The mob is a parody of the Kingdom of Heaven
Both Peter and Paul were caught up in the spirit of mobs early in their learning, but they learned through worship to discern the true spirit.
This false salvation is a satanic parody of the Atonement. In the Kingdom of Heaven, peace and reconciliation are reached through individual processes of repentance and forgiveness which move through all levels of the social order, healing and untangling. Because we can be forgiven, we have hope, and as we untangle the knots in our personal relationships, society gets better. The message Jesus brings, that he wants us to see, was described by the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn: It is a mistake to think we can destroy evil by destroying enemies. “The battleground between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,” said Solzhenitsyn, and it is only in our own hearts that we can successfully overcome evil.
Jesus had warned his followers that they would all, in varying degrees, “be scandalized because of me.” They would all, like Peter, side in some degree with the mob. They would all be influenced by its passion and would participate somewhat in the scorn for Jesus. When faced by storms of accusation and ridicule, his followers would find themselves doubting or cowering. But he also knows that they will arrive at a moment of shame when they understand that they abandoned him and let the world belong to his enemies.
When he says of his tormentors, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he means this literally. They do not fathom what is happening around and within them. Those who participate in the false accusation, the condemnation and the destruction of the innocent while caught up in a violent contagion are not fully aware of their complicity. They do not know what is happening. It is, in fact, their ignorance of what is happening that drives the mechanism, which depends on them believing they are acting out of righteousness. They truly believe in the mob’s parody of justice, mistaking it for the real thing.
It’s a mistake to see those who participated in violent contagions as guilty while assuring ourselves that we would have acted differently. Jesus reproves the Pharisees for just such thinking. They lavished attention on the tombs of the prophets by way of assuring themselves that they are righteous and that they would not have joined the mobs, their fathers, who murdered the prophets: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” As long as we only blame others for the trouble, we will not see what Jesus wanted us to see. It is the world, including you and me, that stones the prophets and crucifies the Savior. Which of us has not, at some time, attributed our bad behavior to the bad behavior of others. “It wasn’t my fault.” He did something that forced me to do what I did.
The Crucifixion is typical; it’s a type of violence that has occurred countless times. When we find the same pattern recurring in different cultures, we are probably seeing an illustration of human nature: people find living with each other becoming increasingly tense and unbearable because of their real shortcomings, and soon it seems that trouble is everywhere, escalating into disputes and contests. People pass on snippets of gossip. People ascribe malicious intent to events they half-remember. Rumors and accusations and half-truths are repeated, with people adding vivid details or changing bits of the story to increase the drama. Passions build. Then a common enemy appears. People forget their differences and work together to avert the danger. After they have successfully overcome the enemy, they find the tension has gone. They again feel an affinity with their neighbors. Things settle down and normal life returns.
When we understand that the enemy was actually innocent (and this is the case far more often than we do realize), we call him or her a scapegoat. The scapegoat does provide real, if temporary, relief which allows human society to continue, but that continuance is based on a lie. Society renews itself and goes on but it is based on the satanic principles of false accusations and injustice. Jesus’ death fits this pattern so well it is almost mundane. But in his case, death doesn’t resolve the conflict and end the story. People do not move on, turning the past into comforting stories about coming together to overcome serious trouble. Instead, the victim returns from death, still meek, still gentle, still loving and still completely innocent.
Even his apostles didn’t understand his teaching until after the Resurrection. They were caught off guard by it, stunned. Thomas wouldn’t believe until he touched the actual wounds in Christ’s hands and side. It is in the forty days after the Resurrection that Christianity actually begins, because the core teaching of Christianity is the Resurrection. Christ told his followers what was to happen before it reached its culmination in his death, and yet they could not hear him.
He chastised them, pointing out that they can’t understand him because their father, the one who shaped their development and their understanding, was Satan. “If God were your Father, ye would love me,” he said, “for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.” (John 8:42-45).
They had to experience the reality that his words pointed toward. Peter’s story was recorded—his realization that he himself turned away from his innocent friend because it was safer than resisting the hateful crowd. When the events reach their culmination, some people will realize that something shameful happened. When the passion passes, some will realize that amid the camaraderie there was a real mess. At that point, people feel a strong urge to “move on” and to “let the healing begin.” Places in the American South where violent lynchings occurred were somewhat inoculated from future lynchings. Usually, once was enough. People who had experienced the contagion tended to avoid it in the future. People did move on, though, and the mythical versions of the event were rarely challenged.
We all know the process. Did you hear the rumors about that person who has been destroyed, maybe by losing his position and standing? Are you aware of all the accusations about him circling through the crowd? Have you maybe repeated a tidbit or two yourself, by way of excusing your inaction or making yourself acceptable to the others? Does justice seem too unwieldy a way to think about the immediate problem which could best be handled by moving on? Isn’t moving on the best we can do? Or at least, good enough? We have other things to think about.
Jesus disrupts the familiar pattern. Before people can “move on,” he returns. He is still innocent, and he has removed from evil its ultimate power, which was always murder. The opponents of evil vanish into silence, but Jesus robs death of its power. He overcomes death and returns, still proclaiming his innocence he stands before us bearing undeserved wounds—wounds received in the house of his friends, wounds caused by a world that traffics in accusations and rumors and malice and lies.
Jesus taught us to see the cycle of violence from the point of view of the victim. As his teaching has spread bit by bit through the world, we have acquired a rich literature and history that reinterprets the violent episodes in our history from the victim’s point of view. Industries have arisen that are devoted to defending victims or reinterpreting history, looking past the victor’s story. If the old hero was the warrior who destroyed the dangerous outsider, the new hero is more like Atticus Finch, whose defends an innocent who is accused by a mob of neighbors who have come to commit murder in the name of justice.
In the centuries since Jesus, we have learned to see the world through the eyes of victims. The victim has been elevated from lowly outcast to one deserving of reverence. And yet we have not arrived at justice. Ironically, it is the victims themselves, or those who pretend to be victims, that often now assume the role of accuser. The scapegoating mechanism no longer works, in part because we can no longer get to unanimity. Victims of false accusations are no longer silent, and all the mobs are skeptical of all the other mobs. Even as terrorists wreak violent death on masses of innocent civilians we are urged to stand down from violent reprisals, urged to see that the offenders are themselves victims of earlier injustice. We are urged to understand killers in our inner cities, who do what they do only out of desperation, being themselves victims of brutal poverty and racial injustice. All the evildoers are also victims, and all the victims are also accusers. We have no way of restoring order.
We have also seen escalations of mob principles in the highest places of our political institutions. In our last presidential election, the most reputable media institutions openly trafficked in lies provided by big, well-funded smear factories. They created false accusations, planted phony stories, put forward false witnesses and created a tremendous buzz with news sites repeating information from blogs quoting unnamed sources in an escalating whirl of rumor and fabrication repeated so often it gave the illusion of being real. Though most people suspect much of the news is dishonest, they do reliably have the impressions and feelings that the smear merchants want them to have. And in the comments sections on thousands of websites angry people repeat rumors and slogans they have heard, often in vulgar and violent terms. A cycle of escalating hatred is well underway, and we are left with no obvious way to stop it. As people are wrongly accused, they react in righteous anger, accusing their accusers, and more and more of us are organized into rival gangs full of righteous fury, committed to destroying evil by destroying each other.
Escaping the mob
The mob is a caricature of the true church, promising unity and promising to overcome the evil which is always “out there.”
“Becoming one” in the gospel is quite different. Members of the church are to become one—as a husband and wife are to be one, and as the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in spirit and purpose. The church’s unity grows as each person acquires his or her share of the vision of God’s will, and as those who trespass and are trespassed restore what was lost to each other through forgiveness. Worship, in its pure form, places the individual alone and before God, pondering his or her own behavior with reference to the standard taught by Jesus. Unity comes not by subordinating one’s conscience to the will of the crowd, but by subordinating one’s will, freely and in full awareness, to the will of God. The humble silence of worship is the polar opposite of mob passion. The humble labor of a scholar trying to discern the truth in difficult studies is akin to it.
The humble silence of worship is the polar opposite of mob passion. The humble labor of a scholar trying to discern the truth amid the wheels within wheels of the human condition is akin to worship.
The single-mindedness of a mob is a shared passion to violently destroy evil. The mob is held together by hysterical hatred, which is a corrupted form of love. The mob is impatient, with no time to hear witnesses or to sift evidence. Each member of a mob is alone, seeking escape from fear by being absorbed into the transcendent power of a moving mass. Peace is sought by yielding to the certainty of the mob, by truly believing in the evil of the victim. Some, like Peter, merely go along, suppressing individual conscience out of fear of being singled out, allowing individual conscience to bow to the mood of the mob.
The Apostle Paul once held the coats of those who stoned Stephen and knew well what it meant to be swept up by a self-righteous mob. He later counseled us that we should “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing” of our minds. (Rom 12:2). Stephen had been teaching with great power, and the authorities whose power he threatened induced men to lie about him, to say he was blaspheming against Moses and against the Law and against the temple. Many authorities in America and other places now use similar tactics to keep people stirred up against those who tell the truth. Their power rests the mechanism of the mob’s groupthink. Persons can think, but mobs do not—they thrive on passion. The contentions and rivalries that are tearing apart civil society are contrived by dark powers in high places that operate through false accusation and disinformation campaigns. They gin up false transcendence through staged protests and riots. It can be seductive. We may hear enticing bits of gossip that we are tempted to repeat. We may hear of exciting protests we are tempted to join.
If we worship regularly and pray constantly, asking real questions and studying to find real answers, living in tune with the spirit of truth and justice and love, we will quickly notice when a contrary spirit surrounds us.