Mobs, Part 6 (final)

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.

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.

Mobs, Part 4

The murder of John the Baptist

Even the great apostle Peter finds himself weak in the face of an aroused mob.

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.

Mobs, Part 3

The first stone

To throw the first stone, one must step out of the crowd and act alone.

During his brief public career, Jesus repeatedly faced mobs. One well-known incident involved a woman whom an enraged mob intended to stone because she had been taken in adultery. John tells us that “the scribes and Pharisees brought unto [Jesus] a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (John 8:3-11). The story never calls her guilt into question, and adultery was, in fact, contrary to the law. The question is intended as a trap. Will Jesus speak against the law or will he side with a violent mob?

Jesus never excused the woman’s sin, but neither did he see that as the immediate problem. It was the mob, not the woman, who most opposed his teaching. He bent over and wrote something in the dirt with his finger. The Mosaic Law, which he will not violate, was written down. In fact, it was written in stone by the finger of the very being who now stood in their presence.

As its author, Jesus knew that law. What it says about adultery is “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die” (Deuteronomy 22:22), and “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Seen from Rome, what stands out in that law is the profound importance it places on marriage and also the absolute absence of any double standard. In the Roman Empire, many people were obsessed with sexual slavery. Wives were expected to forgo adultery, but men, it was assumed, would to have sex with slaves, who amounted to 30 to 40 percent of the population and had no rights, including the right to refuse unwanted sex. This, it was argued, was crucial to getting Roman men to leave other men’s wives alone.

The Mosaic Law set a very different standard, and the main debate between early Christians and Rome was over the meaning of marriage and sex. Jesus was perhaps the greatest champion of women’s rights in history. There is no question that Jesus opposed adultery, but he also saw that the people joined into a mob were not themselves keeping the law precisely. They said the woman was taken in the act, but the man, as guilty as she according to the law, was not brought forward. For reasons they don’t reveal, they have ignored part of the law, narrowing their focus to accuse only the woman.

They have bent the law so that it lets them to feel righteous, holding up a version of the law revised in their own image. It’s worth remembering here that one of the Biblical names for Satan is the Accuser. They feel a hideous delight in accusing the woman. After the mass horrors of the mid-Twentieth Century, Eric Hoffer noted that most of the evil in that time was committed by people who thought they were destroying evil. They identified and accused those who they thought were the source of the trouble, using some standard of goodness as a cudgel against whomever they chose as their enemy. Being offended is a form of cheap righteousness, feeling good by pointing an accusing finger elsewhere.

Jesus said he came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it, and in this situation he judged that the fulfillment of the law would be through balancing justice with mercy. The purpose of the law from the beginning was to rescue sinners from evil rather than to destroy them. So, silently, Jesus wrote in the dirt with his finger. In the silence, the crowd’s thoughts turned inward. When the angry men have had time to wrestle with their private thoughts, he ended his silence and stood up and spoke: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).

Masterfully, he placed the emphasis on the first stone. Mosaic Law required the informants to cast the first two stones themselves, and putting the emphasis on the first stone isolates each person. After the first stone was thrown, a second would follow quickly and a third even more quickly and then the general hail of hurled stones. It’s easy to join an action underway. Being one of many is easy—we are after all imitative beings deep in our nature.

But the first stone is different. To throw it requires a decision. The act will focus group’s attention on the thrower. Whoever throws the first stone will be alone before the others, assuming responsibility. But people who join crowds are often looking for escape from just such responsibility. The attraction of a crowd is that we feel our power magnified by the mass. Our personal responsibility fades. It’s likely that the leaders of the crowd wanted Jesus to be the one who began whatever followed. But Jesus made it clear that he had no such intention. He will not be organized into the mob or do its bidding.

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 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?

Mobs, Part 1

The reality of mobs

The formation of angry mobs lies at the heart of the politics of modernity.

We are living in an age of mobs, restless hordes of angry people intent on destroying evil. Stirring up an angry mob is an ancient route to power, and the techniques of mob formation are studied by politicians, consultants, writers and others. The main technique is simply to focus people’s dissatisfaction and fear and general angst onto a single cause—usually identified with a person or group. Simple messages—slogans or memes or chants—empty the mind of complexity and nuance. The evil must be destroyed, the story goes, then peace and order will return. Bill Clinton, who understood the process very well as both a perpetrator and a victim, called it the “politics of personal destruction.”

It’s alarmingly easy to be organized into a mob because our human desire to imitate has deep roots in our nature, and it isn’t usually a bad thing. Children come to consciousness—a long process of waking up—embedded in families and other social groups, and their desire to join those groups and fit in is delightful. Children ask questions and believe the answers. Their understanding of the world is linked to their “theory of mind”—their awareness that other people also have minds like their own. Two-year-olds talk about what they want and feel, but three-year-olds also talk about what others want and feel. Children who are better at recognizing and empathizing with what others are thinking and feeling are also better at resolving conflicts with friends. They are usually happier and more popular.

At around age four, children become more reflective about their understanding of others. They understand that people think different things and that sometimes people believe things that are not true, speaking or acting on the basis of false beliefs. It’s important to note how deeply imitative we are as children, not just of actions and gestures but also of emotions and beliefs. Researchers have found that when children encounter a menacing toy in experiments in which their mothers are present, the first thing most do is to look toward their mother. If she appears alarmed or frightened, they move away from the toy, but if she appears relaxed and happy, they move toward the toy. This is called “social referencing.” Many of the feelings we think are instinctive are in fact learned responses internalized through imitation of the people around us. Children learn language by following our gaze to see what we are seeing when we say “horse” or “cow.” And despite occasional forgetting or being overcome by tempting circumstances, child are mostly eager to learn and obey the thousands of rules that govern social life. They want to be taught who and what they are supposed to be. Children are attentive to adults, looking where they look, learning what to enjoy and what to shun. They want to know the rules. Kids pick up the natural language that is spoken around them with astonishing ease. From a very young age, they are blessed with undeniable genius.

However. Even at a very young age their ability to “tune in” can be used in unkind or destructive ways. Skilled liars and vicious bullies use the same intelligence that underlies compassion. Our ease at seeing what others want and wanting that too make us vulnerable to “catching” what is bad as well as what is good. Mob spirit is a contagion. People join mobs by letting go of their personal judgment and slipping into an anonymous delight in cheering what others cheer or booing what others boo. The character of mobs grows from the loss of individual judgment. The exhilaration of release into the crowd’s passion replaces the sometimes deeply troubling work of individual conscience, of sorting an overwhelming flood of information to find the right way.

Education, understood as the transfer of valuable knowledge from one generation to the next, is the most important work of any society. The most fundamental knowledge is held in the culture and is learned informally rather than in a rationalized school curriculum. The folkways of the culture do the deep work of education. This doesn’t mean, of course, that formal schooling doesn’t matter. There are reasons tyrants so often want control of the schools.

Even as adults we are somewhat “hard-wired” to want to join the group around us, and imitating the crowd comes easy. Today, we live in a society that is noisy with accusers pointing fingers at the wrongdoing of others along with counter-accusations that it is the accusers themselves who are the real evil. No doubt many of the accusers are evil, but this in itself does not make the accused innocent. People sense that society is fragmenting into competing mobs that view (and increasingly treat)others as rival gangs. Inevitably, we find ourselves organized into one or more of these contentious mobs from time to time. We have heard so many bad things about someone we once thought was doing the right thing that we hear ourselves passing on some of the destructive opinions without knowing of a certainty that they are true. They have come to seem true. This pattern of angry groups attacking and blaming each other is one of the oldest patterns in history.

Mobs are ancient. They can form quickly, and those in the midst of a society where a mob is forming are often organized into its passions without being fully conscious of what is happening. Various groups identify some evil they are committed to destroying (and indeed there is plenty of evil to go around so the accusations seem plausible). Typically, the accusers arouse uncritical passion rather than presenting the story with the care and precision that justice would require. The goal, not always clear even to the perpetrator, is to amass power rather than to do justice. The discourse tends toward rage.

In the American South, the recurrent pattern of lynch mobs murdering victims (nearly always black) who were, more often than not, innocent of the inflammatory accusations swirling through the mob was finally ended in the mid-twentieth century by imposing an external hierarchy of justice, with investigations and witness testimony and judges who were not part of the local contagion. The challenge for people who want justice—doing the right thing by establishing clear truth so the right thing is clear—is to stay free of being organized into the pattern of what RJnJ Girard called “violent contagion” where we see the evil of the other side and feel plausibly threatened by it. When we are in that state we are tempted to join moral crusades to destroy evil. Violence seems necessary to restore peace.

As we gain experience of such things, we see that the pattern of contention can be itself a worse problem than any particular example of the pattern, and we may ironically note that we aren’t likely to get free of the pattern by destroying the evildoers who bring the pattern to our attention. We are organized into the pattern, even as it seems the evil of those who hate us leaves no real choice. The violence demands a violent response. We see the trap without seeing a way out of it, so many of us are conflicted inside.

We have a lot to think about, and we don’t want our passions to get out of control. We understand that we need a cool head and considerable courage in the face of genuine threats. We know we need justice, and we know we also need mercy and we want the wisdom to balance them. Whatever side we feel tempted to join, we have the capacity to see that at least some people on the other side also feel threatened and are acting out of fear, and so we suspect that any enduring solution will require us to act in ways that don’t cause others to fear us. But the right move is not always clear when we have enemies—people who desire to destroy us. And we do have enemies, those who accuse us of having intentions that we don’t have or of being guilty of deeds that we didn’t do.