Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth
Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
Part 43: The Passion, part 1: An Anthropological Look
Many people focus on what the Passion means for Jesus and his ministry, and we will explore this important topic shortly. I want to first look at what the Passion reveals about the nature of mobs. The throngs in Jerusalem who greeted Jesus with “Hosanna!” shouted, “Crucify him!” a few days later. Whatever the theological implications of the Passion, the crowd’s behavior calls for an anthropological explanation.
The mob’s fickleness illustrates how sentiments are mimetic. When the people hailed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, their enthusiasm was mimetic. When the people condemned Jesus, their accusatory shouts and jeers were similarly mimetic. These scenes are not difficult to imagine, because television gives us frequent images of people caught up in the excitement (whether joyous or angry) of a mob, seemingly out-of-control. Perhaps we have recognized times when we have joined the mob, swept away by the group’s self-reinforcing emotions.
Two Passion narratives nicely demonstrate mimetic theory* and the scapegoating mechanism.** The chief priests and the Pharisees deliberated on what to do with Jesus. They acknowledged that Jesus “worked signs” but they feared the consequences of a Roman response to his growing movement. Caiaphus advised that Jesus be used as a scapegoat: “But one of them, Caiaphus, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than have the whole nation destroyed.’” (John 11:49-50) This is the logic of sacrifice – that one innocent person should die in order to restore order and peace. In order for the scapegoating mechanism to “work,” i.e., to restore peace, it must remain hidden. Ancient people, not having the benefit of modern psychology and anthropology, could not understand how scapegoating (targeting a common “enemy”) maintains communal cohesiveness. In ancient times, Caiaphus correctly observed, people did not “understand” how it came to pass that the death of one man could spare the nation from destruction. John the Evangelist, through the voice of Caiaphus, fully understood the hidden scapegoating mechanism.
Another passage that reveals the scapegoating mechanism is Luke’s relating that, after the Crucifixion, “And that same day Herod and Pilate became friends for before they had been enemies.” (23:12) Interestingly, Pilate did not find fault with Jesus, while Herod was angered by Jesus’ refusal to answer Herod’s questions. How would Jesus’ execution bring two rivals together, particularly since they disagreed on Jesus’ guilt? A reasonably hypothesis*** is that Herod and Pilate both recognized and benefited from the scapegoating mechanism.
The Jewish masses were often agitated during the Passover, and there was ongoing bitterness regarding Roman rule. The mob sought a Messiah who could liberate them from the yoke of Roman occupation. Many thought that Jesus, who spoke with wisdom and worked wonders, would free them, and the authorities (Herod and Pilate) were concerned. Meanwhile, the powerful rabbis were offended by Jesus’ disregard for their authority. The rabbis had the power to incite a riot, and they might do so if they felt threatened by Jesus. Consequently, Herod and Pilate were pleased to see the mob united against Jesus. They became friends because their roles in Jesus’ execution were complimentary – Herod declared Jesus’ guilt and Pilate presided over the execution. The way Herod and Pilate manipulated the scapegoating mechanism could be analogous to Joshua 7, in which it appears that Joshua scapegoated Achan, blaming Achan for a military defeat to avoid blame himself. (See part 16.)
Next week, we will explore the irony, and the tragedy, of how the Passion story has often been distorted in order to scapegoat Jews.
* Mimetic theory (parts 2,3) posits that people derive their desires from each other, and this leads to envy, rivalries, bitterness, and, eventually, violence.
** The Scapegoating mechanism (part 6) is the process in which the hostilities engendered by mimetic rivalry are resolved when a scapegoat is found, blamed, and then banished or killed.
*** I thank Tom Youngjohn for this insight.
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Part 44: The Passion, part 2: Anti-Semitism
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