Perhaps the most enigmatic and powerful words spoken by Jesus Christ during His lifetime on Earth were the following ones on the Cross, right before His death – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” (Mark 15:34). If those words had been spoken by anyone other than the Son of God, we would be justified in concluding that the speaker was blaming God for the torturous death he had been made to suffer. Basically, that person would have been scapegoating God for whatever personal decisions and external circumstances had led him to that dreadful situation.
There are probably a lot of believers and unbelievers alike who think that those words of Jesus were unique to him and have little historical relevance. However, a quick look-up of Psalm 22 in the Bible leads us to the exact same phrase (obviously in Hebrew instead of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus). I want to make clear that what follows is not a heavily researched or widely accepted analysis of the connection between these two questions, but I also feel that readers will see that my admittedly speculative analysis makes a lot of sense.
René Girard is a 20th century French anthropological philosopher who developed the concept of the “scapegoat mechanism“. It was a partial way of explaining how human violence would naturally build upon itself in a society until that particular society found it necessary to blame a single person (or group) for the disorder, instability and suffering that had resulted and “remove” them. Of course, this removal does nothing to address the underlying problem of human evil, and the cycle simply repeats itself.
I believe Psalm 22 could perhaps be considered the poem that best represents Girard’s concept in all of the Bible, perhaps even in all poems ever written. It is not endorsing the idea that scapegoating is a good thing to do for people or for societies, but rather it is poetically demonstrating to us that this mechanism is a fundamental reaction of humans which has been present throughout history, and finds a special relevance when applied to the relationship between human beings and their Creator.
1My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
2O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
3But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.
4Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
5They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.
6But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
7All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
8He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
9But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts.
10I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.
11Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.
12Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.
13They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.
15My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.
16For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
17I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
18They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.
That is not the entire Psalm, but I am stopping here because I think it is important to reflect on the import of what has just been said. The sheer sense of dread, of agony, of sorrow and of abandonment flows through this poem like crystal clear water from a faucet. I find it hard to imagine that there exists a single human being who has ever existed on this Earth past the age of maturity who has not felt similar sentiments at some point in their lives. The emotions are so real and so moving that we understand the whole process is a form of “scapegoating”, but we still have no regrets for doing it.
Yet I also find it hard to imagine that any human being ever felt the reality of this agonizing process more than Jesus Christ did at the culmination of His Passion. It was only Jesus who had been in the unique position of almost being justified in blaming God for what had befallen him. After all, it was God who had actually sent Him to carry out this specific purpose on Earth, including every detail of the torture and suffering endured, as well as the ultimate atoning death.
But we all know how the story goes, right? Jesus remains completely faithful to His Father and carries out His mission exactly as planned. The parallels between Jesus’ outcry on the Cross and the poetic cries of the Psalmist are very interesting, but the real point of this article only comes into clarity when we introduce another character into this dynamic story – the Devil. The Hebrew word used in the Bible to describe the Devil is הַשָּׂטָ֔ן, literally meaning the “adversary” or “accuser” (Strong’s 7854). It’s the latter definition that I would like to focus on here.
You see, a lot of people scapegoat other people during their lifetimes, including myself. We have all had opportunities to blame others for our own mistakes or for things we know they are not truly responsible for, and many times we seize those opportunities. However, it is only Satan that is truly defined as being the entity with a sole mission of accusing others before God, and, more importantly, eventually resorting to accusing God himself. Ever since the Fall of Satan from God’s good graces in Heaven, he has schemed up clever ways of convincing humans that our God is not a God that is truly worth serving.
It is Satan who approached Eve in the Garden of Eden and convinced her that God was being much too restrictive – that he was maliciously trying to prevent Adam and she from experiencing the pleasures of both good and evil. Similarly, it has been Satan who has consistently used God’s commandments of laws and demonstrations of justice to convince humans that He is oppressive and cruel, devoid of any true grace or love for His creatures. And, while I can’t say anything for certain, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to know that Satan actually believes in the lies he is peddling to humans about God.
And that brings us back to the plight and outcry of Jesus on the Cross. It was Satan who inspired Judas to betray Jesus to the authorities, with the ultimate goal of having Him killed and exposed as a fraud to the people. Perhaps a part of this plan hatched by Satan was to accomplish what he had failed to accomplish with his numerous temptations of Jesus in Jerusalem (Matthew 4:1-8). If you can’t tempt Him, kill Him… right? Well I would hazard a guess that Satan is no fool, and when Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22 on the Cross, he quickly realized how miserably he had failed in His role as the false “accuser”.
Jesus, in His starkest moment of agony and sorrow, had shown the Devil that God’s truth in scripture will always transcend the words of accusation leveled by His creatures. Satan says to all those watching – “look at what God has done to this holy man who claims to be His son, who has lived a purely righteous life and who has aided the poor and sick among you… what kind of God would do such horrible things to such a man?” Jesus replies, “truly, the God who would do such things is the God who knows that pictures will always speak louder than your words”.
What happened to Jesus on the cross was not merely a story of a martyr whose actions could be passed down and retold to select peoples over time – it was an unprecedented picture of sacrifice, grace and LOVE that would ingrain itself into the collective memories of all peoples for all times. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist, an agnostic, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu or even a Satanist – the picture of what happened to Jesus is forever etched in your mind, and neither you nor Satan will ever be able to accuse Christ of lacking humility, faithfulness and love.
Jesus says, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”, and from that specific moment in time we are all given the eternal wisdom of what was really meant by God’s dying utterance (hint: the message was the exact opposite of Girard’s “scapegoating”):
19But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me.
20Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
21Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.
22I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.
23Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
24For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.
25My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.
26The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.
27All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.
28For the kingdom is the LORD’S: and he is the governor among the nations.
29All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.
30A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
31They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.