Scapegoating the Powerless

Politicians, and we individuals, surely love to scapegoat people. We put them into boxes and blame them for their misfortune. We wash our hands of any responsibility.

It is happening in Australia at the moment. Asylum seekers, people on welfare, are ready targets for scapegoating. How often in Israel are all Palestinian people scapegoated, dismissed as terrorists! Once marginalized, not “good like us,” they can be subjected to all kinds of indignities.

To be honest, it is surely a problem that we all indulge in: the desire to simplify problems and pass the blame on to innocent others. For example, for centuries men blamed women for their problems and they were politically powerless to protest.

What is scapegoating?

  • Scapegoating (or witch-hunting) is the process of passionately searching for and stigmatizing  people believed to be causing harm to individuals and groups.
  • By passing the blame for their afflictions on to others, people are able to conveniently distract themselves from the real causes and the efforts we must take to remove them.
  • Individuals and groups displace their fears of the unknown and their aggression onto groups or individuals who are visible, already disliked, and politically powerless to respond.

Think of how people who are poor are treated. Politicians commonly like to “go after” those on welfare, blaming them for their own poverty. And rarely do we voters question them for doing this. Once we demonise people, implicitly telling them they are non-persons, we can do or say anything negative about them. They are politically powerless to respond.

A few years ago a newspaper published the fact that four thousand people in Australia had been identified as “welfare cheats.” Some politicians rapidly used this information to seek dramatic cutbacks of welfare support for people, people who are disabled, solo parents, the mentally ill. What the paper did not say was that the four thousand represented a miniscule fraction of those seeking benefits. Few readers complained.

There are terrible example in history in recent times when scapegoating led to incredible tragedies, and few questioned what was happening. Following the First World War Adolph Hitler and other anti-Semites blamed the defeat of Germany on Jewish people. The Allies were too powerful to be scapegoated, at least for several decades, so Hitler and his supporters turned their rage on the vulnerable Jews. Millions died.

Think back two thousand years. The chief priests are motivated by jealousy when they scapegoat Jesus. Their behaviour is increasingly being criticized by the people and they fear they will lose their privileged social status. Rather than evaluate their own behaviour, the priests prefer to make Jesus the scapegoat for all their fears: “The chief priests answered [to Pilate], ‘We have no king except Caesar.’”(John 19:16). Self-preservation motivated this scapegoating. As Caiphas shrewdly said: “It is better for one to die for the people.” (John 18:14).

What did Jesus do about scapegoating?

There is this wonderful example of the blind beggar Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). Because of a particular type of blindness he has been cast out of society for he is thought to ritually endanger the clean. For his family and former friends he no longer exists as a person. Jesus is passing by and Bartimaeus cries out for help. The crowd, believing all blind beggars are evil, bluntly tell him to shut up. Not Jesus. He calls Bartimaeus and converses with him. He breaks through the pattern of scapegoating and blaming. Jesus engages Bartimaeus in conversation, contrary to the culture of his time.

Now, some questions: What examples of scapegoating vulnerable and politically powerless people are occurring in New Zealand today? Is this happening in conversations at my workplace? How can I challenge, like Jesus Christ did, this social and demeaning evil?


Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm, is the author of Violence, Society, and the Church: A Cultural Critique (2004). His most recent book is: Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (2010).


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