Friday, 14 April 2017

Mob Mentality and Scapegoating

Good Friday, 14 April 2017, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

Matthew 26.1-5, 46-50; 27.1-2, 23-25, 27-31, 39-44

Crucifixion, by He Qi

            we concluded our worship service with an observation and a challenge.

I’ll start with some further thoughts about the observation,
            and return to the challenge in a few minutes…

The observation was that if we followed the story of the last few days of Jesus’ life
            through the week we call Holy Week,
we would see an alliance forming:
            an alliance between people who normally hated each other’s guts;
            between people whose distrust of each other was at such a visceral level,
                        that in any other week, the prospect of collusion and collaboration
                        would seem an unthinkable option.

And sure enough, here we are,
            on the morning of the day we call Good Friday,
            and the unholy alliance is in place.

It’s all there in the biblical story,
            some excerpts of which we have already heard this morning:
it’s an alliance between Zealots and Pharisees,
            between simple peasants and Roman soldiers;
it’s an alliance between a disillusioned disciple and the Temple hierarchy,
            between convicted bandits and interested onlookers;
it’s even an alliance between the Jewish King Herod
            and the Roman Governor Pilate.

And what is it that brought these unlikely people together?
            Why do we encounter this unexpected collusion
                        across barriers of nationality,
                        social class, and religious conviction?

What possible motive could be so powerful
            that sworn enemies have united to pursue it?

I think these are important questions,
            because they take us to the heart of why Jesus was executed,
            and why it matters so much even today.

But the answer isn’t obvious.

After all, even if the crowd had thought
            that Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday
                        to incite and armed rebellion against the Romans,
            and even if the only reason they had cheered him into the city on his donkey
                        was that they saw him as a saviour riding in on a charger
                        to free them from the yoke of oppression,
            they were pretty quickly disabused of this idea.

Jesus didn’t rally the rebels once he arrived in Jerusalem,
            he didn’t send for soldiers and summon zealots.
And so, as disillusioned crowds have done since time immemorial,
            the Palm Sunday mob just went home at the end of the day,
                        back to their lives, their families, and their jobs;
            to quietly and hopefully await the next leader to rouse their rabble.

No, even if Jesus was briefly and mistakenly a threat on Palm Sunday,
            that threat was spent by Sunday evening,
and this is surely not enough of a reason for the entire city,
                        at every level of its social structure,
            to spend the next week machinating his unlawful execution.

So where did the plot against Jesus come from?
            What provided the motivation for the events of Good Friday?

Well, I think it was a desire for peace.

Which may sound counter-intuitive,
            but bear with me on this.

Jerusalem had been a city living with violence and menace for decades, centuries even…
            with an oppressed population living in the tension
                        between the Roman occupation,
                        their own monarchy.
                        and their religious leaders.

Romans, Kings, and Priests all fought each other for control,
            while uniting to contend with regular outbursts of populist uprising.

The Roman soldiers patrolled the streets seeking to enforce peace by threat,
            the priests sought power and control by mixing religion with politics,
            and the Jewish kings brokered their survival by appeasing all sides.

It was a melting pot,
            a recipe for regular and predictable flare-ups
            once the flash-point of tension was reached.

Suddenly, there would be an explosion of violence,
            people would be fighting on the streets, shouting for change,
but then, energy expended,
                        the people would crawl off to lick their wounds,
            and an uneasy peace would return,
                        until the next time.

And of course, in common with most people, in most places, most of the time,
            most of those living in Jerusalem in the first century
            just wanted to get on with their lives,
                        raising their families, working their jobs,
                        doing what they wanted to do.

Even the Romans wanted peace,
            albeit on their terms.
As did the priests, and the Herods,
            albeit on very different terms.

And I think this human and commendable desire for peace, for an end to violence,
            lies behind what happened to Jesus,
as sworn enemies united to ensure the death
            of this relatively helpless, innocent man.

They were all seeking peace,
            and were trying to achieve it through the offering up of a scapegoat.

They took all their anger, frustration, impotence, and violence,
                        and placed it on a convenient target,
            in the belief that if they could just rid themselves of Jesus,
                        he would take their problems with him to his grave.

And, of course, it worked. Briefly.

This is why scapegoating is such a compelling practice.
            When people unite around a common enemy, they are united.

You know the saying, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’?
            Well, that’s the mantra of scapegoating.
If we all know who our common enemy is,
            then for as long as it takes us to hunt them down and kill them,
                        we can set aside, or otherwise live with,
                        the tensions that would normally drive us to turn on one another.

All we need is a common enemy, and all else will be well.

And, for that first Holy Week,
            Jesus became the common enemy.

But the next question is, Why?

What was it about his presence in the city
            that made him the focus?
Who or what made him the scapegoat?

The gospels go to great lengths to portray Jesus as innocent;
            he wasn’t a violent revolutionary,
            he didn’t incite people to rebellion,
in fact, the stories are at pains to tell us that he was so innocent,
            that he had never even sinned. Not once, apparently!

If ever a man didn’t deserve death,
            it was Jesus.
He’s the archetypical ‘innocent man’.

So why was he killed?

Well here’s the thing about Jesus,
            he systematically refused to play by the rules.

And if there’s one thing the world does not know how to deal with,
            it’s people who refuse to play by the rules.

It doesn’t know what to make of those
            who reject the roles they are supposed to play.

And Jesus was supposed to be a revolutionary,
            it’s what the Messiah was going to do.
He was supposed to raise an army,
            and overthrow the oppressor,
            or at least die a glorious martyr in the attempt.

But when he rejected that role,
            in favour of another path altogether,
he set himself up as a far more threatening figure
            than ever he would have been
            if he had grabbed a sword and started hacking at centurions.

Because the sinless-nonviolence of the path taken by Jesus,
            far from colluding with the violent narrative that everyone expected,
            actually called it as a lie.

The path of Jesus exposed the violent expectations of all sides,
            leaving king and peasant alike
            vulnerable to their own sinful desires and hopes.

It was like Jesus lifted a veil from the souls of the people,
            suddenly exposing them to shame
            because all could see their ethical and spiritual nakedness.

Both the populist hope of a violent solution,
            and the sinister violence that lay at the heart of the regime,
were alike laid out for all to see.

This is why they needed him gone.
            Not because he was a political threat to the status quo,
                        nor because he had failed to meet the expectations of the people,
            but because his sinless nonviolence
                        had unmasked the sinful darkness at the heart of his society.

This is the challenge that Jesus brought,
            and this is why they all united to kill him.
They made him the scapegoat for those very sins
            that his very presence had brought into the light.

And this is why the unholy alliance formed,
            and it is why the people and the priests and the ruling elite
            conspired together to rid themselves of the troublesome rabbi from Nazareth.

And we do it still.

The events of the death of Jesus didn’t just expose
            the corruption of first century Jewish-Roman society,
They exposed the darkness that takes root
            whenever humans conspire to seek peace through violence.

The theologian Walter Wink sums it up for us:

He says that:
The belief that violence ‘saves’ is so successful
            because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least.
Violence simply appears to be in the nature of things. It’s what works.
            It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts.
If a god is what you turn to when all else fails,
            violence certainly functions as a god.
What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence.
            It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death.[1]

And Jesus challenges that assumption.

He did it in the first century,
            and the god of violence fought back,
            sending him swiftly to the cross for daring to speak an alternative truth.

And Jesus continues to challenge the assumptions of violence today,
            and the god of violence continues to fight back,
            trying to condemn those who would speak unnerving words of peace,
                        to their own violent deaths.

Last Sunday I also challenged us to watch the news this week,
            to see if we could find examples of scapegoating in action,
to see if we could notice where enemies unite against a common enemy,
            who they can hold accountable for all the wrongs in their lives
                        and all the ills in their society,
            and whose destruction can seem, at least for a while,
                        like the moment of ultimate salvation.

Did you find them?
            I did.

What do you think is going on, I wonder, in Egypt,
            in Syria, or in Korea?

We identify an enemy, and we unite to destroy them,
            seeking temporary alliances with sworn enemies,
            to save us from the darkness of sin that lies at the heart of our society.

George Orwell expressed this in his novel 1984,
            where the world is divided into three power blocks,
                        and at any given time two are at war with the third.
            It’s just that the ally and the enemy change places from time to time.

But the significant thing
            is that when they change places,
                        history is rewritten:
            - Today’s ally has always been the ally,
                        and today’s enemy has always been the enemy.
And those who threaten the status quo
            are neutralised by being aligned with the enemy.

This deeply entrenched violence, which lies at the heart of our globalised society,
            just as it lay at the heart of the Roman society of the first century,
            is exposed by the life of Jesus,
and it is disarmed by his death on the cross,
            as this ultimate act of violent destruction
                        visited on an innocent man,
            reveals the depths of human sinfulness.

Jesus, you see, dies for the sins of the Romans,
            and he dies for the sins of the Jews;
he dies for my sins,
            and he dies for your sins.

And he does so speaking words of forgiveness,
            because it is only through this new path of nonviolent love
            that a way emerges that can lead from darkness to light.

But that’s a story for another day, for a Sunday that’s coming soon.

Today, however, we sit at the foot of the cross,
            and we do so in humble recognition of our own sins,
and we do so in mourning for the sins of the world
            that keep bringing us back to this moment of crucifixion.

[1] Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, p.42.

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