Mobs, Part 5

It is the mob that brings about the Crucifixion

It was the mob that demanded Jesus’ death. Pilate, the Roman official, tried to keep order by giving them what they cried for: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

The Crucifixion brought the pattern of mob violence into focus. The last stage of the cycle of mob violence occurs when the transcendent mob becomes a unified force, converging on a single victim condemned by all. They achieve unanimity, all feeling the same passion and the same purpose. It’s a caricature of the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus spoke.

A community that had been troubled by widespread unrest and contention suddenly feels unity. Unhappy people festering with anger, hurt, and distrust of those around them are especially vulnerable to the seduction of mobs. They’ve suffered a thousand slights: the merchants whose scales seem off, the rival for a lover who spreads untrue rumors, the friend who fails to reciprocate a kindness, the fickleness of fortune that raises some fool to a better position than one had been able to reach through hard work and diligence, the rude colleague who mocks one’s appearance or intelligence. Most societies have miserable people, habitually blaming their problems on others, who are caught in constant tangles of contention. At some point, it seems that society cannot survive the internal bickering. It is at such moments people are most vulnerable to the attraction of mobs.

A mob can form quickly in the right situation. The crowd was favorable to Jesus when he entered Jerusalem, but accusations and rumors and gossip spread like fire. Pilate examined Jesus and found no guilt in him, but when he offered to release him and the crowd chose instead the well-known criminal Barabbas he saw that only the death of Jesus would calm them. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” the mob screamed. Pilate agreed to allow Jesus to be executed because he feared a riot, which would harm his career because as a Roman prefect he was expected to keep order.

Not all riots reach the final stage of mob violence—the unanimous focus on a single victim. Riots may include people who are present for different reasons and it’s not the case that all have lost their individual judgment, just as it’s not the case that all who attend church actually enter the spirit of worship there. Some, particularly leaders, will be calculating opportunities for personal gain, seeing others as useful tools. Some, like Peter, will be unwilling but stymied by fear. And it’s true that riots have, historically, more often sought the destruction of property than the taking of lives.

But in the perfected (completed) mob, all are transformed by their unanimity about a single desire for the death of an enemy. Such mobs have occurred much less often than crowds angry and rioting about political issues that do not reach the point of unanimity. Nevertheless, it’s useful to see the unified mob as the extreme pole of a continuum, as the end state toward which we are moving when we engage in so mundane and routine a pastime as passing on destructive gossip that we do not know to be true or that may be true but that will cause needless harm. At such moments, we are aligning ourselves towards a reality governed by lies and hatred, of which the angry mob is the endgame. It’s a satanic possibility that’s always present in human society.

A mob can form when people’s resentment and anger and envy, their feeling afflicted by others, are joined together with kindred feelings of others into a call for justice. They may forget what caused their bad feelings, and, as for the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons in Huckleberry Finn, the bad feelings become their reality. They fight because fighting is what they do—it’s become their identity. We’ve all seen a two-year old caught in his own tantrum, no longer aware of what caused it.

When enraged people feel something larger than themselves on the move to set the world right, it feels right. They welcome their liberation from private grief and angst. They join the righteousness of the group, intent on destroying evil. It feels like redemption. It’s exhilarating. It wakes them up.

Mobs characteristically don’t think of themselves as evil. Quite the contrary, they feel they have done something righteous–working together to destroy evil.

Examine the crowds in old photographs of lynchings in America in the first half of the twentieth century. Some are dressed in their Sunday best as if they were at church. The mangled and bloody corpse of the (usually innocent) victim hangs from a tree behind them as they revel in a sense of righteousness, having come together to act in unity to destroy evil and restore goodness.

Such was the power that Jesus faced, fully aware of what was happening. Indeed, what was happening was just what he intended to happen. He did not cause it, but it occurs with his forbearance. He wants people to see and understand. “Those responsible for the Passion are the human participants themselves,” said Girard, “incapable of resisting the violent contagion that affects them all when a mimetic snowballing comes within their range.”

This is the scapegoating pattern. It has persisted through human history because it has so often been effective: it relieves the internal tensions in the community and allows social life to go on. It works by transforming the “war of all against all” into a “war of all against one.” After the lynching, peace of a sort is restored. The people’s hostility and anger were focused on the innocent victim, and together they were able to work together to overcome evil, they feel. After the destruction of the victim the crowd’s anger dissolves and order is restored, for a time. The scapegoating mechanism allows society to return to somewhat normal functioning.

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