A Feature Review of
Scapegoats: The Gospel Through the Eyes of Victims
Jennifer Garcia Bashaw
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2022
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Reviewed by Heather Caliri
A few days ago, the superintendent of our local school board was fired just months after she took the position. Only the third Black administrator in 86 years in the heavily white, wealthy, and suburban district, she was let go without cause. The actual reason is unclear. Was it the comments she made during a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training about wealthy Chinese families moving into the district—which many Asian families felt scapegoated them? Was the furor over her words stoked by a board member she has accused of harassment, and who also opposes DEI training in the district? Or was it the fact that Black women are often held to higher standards, then scapegoated when they fall short?
In 2022, scapegoating is complicated. And yet understanding its nuances and grip on human history has the power to help us learn how to love our neighbors well, while healing the deep wounds of our past. That’s the hope, at least, in Jennifer Garcia Bashaw’s book, Scapegoats: The Gospel through the Eyes of Victims. Using the work of René Girard, whose theories on scapegoating have heavily influenced theologians’ view of the atonement, Bashaw turns her lens instead to Jesus’s life and ministry.
Bashaw argues that whenever Jesus encounters scapegoats, his interactions with them instruct us about how to “stop the scapegoating process before it begins.” To illuminate these teachings, Bashaw layers the exegesis of the biblical text with how the Church has scapegoated people in the past and present. Finally, Bashaw offers practical strategies and prayers to help us have liberative encounters with those we might otherwise stigmatize.
Bashaw reviews the gospel accounts with a focus on several different groups: Jesus’s encounters with women, his ministry to the disabled and poor, and his interactions with outsiders. In each section, she begins by reviewing how the church has scapegoated these groups throughout church history. For instance, she traces how a movement that started with a homeless, penniless Messiah began blaming the poor for their own plight. In that way, Bashaw widens the lens of her exegesis to include not only what Scripture says—but how it has been weaponized. This historical context makes for uncomfortable but revelatory reading.
Then, Bashaw turns her focus to the gospel writers. She usually sticks with one gospel at a time—for instance, her chapter on illness and disability draws exclusively from Mark, but the chapter about Jesus’s interactions with the poor focuses on Matthew.
This approach allows Bashaw to illuminate both the purposes of each writer and their weaknesses. For instance, disabled theologians have often criticized Mark; among other things, they say he dehumanizes disabled people by labeling them with their impairment (the “leper” or the “demoniac”). Bashaw’s honesty about Mark’s “cultural situatedness” was bracing. Foregrounding the context of each gospel, as well as the blind spots and editorial slant of each writer helps Bashaw illuminate each story more precisely. The same stories told by different authors are not interchangeable. They reveal different facets of Jesus’s life.
I found Bashaw’s insights most powerful in the latter two sections of the book: the scapegoating first of the poor and infirm, and then, of outsiders. In the middle section of the book, Bashaw not only notes that Jesus treats the disabled and poor with dignity and care—she reveals how these encounters show that scapegoats are model disciples. For instance, Mark brackets the story of Bartimaeus’s faithful discipleship, whom Jesus heals of blindness, with the haplessness of the twelve disciples. Says Bashaw, “Bartimeaeus’ story reminds Mark’s hearers that people with disabilities are the unexpected exemplars of God’s reign.”
Bashaw is also creative and surprising in the third section of the book, most notably in her analysis of Simon of Cyrene—a story contained in a single verse of scripture. It’s difficult to write an entire chapter about such scant material. But Bashaw does so successfully, not only with careful attention to the text but also by learning from the African-American church’s historical identification with Simon, one of the few African New Testament characters. As a Libyan, and as a man conscripted against his will to carry a cross, Simon was a powerful figure for enslaved Africans. I found the recounting of the resilience, creativity, and resourcefulness of African-American Christians both inspiring and sobering.
To my surprise, however, I found the first section of Bashaw’s book—the one on women—less convincing than the other two. First, I found her exegesis did not as honestly point out troubling scriptural power dynamics as in her section on disability. For instance, in the chapter on Mary’s annunciation, Bashaw wholly celebrated Mary’s trusting response to the grave danger her pregnancy places her in. But I read the passage with my heart heavy. I felt troubled that Mary had to face the supposed shame of her “adultery” alone, as so many unwed mothers do. Why do women so often bear the burden of sexual stigma single-handedly? I think my reaction stemmed from my recent read of Wilda Gafney’s Womanist Midrash—in which Gafney laments how often the Hebrew Bible glosses over women’s suffering. With my eyes thus opened, I found it harder than Bashaw to take Luke’s account at face value.
In addition, I found the focus on scapegoating wavered in the first section. Certainly, Bashaw makes clear that scapegoating is not always obvious. Sometimes, the violence is overt (such as lynching), but other times, it’s more obscure—such as language that subtly others the marginalized.
Still, not every marginalized person is always scapegoated. In the section on the widow of Nain, I could not tell how the widow qualified. She was certainly economically marginalized, but did not seem in any way demonized. In the other sections, Bashaw made those connections, even subtle ones, clearer. It may be that, being a woman, I read a section on women more critically than sections about marginalization I have not experienced first-hand. And certainly, my difficulties with it did not detract from the many insights I gleaned from Bashaw’s writing about women. I found Bashaw’s review of the Church’s treatment of women eye-opening, and delighted in her layered exegesis of the woman accused of adultery that both revealed scapegoating in the text and in many modern interpretations of it.
Indeed—that’s the true genius of Bashaw’s book: its layers. Throughout Scapegoats, Bashaw builds a beautiful and powerful collage. She sets Scriptural texts alongside their cultural context and their human authors’ goals. Then she overlays church history, the history of biblical interpretation, and our current American context. Finally, she adds wisdom from the marginalized themselves, citing liberation, womanist, feminist, disability, and Black theology. The sum of all is much more than its parts.
In the end, Bashaw’s focus on a living Lord, the men who wrote his stories, and two millennia of how those stories have been sanctified and skewed help us all imagine how to enter into Christ’s teachings alongside the marginalized—to practice fellowship instead of demonization.
Heather Caliri is a writer and editor whose work has appeared at Christianity Today, The Other Journal, Fathom Magazine, Harpur Palate, and The Literary Journal. She talks and draws about awkward faith on Instagram and at her website and lives in San Diego with her husband and two kids.