Scapegoating, Othering, & Justice

(I feel like I need to begin with a disclaimer: “Verbed nouns ahead.”  Please pardon the jargon.)

Scapegoating and Othering 

Othering is a process that we as individuals or groups use to separate someone from us, to draw barriers that mark them as different and exclude them.

We usually other people for the purpose of scapegoating; my definition is “affixing blame to someone so that we can feel good about ourselves.”

This process (othering > scapegoating) is human nature.  We use it to protect ourselves, to maintain our feelings of security.  We use it to say, “They deserve what happened to them; it wouldn’t happen to me or anyone like me, because we’re not like them.”


In our individualistic, Western minds, we usually equate “justice” with “fairness.”  We see this enshrined in the Constitutional principle of equal protection, “equal justice under the law.”  Fairness = everyone gets what they deserve.

To be clear: I believe fairness and equal protection are good and important principles.

There’s a problem when our definition of justice begins and ends with “fairness” or equal treatment/protection, because those principles don’t recognize the disparity in status that people begin from.

The biblical writers, especially Jesus and the prophets, were aware of this disparity.  As you read the prophets, notice the picture of justice that emerges.  It’s not about fairness, it’s about goodness.  It’s about benevolence.  It’s about shalom–“health, fullness, goodness”–for everyone, not just for those who “deserve” it.

Here’s a picture that illustrates the difference.  Just substitute the word “fairness” for “equality”:


Some biblical references to support my assertion.  Note the frequent juxtapositions of justice / impartiality with acknowledgment of the special needs of the poor and outsiders.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.  (Note the juxtaposition of God’s impartiality [end of 17] and his acknowledgment of the special needs of the poor and outsiders [18].)

Isaiah 1.17  Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow. (Note the similarity with Deut 10.17-18; justice IS preferential treatment for the destitute.)

Isaiah 30.18  Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
    therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
    Blessed are all who wait for him! (Equates justice with compassion and grace, NOT what people deserve.)

Psalm 33.4-5  For the word of the Lord is right and true;
    he is faithful in all he does.
The Lord loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Faithfulness, righteousness, justice here are paired with unfailing love.)

See also: Malachi 3.5; Proverbs 31.8-9; Luke 4.18-19; James 1.27; James 2.1-13; Matthew 23.23; Amos 5.24.

So where am I going with all this?

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