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Vicarious, Representative Suffering vs. Scapegoat Psychology, Wednesday, March 4, 2009 at Resurrection’s Gathering of the Oakland Churches

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First Mid-Week Lenten Service for the Oakland Churches

At Resurrection Lutheran Church, Wednesday March 4th, 2009

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:20B- 6:10

Vicarious, Representative Suffering

For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (21).

What does it mean that God made Christ to be sin, who knew no sin? For me that statement by St. Paul is pretty disconcerting. I believe it points to the way Christ suffered the consequences of our sins in our place. It can be called vicarious or representative suffering of Christ for us. It is the opposite of sinful scapegoat psychology, which I will explain in the second part of this sermon.

Too often it seems we transform the cross into a decoration, into a piece of jewelry. I used to wear a simple wooden cross working in the inner-city of Cincinnati – that was back in the sixties during the riots. When I arrived in Berlin Germany in 1971, they said that only the Bishop was allowed to wear the cross, so now I usually do not wear one.

But when we wear them, remember that the cross was an instrument of torture and a means by which the brutal Romans used to torture someone and put them to death. The incredible love of Christ transfigured the cross, so that we no longer see it as a lynching rope or an electric chair. Christ, who changes curses into blessings made the cross the symbol of the greatest love the world has ever known.

But how did this change happen? It came about because God made Jesus to be sin, who knew no sin. I was reading William Blake, a British poet, who has a way of taking you to the edge. In one poem he depicted Christ hanging on the cross his huge serpentine tail swishing under it.[1] I suddenly realized he was calling Jesus the evil serpent and I was very offended – until I cooled down and realized that Jesus himself said that the way Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness, [that all could gaze upon it and be healed,] so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life (John 3:15). We forget that people of the day really considered Jesus evil.

But Jesus for us is the righteousness of God come down to save us. St. Paul adds, “Christ became a curse for us,” too (Gal. 3:13). He was cursed for us so that we might become the blessings of God.

Just like we often still wear our crosses as decorations, we forget that Jesus was called a blasphemer by the authorities of the day. He was considered a law-breaker of God’s law. What did they care if he championed love and compassion? Not one bit. He did not have to heal that man’s hand on the Sabbath, they said. How dare him say that he was Lord of the Sabbath? Or that he forgave sins! And what was a Rabbi doing among all the sinner, prostitutes, and tax collectors; (Bankers or brokers for us, perhaps?) Why, he was declaring that they would get into heaven before those who considered themselves, and were taken for, the respectable and religious people of the day!

Thus Jesus had to experience the self-righteous fury of all those whom he snubbed for the sake of the oppressed. Just read Isaiah chapters 52 and 53. He stood there and took all the fury of the good people upon himself. Of course if people are really good, they don’t know it.

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering, acquainted with infirmities, and as one from whom others hide their faces; he was despised and we held him of no account (53:2B-3).

When I worked in St. Philip’s in Berlin, our congregation had a crucifix that was almost impossible to look at. Perhaps you have seen some crucifixes like that too. A sculptor had put two broken rails from a train-track together to make a cross and the body of Christ was that of one who had been run over by a tank. But they had beautiful stained glass windows and the sunlight streamed over the altar and the light showed that God saw that mangled body quite differently from the way we did.

Isaiah continues:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (53:4-6).

Isaiah is depicting vicarious or representative suffering in these passages. We believe that Jesus fulfilled these words of Isaiah by dying on the cross for us. Jesus endured this suffering in our place. Our sins nailed him.

St. Peter seems to have Isaiah in mind. Here is how he puts it:

When you endure and are beaten for doing wrong; what credit is that? But when you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin and no deceit was in his mouth; when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live in righteousness, by his wounds you have been healed, for you were going astray like sheep (1 Peter 2:20-25).

We heard Isaiah and St. Peter. Martin Luther of old takes it into how we relate with each other, with our neighbors, when we bear each other’s sin and suffering. This is how he puts it:

Each one should so accept the neighbor as if the neighbor were him or herself. All good things flow into us from Christ, who accepted what we are into his life, as if he were what we are. [Our possessions] should flow from us into those who have need of them. In addition, I must place even my faith and righteousness before God for my neighbor, so that they cover my neighbor’s sin, and then take that sin upon myself, and act no differently than if it were my very own, even as Christ did for all of us. That, you see, is the nature of love, when it is genuine” (“The Freedom of a Christian”).[2]

I once experienced something like that in High School. I saw a girl in our classroom do a remarkable thing. In her anger she flung a pencil at the teacher, whose back was turned to the class. It just missed her and hit the blackboard. The teacher spun around and asked furiously, “Who did that?” There was real quiet and the girl looked very frightened. Suddenly her boyfriend raised his hand.

“I did it.” He said. The teacher ordered him out of the class and he faced the music for her.

At the time I could not believe it. I thought he was being dishonest. She should have gotten the rap but he took it for her. No one in the class betrayed his love and we wondered what possessed him to take her irresponsibility upon himself and take her punishment.

How many parents would not take the rap for their children, wish they could go to jail for them, take pain or sickness in their place, or even die for them? Parents and Jesus did not do this out of weakness but freely by choice, out of strength.

That is what Jesus did for us on the cross. He took our estrangement from God upon himself and then feeling the separation cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) We often call that Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” but we can see that it is a cry that is carrying the consequences of our sins, our separation from God.

The opposite of suffering in the place of others is something called scapegoat psychology. Instead of taking the sins of others upon ourselves and providing the forgiveness of Jesus, we see ourselves as self-righteous, and then we project the undesirable part of ourselves, the side of ourselves that we do not want to see, on people who are different from us. And we can be so unaware of that side of ourselves that we really see it outside of us on others. Some call that our shadow side, which we have to become aware of, work through, and take responsibility for. It takes some maturity to be able to integrate our own failings, inadequacies, weaknesses, mistakes and sins and not deflect them onto people whom we do not really know or people whom we can have power over.

In my conversation with myself and perhaps you might say the same thing to yourself in all honesty: “Let others bear the shadow side and I’ll just stay in my sunshine. I’ll take the privileges of this position, you take the responsibility. I’ve got the Gospel, you carry the cross!”

Can’t we do this unconsciously so that we don’t even realize how we are projecting the evil that is in us onto victims whom we scapegoat?

Picture the crucifixion in your mind. Imagine with me how the cross rises up with Jesus hanging on it and he says, “Father, forgive them they know not what they do.” We really see our sin in him. But as the soldiers stand the cross upright, we become conscious of our sin. Now our sin rises out of our unconscious so that we can take responsibility for it, confess it, and receive forgiveness.

Not taking responsibility for our sin goes way back to the Garden of Eden, because it seems our first parents were pretty immature:

“Adam, what have you done?”

“That woman you gave me made me do it.”

“Eve, what have you done?”

“The serpent made me do it.”

Adam and Eve and all of us often try to crawl out on our bellies under the responsibility we should take because we have sinned against God, whenever we have sinned against others, by seeing our sin in them.

Today we scapegoat many different people. Immigrants have been blamed and we went on a witch hunt to deport them. They were probably holding our economy together. Our economic melt-down is now obviously our fault not theirs. We can project our shadow side on minorities like Black people or Latinos or Gays and Lesbians. The Germans projected their evil onto the Jews. Or it can just be a person that people just choose to bully. In my elementary school days I remember how one girl was called “bugs” and everyone hit her and felt good rejecting her. Wow, were we cruel. A sensitive kid in class gets called a fag and a group of bullies pull down his pants and laugh at him. Great fun! No one stands with the victim.

The problem with eradicating evil in others is that evil is also in us. Haven’t you also heard it said that when you point your finger at another person, three fingers are pointing back at you? How dare you take the speck out of someone else’s eye when you yourself have a log in your own? Get the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to take the speck out of someone else’s! (“Sermon on the Mount,” Matthew 7: 3). That’s how Jesus put it.

Think back to our last administration. I know now in our Obama time that is hard to do. We declared that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq were an axis of evil. The problem is that when we fix evil out there and try to eradicate it, then we can unleash our own evil. We always have to realize that evil is inside us too and it can get away from us.

I heard a funny item in the news back in that time: an artist from Iceland, who painted a mural on a wall of an entrance of a new building in Dallas Texas. In splashy letters he wrote: “The U.K., U.S.A., and Israel are the axis of evil. Sharon is the top terrorist. Bush is an idiot. Iceland is a banana republic.” The outraged people in the building and in the city of Dallas scared the artist and made him repaint the wall, he wrote: “North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are the axis of evil. Bin Laden is the top terrorist. Bush is very intelligent. Iceland is a banana republic.” That self righteous attitude, from my point of view, set us free to inflict all our evil on Iraq and start all that bloodshed and sorrow. The externalization of evil and our attempt to eradicate it in another nation, can allow us to lose sight of our internal evil, and unleash our evil on others.

The wonder of Jesus and the story of the cross is that Jesus took our sins and all our violence and evil upon himself and became crushed by it for our sake. He did not project it onto us, but carried our sin the same way as if he had committed it, so that through his love, we might receive the righteousness of God.

Therefore, let us follow in the footsteps of Jesus and suffer for others, take their rap for them out of strength, out of love. We will become a mighty barrier to scapegoating, prejudice, bigotry, and continue to grow and develop in the stature and maturity of Christ. Amen.


[1] I have searched in vain for this verse in Blake. Here is one like it:

Nail his neck to the cross, nail it with a nail.

Nail his neck to the cross; ye all have power over his tail.

Ruthven Todd, editor, Blake, (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1960), page 84.

[2] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), page 89-90.

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Written by peterkrey

March 5, 2009 at 8:21 pm

Posted in 1, Selected Sermons

3 Responses

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  1. […] the sermon on my website: “Vicarious, Representative Suffering vs Scapegoat Psychology.” If you just click on this title, you will get […]

  2. […] [44] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), page 89-90. Also see my sermon of March 4th 2009: “Vicarious or Representative Suffering versus Scapegoat Psychology.” […]

  3. Excellent post. I used to be checking continuously this blog and I am impressed!
    Extremely useful info specifically the final phase 🙂 I care for such information a lot.

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    November 19, 2012 at 1:24 am


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