Posted by: dacalu | 4 September 2018

Labor and Scapegoating

The Scapegoat

Leviticus 16:21-22 provides the original scapegoat.

“Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”

In Hebrew, the goat was ‘azazel. Sometimes taken as a proper name, the word may simply mean “goat that departs” or just an intense “to depart.” For the Latin Bible (Vulgate) Jerome used caper emissarius, goat that is sent. William Tyndale called it a “scapegoat,” and so it appears in the King James Version.

For the Israelites, azazel was a way to separate themselves from their sins, so that they might be at peace with one another, and with God. They could literally cast off the evil that bound them. Azazel was only a small part of their atonement, however. Leviticus 16 describes a public ceremony of accepting responsibility, seeking change, and sacrificing a second goat (as well as a bull) for the sins of the community. The good use of a scapegoat, if there is one, requires the fullness of atonement: recognition and repentance as well as release.

In the nineteenth century, “scapegoat” came to mean “one who is blamed or punished for the mistakes or sins of others.”1 We project our faults and debts onto someone else so that we can continue in our error. The proper anger we feel at bad behavior can be vented at an improper target. Scapegoats allow us to feel good without doing good. In this sense, scapegoating is the opposite of atonement. It ducks responsibility. It prevents recognition, precludes repentance, and resists genuine release. Because the fault persists, new scapegoats are always needed.

The New Testament letter to the Hebrews makes precisely this argument. Jesus’ death for our redemption provides a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”2 One and done. Christians need no scapegoat.

Jews have their own interpretation of Leviticus 16 and the day of atonement. I do not cite Hebrews to critique Jewish practice, ancient or modern. It requires the full context of recognition, repentance, and release. Other religions have their own rites of turning, as well. I cite Hebrews to emphasize that Christians have no sins to cast on the “other.” We have cast them all on Christ. Everyone sees willful ignorance, unjust punishment, and cruel indifference as bad. Christians scapegoating is wrong in another way: it shows a lack of faith in Jesus and his atonement.A

Scapegoating is also incompatible with loving neighbor as self. How can we punish others for our mistakes unless we love them less than we love ourselves? For Christians, scapegoating is more than wrong. It is actively sinful.

Scapegoating appears most clearly when we blame the weak for an unjust system that could only be perpetuated by the strong. We all shape the societies in which we participate, but some have more influence than others. If we are looking for systematic injustice – real societal dysfunction – we must look to trend-setters, decision makers, power brokers.

We must ask which groups are blamed and expelled?

We must ask who blames and expels them?

Most critically, we must ask whether blame and expulsion fix the problem. If we look at failures of professional trust, it makes sense. We should cast the embezzlers out of banking, sadists out of medicine, child molesters out of teaching, and liars out of reporting. In the US, it makes sense to cast out those who willfully lied to the US government to gain entry. It makes sense to cast out those who will not renounce violent rebellion or aid to invaders. In all of these cases expulsion directly addresses the problem.

Other cases should give us pause.



We have a problem with economic injustice. The upper and middle classes shrink, while the lower class grows.3 Many work and are not rewarded. Others are rewarded without work. Most of us, perhaps especially the lower class, benefit from the work of those who make so little they barely get by. In the US, these people harvest our crops and prepare our food. They drive the trucks and work the aisles of Walmart and the distribution centers of Amazon. Abroad, they mine the minerals and assemble the components for our personal electronics. They make our clothes and freight our cargo.

It takes no personal animosity for this injustice to occur. It requires no mistaken or malicious economic theory. In many cases, it arose because it works so well. And yet, people suffer. Labor is not fairly rewarded. Workers suffer and die unjustly.

You may believe that the world is this way naturally. You may think life is nasty, brutish, and short. You may think that God punishes us or teaches us or lets us live in our own filth. You may think that the universe is vast, cold, and indifferent to our suffering or that evolution breeds selfishness. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter why the world is this way, or even why the US is this way.

We feel the economic injustice.

It pains us as a society.

We need to do something to alleviate the pain. And so, we find people to cast our sin onto. We blame and expel them, even though it does not fix the problem.

I think the US has an amazing history of promoting individual rights. We have spoken up, legislated, and enforced the rights of all people. And yet, we have also continued to want convenient workers, cheap labor that we do not have to treat well. Long hours, low pay, and scant benefits result in inexpensive goods and services.

In short, we have faced this dilemma by saying that some workers are not people. For centuries we did this explicitly through chattel slavery. We turned workers into sellable objects. When slavery became illegal, we found other ways to lessen the personhood of workers. We turned to women, children, and foreigners.4

Make no mistake. The market drives inhumane treatment of workers. The majority of consumers are poor. The poor choose the cheapest options because they barely get by. I am not blaming them. Nor am I blaming the rich. I am noting the injustice inherent in our system. Removing players will not fix a game when the rules are broken.

Whenever we blame a group of people, we are guilty of scapegoating. That includes blaming the bourgeoisie, the selfish poor, the entitled, the 1%, the politicians, or the bureaucrats. When we remove them, others will take over their role.

Recent years have seen a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigrant policy in the US and Europe. We seek to expel “foreigners” whether they be illegal, legal, or even citizens. We seek a scapegoat to lessen our guilt. We blame migrant workers. We say that they are stealing our jobs and taking advantage of our social services. We blame and expel them.

It does not solve the problem. The market drives the problem, not the laborers. The desire for cheap goods and services drives the problem.

Such scapegoating is immoral.

It is ineffective.

Worst of all, it is addictive.

Expelling the foreigner solves neither the economic nor the moral crisis. Economic problems persist because they are systemic problems. Moral problems get worse. New scapegoats must always be found. We recognize our guilt in scapegoating and, thus, always require new scapegoats. In the 1900s, Marxist revolutionaries started at the “top” and worked their way down. Fascist revolutionaries started at the “bottom” and worked their way up. Both met in the middle by scapegoating anyone who disagreed with the system.

Scapegoating is not a new problem. It is old and common. We must be constantly on our guard against our own desire to simplify the world to suit our own desires. We must constantly fight for a just and informed society, for effective and moral policies.

When scapegoating becomes a political platform, when a politician or party asks us to cast our sins upon a group of people and expel them, the time has come to resist that platform. It harms society. Those who use scapegoating should be cast out of politics. It would not solve economic injustice, but it would directly address the problem of civic immorality and our addiction to blaming others.



  1. Online Etymology Dictionary: “scapegoat
  2. This phrase appears in the Eucharistic prayer for every English Book of Common Prayer and the first three American Books of Common Prayer. The current (1979) American BCP retains it in Rite IA.
  3. By classes I mean this: the upper class does not have to work for a living. They are independently wealthy. The middle class works but gains more than they need to survive. The lower class works to live.
  4. To speak fairly, I should say that our willingness to demean women, children, and foreigners has long been part of human culture. In the Tanakh (Old Testament), the trio of aliens, widows, and orphans is invoked again and again to describe the oppressed. Frequently it is in the context of work and money. Widows and orphans are, importantly, those women and children without an adult male patron to protect them. Exodus 22:21-22; Deuteronomy 10:17-18, 14:29, 24:17-22, 27:19; Psalm 94:6, 146:9; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

A. A friend asked me to amplify this paragraph. Here are my two comments: 1) I don’t intend to say that there is no atonement outside Christianity. 2) Inside Christianity, Jesus atonement is fully sufficient to cover all sins. Any time we try to deal with sins (no matter whose they are) by punishing people (no matter who they are), we have shown a lack of faith in Jesus, whose atonement has dealt with all sin. We might punish for other reasons, but never to deal with sin.


  1. I disagree with so many ideas of this blog, Lucas, that it’s difficult to figure out where to start.
    a) The “injustices” become so just when you consider the alternative, but for one to know this they have to face the alternative, to experience it, to witness it.
    b) Markets is the best economic model known to the human kind.
    and so on…

    “…in 1820 there were just under 1.1 billion people in the world, of which more than 1 billion lived in extreme poverty. Over the next 150 years, the decline of poverty was not fast enough to offset the very rapid rise of the world population, so the number of non-poor and poor people increased. Since around 1970, however, we are living in a world in which the number of non-poor people is rising, while the number of poor people is falling. According to the estimates shown below, there were 2.2 billion people living in extreme poverty in 1970, and there were 705 million people living in extreme poverty in 2015. The number of extremely poor people in the world is 3 times lower than in 1970.

    In 1990, there were 2 billion people living in extreme poverty. With a reduction to 705 million in 2015, this means that on average, every day in the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, 137,000 fewer people were living in extreme poverty.6

    On every day in the last 25 years there could have been a newspaper headline reading, “The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday”. Unfortunately, the slow developments that entirely transform our world never make the news, and this is the very reason why we are working on this online publication.

    Recently this decline got even faster and in the 7 years from 2008 to 2015 the headline could have been “Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 217,000 since yesterday”. In the recent past we saw the fastest reduction of the number of people in extreme poverty ever.”

    and so on as so forth… About the middle class – from recent studies, the lower middle class is shrinking while the upper middle class is growing. More people become richer every day.
    Next, the economy is booming. With booming economy and hot labor market, compensation should go up. From what I’ve read and listened to, it’s not going up as fast as economists would expect, but the outlook is more optimistic than pessimistic. The compensation goes up when businesses compete for labor. Stifle the business, stifle the market, create an unfavorable market conditions, and understandably you’ll see stagnation of compensation. However, walk around even our area, and you’ll see “help wanted” signs everywhere. If the economy continues its growth (even at a lower pace), the pay will start moving up faster.
    And then the perspective of seeing injustice in those many who are rewarded without work. Why is this seeing as injustice? Someone in previous generations became rich – they found oil or they found gold or they invented something. Passing wealth on to the next generations is a driving force for many to work hard so that their kids can inherit it and live better life. Unfortunately, becoming rich or richer as in upper mobility (moving to a higher class) doesn’t happen as often as we would wish. Yes, the worst part about it is that the upper movement becomes harder and harder. Why it’s harder is, of course, a subject of many studies, but is it coincidental that it happens as more and more policies (over a period recent past) stifle the US markets?
    The other perspective on the “injustice” of someone being rewarded without work while others working without reward: Soviets had a slogan for the laborers – “Who is not working doesn’t eat.” – a stunning resemblance of the formulated injustice. Don’t the rich do their type of work? No, they don’t shuffle gravel, but moving stocks, predicting markets, acquiring businesses IS work, and to some degree is more important than shuffling gravel….Someone has to do it. Would I trust Elizabeth Warren, a bureaucrat, do this work? Never, regardless of how desperately she wants it. I grew up in a society where bureaucrats ruled. Good intentions don’t make good policies.

    There is so much to tell about the blog’s ideas, that there isn’t much time for all of them. The overall perspective in my view is wrong. In general, there is this idea that empathy is a bad foundation for policies. it’s certainly not always the case as we make good policies out of empathy all the time, like you said that a lier can’t be a reporter. But in economy, I think this idea is true. Empathy is a bad foundation for economic policies that are going too far and beyond the framework that we already have in place. Have you ever thought of why we as workers lost so many benefits and perks that existed a couple decades ago? I mean profit sharing is pretty much gone, gifts to employees for long tenures (like vacation trips) – gone, holiday parties – gone, etc-etc. If your answer is because businesses are greedy, then I will ask you why those benefits and perks were given to workers in the first place?
    There is a lot more to say, but blaming market economies for the biggest economic advances in the history human kind (in the last 200-250 years) is ….not right. Even communist China figured out that to get their people out of deep poverty, they had to adopt free market system regardless of the fact that it’s an “enemy” to the most “just” society/system – communism or socialism.
    I am wondering who are those who “work and are not rewarded” in the market economies? Is it even possible nowadays?
    “…The market drives the problem, not the laborers. The desire for cheap goods and services drives the problem…” – markets don’t care much about the legal status of a worker. Some politicians do. And government bodies do like the law enforcement. And it’s according to the existing laws. Farmers happily employ seasonal workers without any kind of status while overcoming their fears of being reprimanded for this for going against the law. I have hard time understanding why it appears from your post that markets and laborers are antagonists.
    This is such a broad topic to discuss. Thank you for interesting reading, Lucas, even though I disagree with the perspectives given.

    • Dear Vlad, Thanks for taking the time to reply. I am a fan of markets and think we do markets very well in the United States. I don’t know whether I think we do it best, but even if we do, no system is perfect.

      Pew says the middle class is shrinking while the upper and lower class are growing. This is not central to my argument, and “class” is ill-defined – so that may not have been a helpful way to go. I still think many Americans are dissatisfied with the economy.

      “Next, the economy is booming. With booming economy and hot labor market, compensation should go up.” Should is the operative word here. The labor market is cooled by a number of factors including the increase in non-compete agreements and shifts toward jobs requiring specialized education. Wages have not gone up at anywhere near the rate of economic increase since the 1970s. I’m not arguing (here) that we should do something different. I am arguing that we are unhappy with these trends.

      Elizabeth Warren appears to be a non-sequitur. She has never been a state bureaucrat. She was a tech worker briefly, then a law professor, then a politician. I’m not sure what you’re going for there.

      I agree, Soviet economic policy was a horror.

      “empathy is a bad foundation for policies.”
      If not empathy, then what?

      “Have you ever thought of why we as workers lost so many benefits and perks that existed a couple decades ago? I mean profit sharing is pretty much gone, gifts to employees for long tenures (like vacation trips) – gone, holiday parties – gone, etc-etc.”

      It sounds as though you are unhappy with this. Is that correct?

      The benefit of markets is that they optimize the flow of capital without bias. Markets are amoral. Capital and labor might or might not be in conflict. At present, I believe they are. But again, that’s not really addressed in the essay. It’s about guilt and scapegoating.

      Oddly Enough,

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