December 1, 2020

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery:” A theological reflection on the Gospel of the scapegoat

Today’s lesson in my AP English IV class was Shirley Jackson’s well-known short story, “The Lottery.” Many of you probably read this story in your senior year of high school. From the standpoint of a teacher, “The Lottery” is a winner because it’s great art and a great starter for discussions. It is a simple story, swimming in a quiet sea of irony that suddenly rises up as a terrible monster in the last two paragraphs. We’ll be working with it for a couple of days, and the students are clearly moved by the power of Jackson’s multi-leveled artistic achievement. It’s the kind of story that leaves me in awe of what a simple writer can do with a single insight and a great talent.

I choose to spend most of today’s discussion on the subject of “scapegoating.” This is one of the most direct routes into the story, but the direct route seemed appealing to me after reading several essays on the Marxist, feminist and political interpretations of the stories. Some criticise this approach, saying it is too obvious, but the effect of the story is heavily oriented to the subject of scapegoating as an example of tradition, violence and unquestioning allegience to evil through accepted social norms.

It’s also a subject that made me think theologically, and here’s the result: The need for scapegoating is deep in human nature, and God recognizes this in making our salvation the acceptance of our role in the greatest of all scapegoating rituals.

I’ll start with an observation: I think Freud would have read “The Lottery” and said something like this.

“Yes, early in the history of humanity, long ago in the recesses of our unknown primitive beginnings, human beings engaged in the killing of a scapegoat from the community as a way of shifting the burden of evil from themselves to another. Then, over time, ritualistic scapegoating became a way to ward off evil, and eventually, to insure blessing. This behavior became essential to civilization. The fear of what would happen if the scapegoat was not designated and killed came to dominate. Eventually, of course, social evolution made scapegoating rituals less prominent and appealing in their explanations and assurances. Their form and frequency changed, but the necessity of the scapegoat as part of human life did not change, and remains today. Now, deep within our unconscious brains, in the primitive part of our unknown selves, this need for the security and release of the scapegoating ritual is still a part of us. ”

It isn’t hard to agree with this. Look at the story of Cain and Abel. Viewed sociologically, this story is pointing us in the same direction as a Freudian analysis of scapegoating. From the beginning, humans have created scapegoats and scapegoat rituals to free themselves from their insecurities and to attempt to control their reality. What was once spontaneous killing became ritualized suffering and acceptable ostracization, but the same force is at work.

It is fascinating to me to think of how scapegoating continues in our lives. What is the source of irrational racism? The racism of poor, rural whites towards blacks they do not know or interact with? Where did the hatred of the Jews come from? Was it part of that human darkness that has always needed a scapegoat? Why are we so inclined to blame Hispanics for “taking our jobs” when, obviously, we aren’t looking to work in the fields or cook fast food?

Why does every race, every culture, every community, need some kind of scapegoat? Some group, person or entity that must lose, that must be assigned the role of adversary and then be defeated and cast out? Why are enemies within and adversaries without so necessary to the coalescing of a community’s energy? Where would some groups be without their constant intoning of the scapegoat, and the necessity of dealing with the scapegoat in order to insure the future of the group??

Individually, we see the same deep impulses at work. What about bullying? Cruelty towards persons with different accents and skin colors? What about taunting and cruelty towards the nerd, the weak, the handicapped, the fat, the smart, the small, the quiet, the different? Aren’t the power of these familar kinds of human barbarism- behaviors you can see on any playground or at any high school- precisely rooted in the same kind of scapegoating that Jackson brings before us? The irrational and evil desire to drive from our midst that one who carries the “curse,” and whose demise will insure our place? Isn’t the energy of this kind of hatred so deep within us that we are AFRAID to look at it, for fear of having to admit that the stones are in our hands and we LIKE it?

What about sports? Where else can you paint yourself in ritual colors and be part of a mob yelling for the destruction of another group or the joy of inflicting suffering and humiliation on individuals? When parents, schools and entire communities become caught up in the rivalries and emotions of competition against rival schools, do we really think that the only thing happening is a bit of freindly competition? When communities and families get excessively wrapped up in sports we know we are witnessing a kind of primitive channelling of deep currents of the human personality. We believe that if the enemy is defeated, there is a genuine change in our reality. Where this may have once been true, how can any person say the euphoria of a sports victory changes the realities of the participants? Yet what else creates such corporate assurance that all is right with the world like the beating and banishing of an arch rival? We are not far from Jackson’s town square, and the repeated June 27th ritual that purified the community and assured its blessing.

Why did Jerry Falwell so quickly say 9/11 was the fault of feminists, gays and abortionists? The idea is appallingly appealing to many. Why are so many ready to march at the signal of a political leader who says the problem in America is the liberals or the conservatives, and the answer is to drive them from out midst? Is our increasingly poliarized and paralyzed political process and our inability to move beyond rhetoric of demeaning demonization all a testimony to the fact that we are tapping into something deep inside the collective human consciousness: the need for the scapegoat and the need to feel the rightness of driving the scapegoat from over the cliff?

What lies behind the utter absorption of conservative evangelicals with all things gay? Why is the “gay agenda” – real, unreal, partially real or undetermined- occupying far more time than church planting, evangelism or any other concern? Why do we listen to those leaders who repeatedly whip up our fear and insecurities about what those different from us are going to do to our children and our lives? Has anyone ever felt that this constant drumbeat was a feeding off of a deeper psychic and emotional need, and was taking all of us much farther into our own prejudices and fears than into anything that loves God and loves neightbor?

For how many of us does our experience with liberals, gays and secularists actually match our emotions of dislike, fear and resentment expressed toward them? Where is the source of the amplification? Why can we never seem to get enough of it?

This is scapegoating, and in some form, Freud’s description captures the truth. We should be honest that our attraction to those who we feel must be excluded isn’t entirely (or mostly) a spiritual pursuit, a simple prejudice or a rational conclusion. It is something that feels necessary and important because it matches our notions of what must true and actual for our realities to be “saved.” As Jesus said, this kind of evil comes from within our individual and collective souls, and not from the “without” of the world of experience.

Even the current atmosphere in the war on terror is laying hold of the need to blame, the need to transfer fault to a group. I do not deny the real danger of Islamo-facism, but I want nothing to do with those who drool with hatred towards all Muslims and all Arabs. There is something of true darkness at work when millions of persons in our nation are looking at every person from a differing culture than their own as “the enemy.” From the witch trials to the lynchings of blacks to the rhetoric of excessive paranoia in a time of war, this specter of scapegoating behavior continues to haunt us. We seemingly cannot escape it.

It is important to learn from this. As a Christian, Jackson’s story serves as a vivid reminder of the extent of the fall and the way it continues to be with us all, not only in our conscious choices, but in the darkened recesses of the submerged human psyche and our collective attraction to a fatally false avenue of deliverance from what we designate as evil.

Yet, I am amazed when I consider a further, and more powerful truth. The heart of the Gospel is the cross: a scapegoating ritual, and my participation in it is essential to believing that Gospel.

The entire old covenant sacrificial system and the entire holiness code is built upon the legitimacy of scapegoating and rejection. Designating who is “clean and unclean” is a primary concern of God’s old covenant legal system. God excludes the unholy and the abominable. The soul that sins will die, unless a sacrifice is provided, and the curse is removed. Even the scape “goat” itself found its way into Israel’s religion, and the literal acting out of the scapegoat ritual was done so that any child could see the transfer of guilt, and the necessity of driving out the “sinbearer.”

It is around this set of ideas- revolting and bloody, but intensely connected to our fallen psychological makeup- that God places the Gospel itself. Jesus is the lamb, the sinbearer and the scapegoat. Jesus is rejected by his own, by men and women, and even by God himself. We stand at Golgotha and participate in the transfer of guilt from ourselves to Jesus. It is better that one die than for a whole nation to perish. We deeply understand this. Even if we are ashamed of its application, we understand it.

It is God himself who becomes the scapegoat. God takes the role of the rejected one, and bears our sins and gurantees our future. No randomly chosen victim, our mediator has been bearing our sin since eternity past, and now in the cross, we see in his own body the love that would not let us go, but will die on our behalf.

The Gospel requires the embracing of this truth, and the personal application of it. It was difficult to sit in “The Passion” and see this acted out before our eyes, because we know that this is an ugly and abhorrent act in history that reveals a hidden and shameful part of ourselves. Yet God chooses this deeply engrained part of our make-up to speak to us about holiness, justice and covenant, gracious love. It is the very offensiveness of the Gospel that says to us, “Here is the love of God. Not a hug, but a bloody scapegoat ritual.”

Now we live knowing there is no more scapegoat, and no need for us to look for one in our fellow human beings. Time and again, we are told to look at the cross for EVERYTHING in the Christian life. This cross shakes us free from the powers of evil and death that hold us in spiritual bondage. It is our freedom, and that freedom comes from a graciously finished work. We are especially to look at the cross as the eternal evidence of what has been done for us that is final and finished. There is no more punishment for sin, no more scapegoat and there is no reason for us to participate in any of those aspects of fallen human behavior that grow out of the need for a scapegoat.

We are free from the need to place our sins and insecurities on another person, or on ourselves. We are free from the compulsion to make someone else suffer that we might feel more secure, or superior. We are free from the bondage to transforming those who are different from us into threats and enemies, thus justifying our rejection of them.

We are reconciled in Christ. How deep is that reconciliation? We are reconciled to God, to one another, and to the deepest, most alienated corners of our own souls. We are reconciled through the blood of the eternal lamb.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. The lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world. He has become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Christ became a curse for us, hanging on our tree, taking our sins and our rejection, both as a recepient and as a substitute.

Shirley Jackson’s story was meant to shock readers into considering their allegiences to blind prejudice and evil accepted by polite society. The cross is meant to shock us, but more than that: the cross is meant to kill us, and to become the bridge to new life. The lives we live in imitation and celebration of Jesus will declare the power of that final scapegoating ritual, and our discipleship will show if we understand what happened when the black spot belonged to our savior, and how each one of us was, in that one supremely ironic moment, “upon him.”


  1. For those of us (older folks) who have never heard of “The Lottery,” would you give us a short summary?


  2. The story is linked at the start of the essay. It’s very short.

  3. I remember Nixon’s draft lottery.

  4. Boy I wish I’d had you as an english teacher back in high school. I might have actually stayed awake.

  5. I know that three years after its posted is a bit late (I’m new to this blog), but have you read Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred? He has some good thoughts on scapegoating, and the way he came to Christianity is fascinating.