In the Gospel of John, which was read in many churches last week, the High Priest Caiaphas pronounces the infamous words, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas seems to imply that even if Jesus were innocent, he still ought to be killed in order to save the nation.
In other words, Caiaphas is happy to turn Jesus into a scapegoat.
In the Derek Chauvin trial— the police officer who is accused of killing George Floyd— the jury will likely face a similar dilemma. If Chauvin is found not guilty, a new wave of riots will most likely follow. If a juror in good conscience believes that the prosecution has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, he or she will still have to consider Caiaphas’ dilemma: even if Chauvin is not guilty, must he be acquitted?
There is immense pressure for the jury to reason as Caiaphas did. The media has sent subtle— and not so subtle— messages, warning audiences that anything short of a full conviction will lead to fatalities and massive destruction of property. So, basically, it is the jury’s duty to prevent riots from happening, and to do that, they must convict Chauvin. In so doing, Chauvin will become the sacrificial lamb whose imprisonment will save the nation.
Now, it might be easily objected that whereas Jesus preached love, Chauvin killed a man with his knee. Unlike Jesus, Chauvin is not a scapegoat, because whereas the former was innocent, the latter is really guilty.
This would be true, were Chauvin charged only with manslaughter. Indeed, that was the sole initial charge brought against him, and that would have been an easy case for the prosecution. But since a manslaughter sentence would only carry a maximum of 57 months in prison, prosecutors added charges of third-degree murder — if found guilty, the sentence would be 25 years.
It will be much harder for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin is guilty of third-degree murder. According to Minnesota guidelines, third-degree murder happens as “the unintentional killing of another [human being] through an eminently dangerous act committed with a depraved mind and without regard for human life.” It is hard to see how Chauvin’s action fits into this definition.
There are serious doubts about whether Chauvin’s action was actually the sole cause of Floyd’s death (he was intoxicated with phenethyl and methamphetamine at the time), and there are even greater doubts that this was a result of a dangerous act committed with a depraved mind; after all, it appears that the Minnesota Police does teach the technique of restraining subjects by putting a knee on the head— even if, admittedly, Chauvin did not follow the guidelines thoroughly.
Yet, even if Chauvin were guilty of the charges brought against him, he would still be a scapegoat.
Renowned French cultural critic René Girard made an academic living by studying scapegoating processes. He came to realize that whenever societies are threatened by crises and inner violence, certain people are selected as scapegoats. They are accused of some deed, duly punished (frequently executed), and in so doing, the collectivity channels its own destructive violence towards the scapegoat, and peace returns.
According to Girard, in most cases, scapegoats are innocent of the charges brought against them. But sometimes, scapegoating can also target guilty parties. In this book The Scapegoat, Girard considers the case of a black male who actually rapes a white female, and is lynched for it. Would that black male be a scapegoat, even if he is guilty of rape? According to Girard, yes, he would. Indeed, during the terrible era of lynching in the United States, some black men might have raped some white women. But that in no way made lynching less of a crime. These victims of lynching were targeted because of their skin colour. White rapists were never lynched, and that proves that it was because of race, and not a particular crime, that they were brutally hanged by mobs.
Chauvin may or may not be guilty of third-degree murder. But he is still a scapegoat.
The way media is fuming the flames makes it clear that he will likely be convicted, not because of the weight of the evidence, but simply, because the mob needs to be appeased. Chauvin is being judged, not as the officer who put the knee on a man under arrest, but as the representative of the most feared evil in the handbook of woke ideology: racism.
After an embarrassing history of slavery and racial segregation, a large section of the American people wants to cleanse its collective guilt. Just as the ancient Israelites cleansed their guilt by transferring their sins to Azazel— the goat of Leviticus 6— many Americans now want to cleanse their historical guilt by transferring it to Chauvin.
One can only hope that the jury refuses to play this scapegoating game, and decides Chauvin’s fate solely on the basis of evidence.