One glaring theme to this short story is perhaps a look at the “Scapegoating mechanism” which is used by virtually every human society. A profound wrong is sensed, with humanity and the universe, a sense of sin. In searching for an explanation of the origins of this sin-sense, the society, unable to come to grips with a universal problem of evil, seeks to blame it on a disliked or inconvenient figure- usually a group or person who is marginalized, isolated or misunderstood. This despicable figure MUST be responsible for our suffering, our sin, they conclude and therefore seek to rid themselves of the evil curse by destruction of this selected scapegoat. Only then is everything right again in the universe. This phenomena commonly displays itself in sacrificial cult by which humanity’s sin is placed on the victim and destroyed with it. The term “scapegoat” actually comes from a Jewish ritual in which a family’s sins are transferred onto an unfortunate goat, which is then driven off into the wilderness to slowly die. The idea being, that as the animal’s life is extinguished, so is the curse carried by it. Thus, atonement is attained.
Herein this story contains more than just a commentary on priesthood as victimhood; it is a commentary on modern scapegoating, which often blames the world’s evils on religious figures. Unable to come to terms with their own downfalls as human beings with collective history, modern peoples heap their curses on “hypocritical”, “bigoted”, “mean” or “oppressive” religious ethos. In some regions, it is the Jews, in others, the Moselems yet in the dominant West, it is the Christians, particularly, the Catholics. The last 500 years in fact can be viewed as one long rebellion against Catholic traditions and mores, which have “held humanity back.” Our own inability to protect and love the female sex then becomes their denigration of women. Our lack of concern for the poor becomes their greed. Our rejection of a sense of sin becomes their immorality. We blame Catholic priests on incidences of pedophilia without noting our own commonplace exploitation and apathy for children. We decry religious murders while turning a blind eye to our own harboring of violence. How often, prominent peoples scorn Catholic teachings on marriage while treating matrimony like a commodity to be thrown away when no longer of use. Thus, we project our pitiful downfalls on one target, a scapegoat who must be cursed and driven to its death.
Only by the death of the priest, is the indignation of the old man, the atheist, the student and the crowds who watch, satisfied. In order to be saved, someone must die. Now, who do these characters represent?
The Old Man certainly depicts a past society, one that is disgruntled by current affairs; that feels tossed aside. He blames the slight of disenfranchisement on those supposedly who disenfranchise others, the mainstream Christian religion responsible for holding back minorities just like him.
The atheist girl represents current society, reeling from a Christian past, seeking empowerment and justice independent of God. In turn, in decrying her sister’s injustice which is rightly deplorable, she places blame on religion, which in her eyes, has failed to help the weak and impoverished. She is so scandalized by their weakness without noticing her own weakness and the fact she has slipped into an internal realm of cruelty and sadism.
The Christian man depicts our average Christian; a devout, determined Protestant who carries along his Bible and tries to save the sinful world. He reveals a religion that is safe, in-tune with the world at large. He is pious but not pious enough to be grouped with extremist Catholics, who in his view have perverted the true meaning of Christian faith. He represents another face of current society, one raised up by Catholic heritage but in stalwart rejection thereof. Ultimately, when called to either defend the accosted priest or join the atheist’s arguments, he chooses the former. He and the priest may worship the same Savior but he must prove himself before the world, prove he’s no part of that ancient, irrelevant faith which ironically, his own faith is derived from. His hatred shows stronger than love, his partisanship greater than the simple “Evangelium” of Christ.
The Security-Guard, who plays a small role in this story, is exactly the common milieu of people who go about, feeling duty-bound but who ultimately reject any sense of real duty. When faced with a demanding task, they sink into anger and flee away.
The Student is interestingly called a “student” but is never revealed as such. He’s simply a young man of Dennis’ age, a fellow-man. His personality is exactly opposite of Dennis’s; assertive, threatening, irrational. He represents the epitome of fallen man, swimming in rage, carnality and sin. Described as “like an animal” the student portrays the irrational furor modern society harbors towards an ancient faith like Catholicism: As freakish, unnatural and suppressive, only capable of spreading disease. Anything that inhibits our pleasure or senselessness is a disease. We abhor inquisitions and religious wars while subjecting the very concept of truth to systematic inquisition and waging war against any morality contrary to ours. In rejecting a vengeful God we, in short, become our own vengeful gods. We lay the ills we cannot explain or control upon a scapegoat then repeatedly slay it. In our enraged vindication of what we see as “good” we become like the priest who doesn’t simply offer the sacrifice but delights in the bloodshed to a point where all vestiges of noble “piety” are forgotten. Indeed, without a realization that we need atonement, there can be nothing but a twisted, confused priesthood that sacrifices whatever it deems fit without even knowing why.
Lastly, who is Dennis? He is a depiction of future society with many questions and promises. He is also us, an onlooker; an everyman who calmly surveys the world around him and seeks reason for his existence. While shocked by religion, he is shocked by lack thereof. He doesn’t understand why the Catholic priest has incurred the wrath of five anonymous strangers. Dennis is rational; therefore he waits before coming to a stance, however timid like a majority of men and assumes his decision too late. He represents the good-hearted philosopher, endowed with natural law. He bemoans hearing of the priest’s wicked religion while realizing the crowd’s one-sided sentence is meaningless, that vengeance becomes as unjust as the crime committed. Being generally un-churched, even he remembers God came into this world to save sinners. Why would the righteous need to be saved? Where is God’s power if evildoers cannot turn from evil and enter into the light of goodness and repentance? What would God’s love mean if the priest’s sins couldn’t be pardoned? Even he, a college student, long-fallen away from Christian faith realizes what the Christian man cannot. He sees mercy. Moreso, he cries for mercy. He says: “Let God be the judge!”
However, our story doesn’t need to end like Dennis’. We can act before it’s too late, can bring sense to the senseless hatred of religion; explain why an earthly scapegoat shall never remove our sins. Genuine atonement comes not from punishing our offenders-real or perceived- but by realizing at first our need for atonement. Then, the initial step is taken. Then we may see clearly our own inadequacies, face them, battle against them and find sure remedy by help from a Sovereign Grace.