Mobs, Part 2

The choice between Jesus and Satan

We live in an age of rival mobs. Jesus is the main exemplar of a different way.

It’s not a misreading of the gospel to see that untangling this knot-like pattern was the pre-eminent goal of Jesus’ teaching. In the history of the world, it has been Jesus who most directly showed us the meaning of the mob pattern, partly through his words and partly through the story he enacted. His mortal ministry culminates with the greatest illustration of the meaning of the angry mob that we have.

The better we understand the Crucifixion the more clearly we see our dilemma. Jesus presents himself as the Son of God and the Savior of the human race, and he is murdered by an angry mob (which cowed officials into doing its will) after a sham of a trial. If the story had ended with his horrific death by torture it would be only one more illustration of an ancient pattern that has been repeated and repeated through our long history. But the story did not end with his death, and what happened next has become the main hinge of history, changing everything. The French thinker, René Girard, provides a startling and vivid discussion of the anthropology of evil as seen in the Crucifixion in I saw Satan fall like Lightning, a book that has itself lit up the minds of many readers like a flash of lightning on a hot summer night. He observed that in many ways the mob that killed Jesus was a parody of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Girard retells the story of the death of Jesus to emphasize that the story is about the conflict between a world ruled by the mob and the world where the Kingdom of Heaven is being built. The authors of The New Testament don’t talk about going away to either heaven or hell so much as they talk about drawing heaven down to earth by building its kingdom here, among the people. The kingdom of evil is a caricature of that good kingdom, ruled by a mob largely unaware of what they are doing. The work of building the Kingdom of Heaven here among us is largely the work of disempowering the mob.

Evil is itself without creative force—it is pure destruction. It persists as a Bizarro imitation of goodness. Hitler’s Third Reich was intentionally modeled on Christendom, a kingdom founded and perpetuated by fidelity to a revered model of a great leader. The Nazi festivals and ceremonies share the form of ritual confessions of faith. The philosopher Eric Voegelin observed early that the ‘articles of faith’ presented by the Nazi cult were of a quasi-religious character. He said denounced National Socialism as a false political religion that could only have arisen as a religion substitute in a society that had been cut off from its own spiritual roots. The massive architecture Hitler favored conveyed a sense of grandeur that reduced mortal men to the status lowly servants of a quasi-divine movement. Nazi intellectuals believed a salvation story that revised human history into a myth culminating in the coming of the Reich, including an apocalyptic vision that is the best explanation of the Holocaust. Hitler intended to replace Christ as some grand savior of humanity, in part because he hated Christianity as much as he hated Jews and for the same reasons. He understood that the teachings of Jesus were his most potent enemy. It was the moral vision of the Jews, largely shared by Christians, that infuriated him. Morality was the enemy. It weakened people and make them sickly, he believed. When religion is dethroned, nothing remains above politics. All the totalitarian systems have religious dimensions though they are perversions. Hitler imagined his atheist kingdom in forms learned from Moses and Jesus. He followed the classical model of gaining power by forming and manipulating the mob: persuade the people that most of their trouble sprang from an evil enemy who needed to be destroyed and offer oneself as the rescuer who could lead the people out of slavery. Fortunately for all of us, his Thousand-year Reich lasted only a few years. The conflagration it unleashed utterly devoured it.

All the totalitarian systems have religious dimensions though they are perversions. Hitler imagined his atheist kingdom in forms learned from Moses and Jesus. He followed the classical model of gaining power by forming and manipulating the mob: persuade the people that most of their trouble sprang from an evil enemy who needed to be destroyed and offer oneself as the rescuer who could lead the people out of slavery. Fortunately for all of us, his Thousand-year Reich lasted only a few years. The conflagration it unleashed utterly devoured it.

Hitler intended to replace Christ as some grand savior of humanity, in part because he hated Christianity as much as he hated Jews and for the same reasons. He understood that the teachings of Jesus were his most potent enemy. It was the moral vision of the Jews, largely shared by Christians, that infuriated him. Morality was the enemy. It weakened people and make them sickly, he believed. When religion is dethroned, nothing remains above politics. All the totalitarian systems have religious dimensions though they are perversions. Hitler imagined his atheist kingdom in forms learned from Moses and Jesus. He followed the classical model of gaining power by forming and manipulating the mob: persuade the people that most of their trouble sprang from an evil enemy who needed to be destroyed and offer oneself as the rescuer who could lead the people out of slavery. Fortunately for all of us, his Thousand-year Reich lasted only a few years. The conflagration it unleashed utterly devoured it.

Jesus is our greatest teacher against that pattern of seeing others as only our enemy and then destroying them. He stands opposed to the forming of passionate mobs. He exposed the whole game. He provided the key that lets us go free of the mutual destruction that is always the fate of unrestrained competing gangs.

In much of the world, such gangs now influence or control political parties and entire governments. The modern world is dissolving because it has followed the prophets of modernity, who teach against the “metanarratives” that ordered the old world. One definition of modernity might be “competing narratives.” There was no one story we all needed to know, they said. In other words, there is no truth.

Their teachings were influential because they did contain some partial truths, and these have helped us understand better the complexity of the world, softening a moral certainty that was sometimes shared characteristics with the self-righteous mobs that have done so much harm. Modernity has helped us be less threatened by diversity and more appreciative of the wealth it makes possible. And yet, we are at a moment in history when the competing narratives of modernity have ripened into competing mobs of global and national politics. War and rumors of war are in the air. Violent terrorism spreads. More and more people learn to delight in the shedding of blood. Trouble darkens the horizon. Though none of this is new, exactly, what is new is the scale and the destructiveness of the forces of hatred. I don’t think that the dark forces that are now on the move are ultimately going to prevail any more than Hitler did, though we do not know yet how much harm and pain they will cause. What we do know is that the forces of good are also organized on a scale never before seen and that they are also sophisticated and well-funded.

Amid the noise and confusion, where do we look for unity and peace?

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