we might get angry about things we can’t have and covet. This has grown substantially with the advent of social media. We compare ourselves to our friends’ lives. Their exquisite vacations, or the universities their kids have gotten into, or the amazing lunch they’re eating, and we desire to be just like them. And, when writ large, a group of people can begin desiring the same thing, each imitating the desire of someone else who is wanting that elusive thing that a neighbor has. Like a fat bank account. Or a vacation home. Or good health. 

It’s here that Girard states something interesting takes place. Instead of perpetrating violence on the one who has what we desire, we settle upon a scapegoat to blame for what we don’t have and commit violence against them even though they are innocent. A recent example to help: at the very beginning of the pandemic, we all desired health and normalcy. We watched the uberwealthy find relative comfort getting away to their multiple luxurious estates while the rest of us rooted around in our homes, desperately needing paper goods, trying to figure out how to get a sourdough starter going, wiping down our groceries, and dealing with Zoom fatigue. And in order to blame someone for not being able to live our normal lives, we as a society settled on Asian people. This scapegoating played out in passive aggressive ways, like refusing to get take out from Chinese restaurants, to the much more aggressive including threats and acts of violence against those of Asian heritage. In a 2023 Pew Research survey, 4 in 10 US born Asian Americans said they personally knew someone—or were themselves—subjected to threats or attacks of violence since COVID-19. A woman of Bhutanese heritage said, “Even when I was just getting on the bus, [people acted] as if I was carrying the virus. People would not sit with me, they would sit a bit far. It was because I look Chinese.” As a society, we scapegoated this entire group, blaming them for our inability to get what others had, and it had absolutely nothing to do with Asian Americans. 

This act of scapegoating is pervasive, and we know it. The kid who gets bullied on the schoolyard for being different—she speaks a different language at home, or he has a stutter, or they are the poor kid, or the one with darker skin. For adults it’s things like the lack of jobs in an economic downturn that isn’t blamed on bad policies or overpaid C-level executives but on new immigrants who need employment themselves and are believed to be taking jobs away. Never mind that new immigrants often will take any work to support their families, and these are the same jobs that many who are already established in this country will flat out turn down as menial and beneath them. We need to demonize and scapegoat someone, so it’s always much easier to go for the one who is different. And, Girard suggests, we firmly believe that things will go back to normal if we could just get rid of the scapegoat. The economy will be more robust if we stop allowing people into our country, or the pandemic will go away if we can rid ourselves of all those who look Asian.

But these ones are innocent. They have nothing to do with our desire to be like our neighbors and coveting what they have. We just collectively don’t realize it. Or, putting it another way, at least enough of us believe the scapegoats to be the root of our problem, so the madness of the crowd prevails.

Which brings us to Jesus. Girard indicates that Jesus’ Passion reads like a scapegoating scenario, except for one thing. It’s important for people to believe that somehow the scapegoat caused the problem and that once they’re gone—or killed—things will return to normal, even though the scapegoat themselves really had nothing to do with it. Yet in the Passion, Girard says, the ones seeking to enact violence on Jesus admit he is innocent. Caiphas advises the religious leaders that it’s better to have one person die for the people. Jesus asks those same leaders to testify against him after his arrest if he has spoken wrongly, and they say nothing and respond with violence. When Pilate asks what accusations they bring against Jesus, the leaders reply “If he weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have brought him to you.” After interviewing Jesus, Pilate himself says, “I find no case against him.” And then after having him whipped, Pilate says it again, and subsequently tries to release him. But in the end, Pilate refuses to stand up against the crowd even though he—and they—know Jesus to be innocent, and he lets violence rule the day.

And with Jesus’ crucifixion, the whole system of desire and scapegoating and violence is exposed for what it is. Jesus offered himself as an innocent victim to pull back the curtain on it all. To show that this system can be finished once and for all through his crucifixion which exposes the lie at its root; Jesus’ last words are indeed, “It is finished.” The scapegoating violence which has caused so much pain never needs to be enacted again. And yet this way of violence continues to play out again and again and again. 

Like the pogroms and anti-semitism, which historically increased on Good Friday as Christians blamed Jesus’ death on Jews. The islamaphobia that’s been on the rise in our country ever since September 11 and continues to grow. The fear of immigrants on our Southern Border and the need to label them all as “illegal.” The Holocaust and lynchings and ethnic cleansings and the Crusades and violence against LGBTQ+ people and apartheid and the Doctrine of Discovery and systemic racism and on and on an on. And, most troubling of all, Christians often participate in these in the name of Jesus. Rather than seeing in Jesus’ death on the cross the truth about this system and refusing to participate in it any longer, the Church has often tacitly encouraged these actions and then been reluctant to denounce them. 

So let me say it to you directly. It is finished. We no longer need to resort to violence and especially not against those who are innocent among us. Jesus has exposed the whole charade for what it is, and we are called to recognize it too. To not give into scapegoating. To look at Jesus on the cross and see that violence is not the answer. To show through both our words and actions that there is a better way, which is the way of love. Finally, we can and should commit ourselves to work against those systems of injustice which all too casually have at their core the privileging of the few at the expense of the many. Jesus gave his innocent life in order to redeem the entire world—and us—from our sins. Let us look on that cross and see both the reality of it and that love which beckons us to live a better way through Christ.

Image by a5282908 from Pixabay

Comments are closed.