Holy Week provides the somber context for reflecting again on humanity’s fatal flaw: scapegoating. The term comes from an Old Testament passage in which God directed that the Hebrew priests might take a goat, ceremonially transfer the sins of the people onto it and then drive it out into the wilderness, where it would perish.
The ritual was known in other ancient civilizations. In Syria and across the Middle East a goat symbolized evil and it might be thrust out into the desert as a way to exorcise the evil. In ancient Greece, in response to a natural disaster, tribal conflict or a societal crisis, a beggar, cripple, criminal or foreigner would be driven out. Some scholars think the scapegoated person would be killed by stoning. Others argue that the victim would simply be expelled from the community.
In his seminal study of human evil, People of the Lie, psychiatrist Scott Peck chronicled the existence of transference or scapegoating within dysfunctional families. In essence, the “good” family members projected their fears, guilt and anger onto the “whipping boy” or the “black sheep of the family”. That individual became the target of abuse, rejection and punishment. The unhealthy process strengthened the bonds between the “good” family members and reinforced their own perceived goodness.