September 19, 2020

Riffs: James Allison on “The Last Scapegoat”

UPDATE: Apparently I was supposed to know that James Allison was gay when I wrote this post. I didn’t. Sorry. If that has anything to do with the truth and perspective of this piece, then disregard it. Homosexual sin is just as offensive to God as heterosexual sin, and I don’t approve or endorse either.

logo1.gifThe cover story at Christian Century this week is a thought-provoking interview with James Allison on the subject of Jesus as “The Last Scapegoat.” This is an outstanding theme for preachers to explore, and one that is almost totally neglected within evangelicalism.

(I explored this idea in the IM essay: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery: A Theological Reflection on the Gospel of the Scapegoat.” Jackson’s story- if you’ve never read it- is linked at the beginning of the essay.)

I am really getting my eyes opened to the systematic blindness of many evangelical theologians to the dimensions of the cross that would most challenge white, middle class, suburban Christianity. We have people who can write all day about how N.T. Wright gets it wrong in his theology of justification ***yawn*** but when it comes to the kinship of Jesus with the marginalized, abused and rejected, they have nothing to say past “Accept Jesus as your Savior.”

The other day I was in a prayer time with a student who has been the victim of unspeakable violence and trauma. She said she feels far from God, and that her youth minister told her to “read the Bible a lot.” No disrespect to that youth minister, because I know that I’ve given similar advice many times and it’s not bad advice. What I wondered was if that reading of scripture was a “magic book” cure for all hurts with a few memorized verses, or if that reading was to find Jesus to be the one who gave himself into the arms of unspeakable violence and rejection for us, graciously and inexplicably? There’s a huge difference.

Allison is working that territory. Here’s a sample from the interview:

That Jesus died for our sins, or bore our sins, is the exact truth. And it is made comprehensible precisely because the one who was considered guilty was shown to be entirely innocent.

Our difficulty with the language is that it is much easier for us to imagine Jesus being offered to the Father as a sacrifice, or indeed the Father getting Jesus to offer himself as a sacrifice to the Father, than to imagine the exact reverse: Jesus being empowered by the Father to stand in the place of a typical sacrificial victim of ours – God sacrificing himself to us. The idea of someone doing something generous for us which undoes our complicity in lies and violence while itself being a completely nonviolent act takes a lot of getting used to. At its best, liturgy gives us the space to do this.

What evidence do you find in scripture for this view?

Once you see it, it’s everywhere. How about “They hated me without cause” or “The stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone.” The entire passion narrative is an account of a traditional lynching with its meaning turned inside out: it’s a lynching from the perspective of the innocent one.

In a sense, Girard offers new insight into the centrality of a properly hermeneutical reading of scripture by answering the question of who our Rabbi is, the One who enables us to read the scriptures at all: he is a forgiving victim, both dead and living, and the texts of the Hebrew scriptures supply provisional stories of how he was coming into the world.

A passage I particularly like is John 10, in which Jesus proclaims that he is the door of the sheep. First he tells his listeners that a good shepherd is one who watches over his sheep and leads them to and from pasture; they hear his voice and follow him. The pastoral imagery was perfectly familiar to his listeners, and in effect they answer, “Yes, of course, and your point is . . . ?” He doesn’t immediately go on to say “I am the good shepherd,” which is the expected metaphor, but instead, “I am the gate of the sheep.” And he is standing near the temple, the entrance to the slaughter yards.

Suddenly Jesus’ image acquires a significant new vibrancy: the pasture which he leads his sheep to and from, going in before them and coming out again, is not the usual pasture, but a “pasture” with a one-way entrance: the gate to the abbattoir. Other sacrificers take the sheep without entering through the gate; robbers and thieves, they are not prepared to carry out the sacrificial lynching themselves, but pick off sheep for sacrifice from a safe distance. When they hear the wrath of the lynch mob coming close, they run away. But the Good Shepherd is happy to go through the gate, occupying the space of the sacrificial lynching for his sheep, who thereafter know that it is not a trap; they will always be able to hear his voice and follow him in and out. This seems to me a wonderful Johannine insight into the meaning of Jesus’ death.

I wonder if evangelicals are ready to admit that our conception of so many things related to the cross has been dominated by small, individualistic, privatistic interpretations?

Allsion’s words about worship transformed by the scapegoated Christ are also powerful.

You once commented, in response to the complaint that the Mass is boring, “It’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming.” What are you saying about worship and what worship should convey?

Actually, this is a continuation of your previous question. At the center of a typical act of creation of the sacred there is a sacrifice, a murder, and those of us around it get excited – we derive from it meaning, scandal, satisfaction, Schadenfreude and so on. The Mass is exactly the reverse of this. It is about our learning to be approached by our Victim, who is forgiving us, moving toward us, nudging us out of our excitements and false identities into the quiet, gentle bliss of recognizing ourselves as loved and of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Group excitement is the reverse of discovering yourself appreciated, just as fascination is the reverse of contemplation. To discover this requires a process of discipline, learning and training over time, which is what the liturgy (the “work of the people”) is about. Divine liturgy allows us to be conveyed by the holy One to the heavenly places, and “sacred excitement” is its exact opposite: it allows us to be taken out of ourselves in an anaesthetizing of our moral sense, which is exciting but dangerous.

I commend to you this entire theme, Allison’s work and his sources. It’s a great theme that we need to hear because of our complicity in making others into scapegoats when Jesus has taken on the role of “the last scapegoat.”


  1. You know, I’ve been meaning to look into the whole Girardian take on theology. An old friend of my parents recently got back in touch with them and I was checking out his website ( The guy has written a few academic theology papers and is heavily into “mimesis”; Girard’s hermeneutical framework based on this idea of a scapegoat.

    To be honest, I’d never heard of Mimesis or Girard before, but some of the content is interesting. My main problem is that I’m a bit suspicious of any single (and innovative) principle that claims to explain all of theology… Has anybody else any more resources about Girardian theology to recommend (I’d be interested in a critical look as well…)?

    Michael, your comment about our blindness to the many dimensions of the cross really resonates with me. Somehow, I think, the Sola’s have trapped most protestants into thinking that the meaning of the cross can only be found in the penal substitution theory. I think it enhances our understanding of the cross to have many models and metaphors for what what happened: ransom, satisfaction, substitution. People only want to hear (or have been taught to hear only) certain words and concepts (imputation) in exploring what the cross meant and not others (victory, for instance). I’ve long felt the Christus Victor model is underrated and has some unique advantages, but preaching a sermon in most evangelical churches that finds in the cross a contest between God and the powers where victory is demonstrated by the resurrection is just unlikely to resonate with people. Despite some faults, the explication of Christus Victor found at really helped me think along these lines…

  2. I like what Alison has to say about Christ the scapegoat, as well as his thoughts as to the nature of what the pasture is he’s inviting us to. I’m not sure about his thoughts about worship… that it is supposed to be boring or underwhelming, as if the style of worship is to mortify our flesh. I find myself in a Christian movement right now that emphasizes “culture-current” styles of music, which is problematic I’ll agree. But for me, it is not so much the style of worship that is to be underwhelming or mortifying, as the attitude. So whether I sing, “Make me a living sacrifice” to Gregorian chant or thumping drum and bass music, it isn’t how I’m singing it so much as is my heart in it? Am I just saying it with my lips, with my heart far from God, or with my heart, my lips quivering as I do? Of course, I haven’t yet read the book, so I may have missed the point. But I plan on reading it, thanks to your lively discussion on it. Thanks IM! churchpundit!

  3. Don Costello says

    I have really debated responding to this, but feel I must. I was raised in a Catholic home, not Christian, but Catholic. After living a live of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, I got saved at age 26 when I received Christ as my Saviour. I began attending a Pentecostal Church where I dove head long into studying God’s word. During those first years I got a revelation how wonderful God was, the depth of His Word, the joy of living in Him, Glory to God. Another revelation I received was how, in many areas Catholic theology was twisted. Not everything, but probably most. Saint worship, Mary worship, the Priesthood, the Mass, all that baloney has tainted my ability to receiving anything from a Catholic perspective. So when I read the post about James Allison I was skeptical, especially after what he said about the Mass. After reading the article in Christain Century, I was still not impressed, I had never heard of the guy before, so I tried to find some other things that he wrote. His other writings confirmed one of the things I gathered from the interview in Christian Century, that he was in bondage to same sex lust. I am trying not to sound harsh but the fact that he believes and preaches a twisted view of God’s word and the fact he is in bondage to lust and believes there is something of value in that, persuades me not to receive anything from him. Besides that, and most importantly is the warning that Jude gives in his Book, Jude 1-8, warning us that there are “ungodly men” who “defile the flesh” just like Sodom and Gomorrah and are trying to lead people astray. Don’t misunderstand me, I have met some born again Catholics that I believe are real Christians, but most of the Catholics I know are not Christians. They are taught that because they were baptized when they were infants, they are Christians and because of that they are going to heaven, that in itself is a very twisted heresy. I am sorry all of this sounds harsh, but I don’t mean it to be, but I do want to be clear. I’ve got a long way to go in growing as a Christian. There is so much truth to learn and error to repent of and unlearn, but some things don’t change and should not change.
    Don Costello

  4. Don,

    I don’t do background checks on all my links. I read and agreed with the article, and I posted this. I know nothing about Allison. I am not recommending him as a Christian or an example of sexual behavior.

    This post is not about Allison, and this comment thread won’t become a discussion of Allison, homosexuality or how most Catholics are lost.


  5. JennySnyder1965 says

    The mystical relevance of this discussion, as it identifies itself in Jesus and his vast, unassuming love, really relates to this self centered terror we possess that in the end we are too off-key to be accepted by God in a way that is holy. We try to safen the world by arbitrarily creating rules of sexual, moral, and social ethics, thinking that if we do so World will remain constant and helpful. The problem is that each of us, no matter how Christian, confronts that which we despise within our own selves: my own brother admitted he was gay, my best friend’s father is an alcoholic, my dearest nephew spits at the thought of Christianity and lives on the streets. And, for myself, I remain consumed by questions about Jesus.

    The idea that being “born again” somehow relates to joining a marathon for morality is relatively new. What being “born again” means to me in its ancient sense is that God in Christ– while not only accepting but celebrating me in my strides to be a human–also empowers me to radically encouter Christ in others, who often show up in people who look like enemies. Christ did expose himself as a victim, and he shows up in everyone I would rather see demolished. To love those who differ, who stretch, who wait in the margins is to experience, in some miniscule way, the love of Jesus as he emboldened himself to walk to the cross.


  6. Michael, you might also enjoy checking out Douglas Knight and Margaret Barker.

    Barker seems to be able to swing from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I think she offers particularly helpful interpretations on atonement.

    Douglas Knight feels like a blend of Gunton and Girard (the latter via Allison). He blogs at and has set-up a helpful site here:

  7. Ok, so how was all that ethereal claptrap supposed to comfort the victim of “victim of unspeakable violence and trauma”? Would you tell the girl, “Hey, Jesus is a gate for you, and not to just any pasture, but one with a one-way entrance to an abbattoir! And by the way, God sacrificed himself to us!! Doesn’t all this make Jesus’ image acquire a significant new vibrancy?” Holy smokes, dude, you reflexively gore the ox of white, middle class, suburban Christianity (did God “sacrifice himself” to soccer moms too?) and Calvin fanboys but you want to substitute it with this purple haze nonsense? Oh my gosh. I need to go blend up some Gunton and Girard and relax for a while.