Mob Justice


Look at this image. What do you see? A lawful execution? A dying god?

I’ll tell you what I see: a mob who has just lynched an innocent man.

Perhaps it is the realism of the statues. Or maybe it is the fact that they are life-sized. But when somebody showed a slide of this sculpture last week at the conference I attended at the Museum of the Bible, I gasped.

I have been training myself for decades to see scenes like this one as works of devotion, but all I could see was the mob. It was like a scene from a haunted house, not a sacred meditation.

I can’t make this impression go away.

“The passion of Christ was bitter in its pains, scornful in the mockery it laid upon him, and fruitful in its manifold benefits.”

Fruitful—we are taught to think about the crucifixion as fruitful. There Christ is, the fruit of the tree of the cross, dying so that we might live.

I think I am going to throw up.

“The pain of the passion was of five kinds. The first was its shamefulness. It was shameful because it happened in a place of shame...  It was shameful because of the company in which [the Lord] suffered...with robbers and thieves.”

Shame.

Until this past year I had never appreciated properly the power of shame.

Some of my colleagues were tweeting about our conference last week. They wanted to shame not just me, but everyone who dared take the podium with me.


I saw both these colleagues at the Medieval Academy conference. One of them even spoke collegially to me in a session that I attended where he was speaking. I enjoyed his presentation, the question that I asked him was sincere, and he answered it well.

Shame.

How do I know they are talking about me in these tweets? They don’t name me, after all. Maybe I am just being paranoid. I am not even sure to whom they are speaking, as I cannot see their Twitter accounts. A friend who was worried about me sent me these screenshots.

But the accusation is clear.

“The Lord’s passion was shameful because of the company in which he suffered.”

It does not matter what I say about myself, these colleagues are determined to make the accusation stick. Perhaps this is why Jesus kept silent when he was brought before Pilate. He knew by that point that it made no difference what he said. The mob had already turned on him.

Shame.

See how it works. Saul Alinsky knew. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

This is the way you drive your enemies out of polite society.

This is the way you get the mob to turn on them.

This is the way you get their closest friends to deny that they even know them.

Shame.

There is a scene from Game of Thrones making the rounds. Cersei Lannister’s three-minute shaming. It could be a scene from a passion play. There are even the bloody footprints. She is naked, her hair shorn. People throw things at her and spit on her. A woman walks behind her ringing a bell and intoning, “Shame.”

I don’t watch Game of Thrones. I have no idea why Cersei Lannister is being shamed. Does she deserve it? She is not killed at the end, but seemingly forgiven. Perhaps her walk of shame is meant as a form of penance. The video titles it a Walk of Atonement, not a Walk of Shame.

Jesus was not so lucky.

Shame.

It is frightening reading these tweets, presumably about me. Maybe my colleagues are talking about Richard Spencer, who actually is an avowed white nationalist. (Even I am unclear whether he thinks of himself as a white supremacist; it is hard to pin down what he thinks, as our symposium discussed.)

But I don’t think my colleagues are worried about Spencer. They want to shame me, I am certain of it.

Why?

Why do they want to shame me? To what end?*

“‘He has uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgement?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’”

Why did Jesus have to die? It is the question that Christians always ask. It is the question that non-Christians always put to Christians. It is the question the mob put to Christ.

“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

Jordan Peterson talks about Christ as the Hero, the one who ascends the dominance hierarchy and kills the dragon. This is the way Jesus is portrayed in some retellings of the crucifixion, as the great warrior who ascended the cross in order to do battle to redeem mankind.

But even The Dream of the Rood calls the cross a “tree of shame.”

“For he is accursed of God that hangeth on a tree”—Deuteronomy 21:23

I am amazed at how frightened I feel reading these tweets. Tweets cannot hurt me. Words on the internet cannot hurt me.

But the mob can.

And deep down inside, we all know the power of the mob.

It was the mob that killed God.

Why did Jesus have to die to save humanity from our sins?

Because it was our greatest sins that killed him.

The unreason of the mob.

The willingness to kill when swept along by the group.

The certainty that the one shamed deserves to die.

The conviction of the mob that it serves justice.

The mob is us.

We killed Him.

Image: “The Crucifixion” from the Sacro Monte di Varallo

References: Jacobus de Voragine, “The Passion of the Lord,” in The Golden Legend, Volume I: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 203. Citations from Matthew 26:65 and 27:42-43. “The Dream of the Rood,” trans. Craig Williamson in The Complete Old English Poems (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 255, l. 44.

*For the full story of why my colleagues are trying to shame me, go here.

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