Atonement in Scripture: Donald Trump’s Scapegoating and the Myth of Retributive Justice, Part 1


Scapegoating Minorities

On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump began his campaign to become the Republican Party’s nominee for President by blaming undocumented Mexican immigrants for many U.S. problems:

‘The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems… When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.  They are sending people that have lots of problems.  They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people.’[1]

The Spanish-speaking news source San Diego Red responded with an aptly titled article, ‘Donald Trump Scapegoats Mexico While Announcing Presidential Bid.’

Scapegoating.  ‘Outsiders’ and immigrants have long been blamed for America’s woes:  from the Chinese during the 1870’s who were thought to be bringing opium, all the way to today’s undocumented Latina/o immigrants, who are… doing what now?  ‘Stealing our jobs’ and bringing down wages?  Maybe for youth,[2] but not adults.[3]  Are they now bringing drugs and crime, as Trump claims?  Studies from the American Immigration Council had already answered ‘no’ to that question:

‘Numerous studies over the past 100 years have shown [that] immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are not associated with higher rates of crime. […] Between 1990 and 2010, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population grew from 7.9 percent to 12. 9 percent and the number of unauthorized immigrants tripled from 3.5 million to 11.2 million.  [Yet,] During the same period, FBI data indicates that the violent crime rate declined 45 percent and the property crime rate fell 42 percent.  The decline in crime rates was not just national, but also occurred in border cities and other cities with large immigrant populations such as San Diego, El Paso, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami.’[4]

Undeterred by facts, Trump continued:

‘It’s coming from more than Mexico.  It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably — probably — from the Middle East… I will build a great wall.  And nobody does walls better than me.  Believe me.  Very inexpensively.  I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.’[5]

But these statements, so astonishing or troubling to some, were applauded by many.  People with extreme, far right views reentered political space as Trump became the frontrunner in the Republican presidential polls.  The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups held public rallies.  And just as the Confederate flag was taken down from the South Carolina State House after Dylann Roof, a 21 year old white man who wanted to start a race war, gunned down nine African-American church goers on June 17, 2015, Confederate flag wavers turned out in droves.


Within months, Muslim immigrants became a new scapegoat.  The terrorist acts by radical Islamists in Paris, France on November 13, and San Bernardino, California on December 2 connected American fears of terrorism, ISIS, Islam, and immigrants.  Those on the far right – who oppose any form of gun control – saw limiting immigration as the only option.  Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslim immigration ‘until we can figure out what’s going on.’  Jeb Bush tried to strike a more positive and humanitarian note by saying we should admit only Christian refugees from Syria and the Middle East, but his intention was clear.  This, at a time when the Syrian refugee crisis is overwhelming Europe, and when the U.S. process for vetting refugees has been shown to be reliably safe.[6]

It is easier to scapegoat a minority – Muslims, or Mexicans – than to understand systemic and cultural problems and address them.  For example, in response to public safety concerns about gun violence, very few policymakers and even legal historians suggest that we should moderate or amend the Second Amendment itself.  The Second Amendment was not originally written to guarantee the individual’s right to protect him or herself, as is so often touted nowadays.  It was penned so whites could maintain state-run militias against the threat of black slave revolts.

‘The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote.  Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that… and we all should be too.  In the beginning, there were the militias.  In the South, they were also called the “slave patrols,” and they were regulated by the states.’[7]

People with white supremacist assumptions have always influenced gun politics.  A few decades ago, the National Rifle Association stood against open-carrying of firearms because it wanted to limit the Black Panthers in Oakland, California from protecting their own neighborhoods (most often from racist police) with licensed guns.[8]  Ronald Reagan, then California Governor, said that he saw ‘no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons’ and that guns were a ‘ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.’  Reagan added that the Mulford Act of 1967, which disallowed the public carrying of loaded guns in California, ‘would work no hardship on the honest citizen.’[9]  Interesting how times have changed.

My point is not gun legislation per se.  My point is the danger of scapegoating.  Scapegoating blames a minority for disturbing the social order, deflects responsibility from the community, and disguises deeper issues.  Not only is that dangerous, and even deadly, for the minority, it is a recipe for recycling the problem and inviting it to come back later.


Rene Girard’s Scapegoat Theory

What exactly is scapegoating?  And why is it effective?  It’s a way of blaming a person or a minority for a much bigger problem that people don’t want to deal with.  Across all cultures, French literary scholar, anthropologist, and former Stanford professor Rene Girard notes, a violent scapegoat ritual makes ‘peace’ in the community, at least for a time.  People who want, and compete for, the same thing – unity in battle; security; higher returns on risky investments; mastery over the same subject; positions of power; etc. – cause tensions, and eventually, a crisis.

‘In a crisis communities look for someone to blame for the worst crimes imaginable, and we see a common pattern of picking on those people who are marginal or different in some way that doesn’t fit the system of differences in the community; perhaps they are foreigners.  Perhaps they have lost an eye like Wotan; perhaps they smell bad like Philoctetes.  But these preferential signs don’t absolutely have to exist.  In a crisis there will be an inexorable movement toward finding a scapegoat.’[10]


Girard’s work has been much discussed by scholars of anthropology, history, law, literature, and religion because all of these disciplines are touched by his theories of scapegoating and competitive desires.  A large annual conference called the Colloquium on Violence and Religion is devoted to his ideas, along with a journal called Contagion.

In The Iliad, King Agamemnon sacrifices his virgin daughter to Poseidon for the sake of guaranteeing the united Greek fleet’s safe passage to Troy.  In Meso-America, the Aztecs would crown a king, proclaim him to be quasi-divine for a season, and then sacrifice him for the sake of the Aztec Empire’s continuity.  In Shakespeare, Brutus kills Julius Caesar for the sake of the Roman Republic.  These themes and rituals reappear so frequently that Rene Girard expresses it this way:  at the origin of every civilization there must have been a murder.  This insight certainly lines up well with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel before he founded a city named for his son Enoch, or Romulus’ murder of his brother Remus before he founded Rome.  Blaming and/or sacrificing the scapegoat builds cohesion in the community.  Wherever possible, the divine is invoked as siding with the group against the scapegoat.  The group therefore justifies the violence to itself as ‘redemptive’ and disguises the scapegoating by creating a myth.  The myth portrays the innocent scapegoat as guilty to deflect the community’s attention from itself and its own guilt.

Here are some more modern forms of scapegoating, just to note how widespread it is.  Men blame women for ‘causing them to lust.’  Why?  To place the blame on the bodies of women rather than the decisions of their own minds.  We scapegoat certain political leaders as they leave office.  Mona Harrington, a political scientist, argued that there is a peculiarly American pattern of myth-making that people’s troubles can be traced to a single specific ‘evil.’[11]  Sometimes that ‘evil’ is the previous officeholder.  Think of Marco Rubio’s drone-like performance in New Hampshire (even in the sympathetic view of Politico’s Michael Grunwald) where Rubio repeatedly said Barack Obama ‘knows exactly what he is doing.’[12]  Or those who saw George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as the ‘evil,’ and therefore became curiously less involved in systemic political change once Obama was elected, thinking he would solve all the problems.  Peter Thiel, a co-founder of Paypal, also sees Girardian scapegoating in the blaming and firing of corporate business leaders, including quirky founders like Steve Jobs of Apple.[13]

However, another reason why the work of Rene Girard has been much discussed is that Girard became a Christian through his scholarship.  Girard noticed, for example, that the Jewish and Roman leaders became friends in order to dispose of Jesus (Luke 23:12).  Among many other episodes in Scripture, he discovered this:

‘I began to see the uniqueness of the Bible, especially the Christian text, from the standpoint of the scapegoat theory… In the Gospels we have the revelation [i.e. exposure] of the mechanism that dominates culture unconsciously.’[14]

‘The thing about the Gospels is that there may be tiny mythical infiltrations in them, but their basis is not mythical.  The mythical mentality can take them and construe them mythically, but quintessentially they are the destruction of myth.’[15]

‘Nietzsche was the first thinker to see clearly that the singularity of Judeo-Christianity was that it rehabilitates victims that myths would regard as justly immolated.  Of course for Nietzsche this was a dreadful mistake that first Judaism, then Christianity had inflicted on the world.  Nietzsche chose violence…’[16]

This brings me to explore Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory in my critique of penal substitutionary atonement theory as it has played out in the United States.

I’ll explore that in Part 2.




[1] Donald Trump Transcript: ‘Our Country Needs a Truly Great Leader,’ Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2016;; for a factual rebuttal to Trump, see ‘Donal Trump Scapegoats Mexico While Announcing Presidential Bid,’ San Diego Red, June 17, 2015;

[2] Chriss W. Street, ‘Federal Reserve: Illegal Immigrants Take Teenagers’ Summer Jobs,’ Breitbart, July 19, 2015;

[3] Art Carden, ‘Illegal Immigrants Don’t Lower Our Wages Or Take Our Jobs,’ Forbes, August 28, 2015;; Rob Garver, ‘Are Immigrants Really Taking American Jobs?’, The Fiscal Times, August 26, 2015;; Jeff Jacoby, ‘The Stolen Job Myth,’ Boston Globe, July 2, 2014;;  Alex Nowrasteh, ‘Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job,’ Cato Institute, November 2, 2012;; Viveca Novak, ‘Does Immigration Cost Jobs?’,, May 13, 2010;

[4] American Immigration Council, From Anecdotes to Evidence: Setting the Record Straight on Immigrants and Crime; July 25, 2013;

[5] Donald Trump Transcript: ‘Our Country Needs a Truly Great Leader,’ Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2016;; for a factual rebuttal to Trump, see ‘Donald Trump Scapegoats Mexico While Announcing Presidential Bid,’ San Diego Red, June 17, 2015;

[6] Alex Nowrasteh, ‘Syrian Refugees Don’t Pose a Serious Security Threat,’ Cato Institute, November 18, 2015;; Jon Schuppe, ‘Syrians in America: How Safe Is the U.S. Refugee Program?,’ NBC News, November 19, 2015;; Dennis Sadowski, ‘MRS Director Says Refugee Screening Process is Thorough, Keeps U.S. Safe,’ Catholic News Service, November 25, 2015;

[7] Thom Hartmann, ‘The Second Amendment Was Ratified to Preserve Slavery,’ Truth Out, January 15, 2013;  The 1911 Sullivan Act in New York seemed targeted at immigrants’ access to guns.  Note that after Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, Black Codes made it illegal for enslaved black people to gather in a meeting without a white person present.

[8] Nick Wing, ‘Here’s How The Nation Responded When A Black Militia Group Occupied A Government Building,’ Huffington Post, January 6, 2016;;

[9] Adam Winkler, ‘The Secret History of Guns,’ The Atlantic, September 2011;

[10] Rene Girard, ‘Epilogue: The Anthropology of the Cross: A Conversation with Rene Girard,’ Rene Girard Reader, p.271; see also CBC Interview of Rene Girard:

[11] Mona Harrington, The Dream of Deliverance in American Politics

[12] Michael Grunwald, ‘Why Rubio Claims ‘Obama Knows Exactly What He’s Doing,’’ Politico, February 7, 2016;

[13] Peter Thiel, lecture at Stanford University, ‘Girard in Silicon Valley,’ Spring 2012 available in pdf format

[14] Ibid p.262

[15] Ibid p.281; Girard asserts that Jesus exposed the scapegoat myth and mechanism, as Roman and Jewish leaders united to put Jesus to death; Leviticus was already subverting the scapegoat rituals from other cultures, as Israel represented all humanity; Girard (; 35 min mark) also says the Joseph story is the reversal of the Oedipus story, where Joseph is innocent (Oedipus as scapegoat is guilty) and brings reconciliation (not death and division).  In addition, Joseph tests his brothers by making Benjamin a scapegoat, but Judah refuses it and offers himself.  The Joseph and Judah story exposes the scapegoating myth.  It is anti-myth.

[16] Ibid p.272



4 Comments Add yours

  1. nice job. Some of the better political commentary I’ve seen this election season.


  2. and excellent tie-in with your thesis!


  3. makonagasawa says:

    Thank you David!


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