The murder of John the Baptist
The stoning of prophets by angry mobs is a recurring type in the Hebrew scripture. Being a messenger from God charged with calling on people to stop their riotous revelry is a risky assignment. Prophets can be quite judgmental. The slain prophet who came to the people immediately before Jesus was John the Baptist. The story of his death conforms perfectly to the pattern we see in the death of Jesus.
Though both are killed by those who have the authority to issue death decrees, in both cases a mob has formed which creates social pressure on the official. The authorities, Pilate in the case of John and Herod in the case of Jesus, say that they themselves have no desire to kill the victim but that they are acting in accord with the desires of the people. For John, the triggering incident had been his speaking directly to Herodias, Herod’s wife, about the illegality of their marriage (she was the wife of Herod’s brother). Herodias stirred up the crowd at a palace banquet by having her daughter, Salome, perform a seductive dance. That dance fired Herod’s desire to please her and appears to have addled his thinking somewhat. He promised her that for her dance he will give her whatever she desires, up to half his kingdom.
It was a foolish promise, and when Salome startled him by announcing that she wanted John’s head on a platter, Herod reluctantly dropped his reasonable defenses against harming John, who he feared, knowing him to be a holy man. Salome’s desire was contagious, and the aroused and riotous crowd instantly joined her desire for John’s death. They were possessed by a contagious lust for violence. In the face of their passionate unanimity, Herod gave them what they wanted. The act haunted him for the rest of his days.
The story of John being beheaded on Herod’s order and Christ being crucified by Pilate’s order differ in the details, but they share the same pattern. It’s the pattern of many earlier stories of rejected prophets killed by angry mobs. Both Herod and Pilate are somewhat uncomprehending participants, obeying patterns of which they may not have been unconscious, seeing only partly as glimpses in the dark.
No one is immune to the contagion of mobs
Part of what the gospels show us is that even great people can fall under the influence of the mob. The apostle Peter, a great and courageous leader, was chagrined to learn how frail we can feel in the face of a mob. At the last time they were together before the Crucifixion, Peter had pledged his readiness to lay down his life for Jesus, and he was dismayed when Jesus lovingly and patiently told him he wasn’t yet ready. Jesus told Peter that before the rooster crowed, Peter would deny that he even knew him three times.
After Jesus was taken into custody, members of the aroused mob moved through the night streets with violence in their hearts. As Peter sat with others who had followed the arrested Jesus to the high priest’s house, a woman singled him out, saying she recognized him as one who had been with Jesus. Peter quickly said he had not known the man. A little later, another person recognized him and said he was one of those who followed Jesus. Again, Peter denied that this was true. An hour later, a third person singled him out as a Galilaean who was with Jesus. Peter claimed that he didn’t know what the fellow was talking about. While Peter is still uttering his denial to the third accuser, the rooster crowed. Instantly, the words of Jesus returned to his mind. He saw vividly what had happened. He saw that he had betrayed his beloved Jesus, afraid and ashamed to admit that he even knew him, quailing before the mob’s fury. “And Peter went out, and wept bitterly,” Luke tells us.
When he was with Jesus and the apostles it seemed easy to swear allegiance to his Lord, but, as a literary critic and sociologist René Girard put it, when “he is plunged into a crowd hostile to Jesus, he is unable to avoid imitating its hostility.”
The lesson was not lost on him. His repentance was deep and firm. Very quickly, he emerged as a fearless and tireless spokesman for Jesus. Sometime later when he was brought up before the very council that had condemned Jesus to death, Peter spoke as a man fully awakened to a higher reality. His fear of what others might do or say had no more control over him. He had been liberated from fear by his strong desire to act and speak in alignment with what he knows to be true. There’s strong irony in that those who ruled in the halls of power had gathered together and brought Peter before him unwittingly providing the most high-profile setting possible for him to deliver his message of the Resurrection which is precisely the message they wish to suppress.
He spoke with terrible candor. Although they have had him arrested and brought before them, he sees that they are powerless. “Ye rulers of the people,” Peter said, “Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. . . .There is none other name under heaven given. . . whereby we must be saved.”
Peter had lost any desire to “be conformed to this world” or to any group whose spirit conflicted with the Lord’s spirit. This is after the Crucifixion, which most fully revealed both the meaning of the mob and the great truth that lies at the center of human history.