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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of the Mob—John 19:1-16a (Alastair Roberts)

The contagious violence of a frenzied mob brings about the sentencing of Jesus to crucifixion by Pilate. The operations of the scapegoat mechanism are revealed in the record of these events and, as we reflect upon them, we will learn to identify its operations within our political life. In Christ we find an alternative model for desire, which can enable us to resist the seduction of unity through violence.

John 19:1-16a
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 3 They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. 4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” 7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” 8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”

16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

Pilate claimed to find no fault in Jesus, yet he knew that the atmosphere was ugly and the frenzied crowd could only be appeased by an act of cathartic violence. By scourging Jesus, Pilate hoped to restore public order and to punish Jesus for disrupting it. The scourging—performed with leather whips with a spike or pieces of bone and iron within—was a brutal and potentially life-threatening form of punishment. Subjected to such degrading treatment and public mockery, Jesus was cast as a figure of shame and ridicule. By such means, Pilate intended to satisfy the murderous crowd.

In a twisted parody of royalty, Jesus was dressed in a purple robe and given a crown of thorns. After being abused by the soldiers and ridiculed as the ‘King of the Jews,’ Jesus was presented to the crowd. As the crowd looked at the broken figure standing in front of them, with his torn flesh and bloodied countenance, Pilate expected them to recognize that, whatever threat Jesus had once posed, by now it was thoroughly extinguished.

Unfortunately for Pilate, his ploy failed. The crowd insisted on crucifixion. Even though after further questioning Pilate desired to release Jesus, he lacked the courage to withstand the murderous crowd. The crowd knew how to manipulate him, threatening to denounce him as unfaithful to Caesar if he didn’t deliver the death sentence. He brought Jesus out once more before the crowd. Despite being the one charged with delivering justice, Pilate capitulated to the will of the mob and delivered Jesus to be crucified.

Throughout this account, the gospel writer traces a rich vein of irony. Within the context of the developed incarnational theology of John, ‘Here is the man!’ is an ironic declaration of the profound truth that lies the heart of the gospel. In the parallel exclamation—‘Here is your King!’—which occurs later in the narrative, Pilate unwittingly reveals the true contours of the situation. The mocking use of this title serves to provoke the chief priests’ reaction: ‘We have no king but the emperor!’ Through this response, John presents the chief priests as servants of Rome’s agenda and as those who reject the heritage of Israel.

The driving force within this narrative is the power and violence of the mob. Nothing proves capable of withstanding this power. Even Pilate, who desires to release Jesus, is unable to resist it and ultimately surrenders to it and is absorbed into it. The mob won’t be pacified without a victim. Pilate is prepared to use someone such as Barabbas as a—conveniently guilty—scapegoat upon which the fury of the crowd can be expended. However, for the crowd only Jesus will do.

More than any other writer, René Girard has revealed the dynamics whereby a victim can act as a lightning rod for the violence of society.[1] The guilt of the victim is a matter of indifference: all that matters is that society turns upon the victim together. The various interpersonal tensions that exist within society and between its members can be released through such a communal act of shared violence, and peace, unity, and harmony can be restored.

As our desires are imitative, resisting the social contagion of the ‘scapegoating mechanism’ when it is in full force is incredibly difficult. Even those who don’t want to give into it must bow. In the gospels Jesus’s own disciples forsake him and Peter denies him. The scapegoat mechanism is like a social avalanche, catching people up into it and crushing all that would stand in its way. Those who are caught up in it are in the grip of a greater power and are unaware of what they are doing. Earlier within the gospel, Jesus spoke of the coming of the ‘ruler of this world’ (14:30). The behaviour of the crowd in the period of the betrayal, trials, and crucifixion of Christ is akin to that of a possessed person. The many individuals within the crowd fuse into a single entity, driven by a violent frenzy none within it can withstand or understand.

Girard argues that many ancient myths tell of the operations of the scapegoating mechanism. However, as they view things from the perspective of the crowd, these myths do not appreciate the true nature of what is taking place. Rather, the sacrifice of one person—often subsequently divinized—is seen to restore peace and avert social disaster. The contrast with the gospel account is stark. In the gospels we view the storm of the scapegoat mechanism from the position of the innocent victim in its eye. In the record of the gospel the evil character of the mechanism and the manner of its operation are exposed for all to see. Once the scapegoat mechanism has been revealed, it can no longer operate with the same strength.

While the scapegoat mechanism has been brought into the light, it has not ceased to operate within our societies. The social contagion of the scapegoat mechanism need not terminate in murder or actual violence. The same dynamics can be seen in the ostracization of certain parties within a family or workplace. It is at work in our attitude to outsiders, supporters of opposing political parties, persons of other races, religions, or sexualities, to immigrants, to the extremely rich or to the poor, to liberals or to conservatives. The victims of the scapegoat mechanism need not be innocent: it can be directed against ‘hate figures’ such as paedophiles, who truly are worthy of condemnation. Nevertheless, the guilt of the victim never justifies the frenzy and the violence of the mob.

Social contagion is an intoxicating and powerful force. It gives us a sense of unity. As Chris Hedges has expressed it, ‘war is a force that gives us meaning.’[2] It can be witnessed in the cycles of outrage that run through social media or in the way that the atmosphere suddenly turns against a particular group within society, leaving them vulnerable to attack. It is seen in the polarizing rancour of political discourse or in the way that tensions between persons fall away as they settle on a common social enemy. It is also at work in the ways that we experience common purpose through warfare and the demonization of other persons and nations. As Girard observes, the scapegoat mechanism can even hijack our laudable concern for victims to scapegoat others in their name.[3]

This social contagion is like a canker deep within our political life, affecting our politics at every level, from the political conversation around the family meal table to our nation’s foreign policy. As its operations are exposed in the gospel, we must learn to recognize and resist them as they seek to insinuate themselves into our lives and communities.

The attempt to resist by sheer personal effort is insufficient against the power of this contagion. Desire is imitative and we cannot easily stand against a whirlwind of desire as it sweeps through and along the masses that surround us. As our desire is naturally bound to follow the model of others, to resist the pull of the models of desire that surround us, we must be bound to a better model instead. For the New Testament the solution to this problem is the imitation of Christ, one immune to the power of the scapegoating mechanism. As 1 Peter 2:23 declares, ‘When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.’ The silence and non-retaliation of Jesus in the face of persecution—clearly seen within our passage—reveal his ability to resist this social possession. It is in looking to his love, forgiveness, and peace that we will learn to relate to others in a way that avoids the evil of scapegoating and its violence.

[1] René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001)

[2] Chris Hedges, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (New York, NY: Random House, 2003)

[3] Girard 2001, 180-181

One thought on “The Politics of the Mob—John 19:1-16a (Alastair Roberts)

  1. ‘…the guilt of the victim never justifies the frenzy and the violence of the mob.’ I couldn’t agree more.

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