Mob Thinking

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April 7, 2019   Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause

April 7, 2019
John 8:1-11
Fr. George Smiga

It is important for us to recognize that the people standing around the woman who was caught in adultery in today’s gospel are not a crowd. They are a mob. They are a group of people dedicated to inflicting violence on someone they feel is guilty. Mobs are dangerous. Someone in a mob will participate in violence that he or she would never consider as an individual. Being a part of a mob generates a feeling of indisputable righteousness and unity—even though the actions of a mob are often unjust and contemptible. This unity in group violence is as early as civilization. The people witnessing refined tortures executed upon criminals in the Roman Colosseum were not spectators. They were a mob. The same is true for those who cheered at the deaths of people in the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, and the lynching of black Americans— which lasted in this country until 1968.

Mobs are deadly and Jesus is opposed to them. But what is important in today’s gospel is to recognize the way that Jesus diffuses the violence of the mob. He does not debate with the mob over the woman’s sin. He does not oppose the violence of the mob with violence of his own. Instead of feeding the mob, he scatters it. He says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” The key word here is “one.” Jesus wants the people around him to stop thinking like a mob and start thinking as individuals. He does not want them to ask, ‘what should the mob do?’ He wants them to remember what they have done or failed to do? Jesus’ strategy works. The text is explicit here. It says, ‘they went away one by one.’ They stood together in violence as a mob. They depart as individuals, one by one, knowing that they are sinners.

This gospel asks us to consider do we participate in mob thinking? It can happen in a family, when a member of the family makes a mistake or is difficult to deal with or fails to meet other’s expectations, and the family says he or she is a black sheep and cuts the person off. Will we go along with that judgment? It can happen at school when someone ridicules another person because of the way he or she talks or dresses and says that this person is unworthy of our respect. Will we agree? It can happen in our friendships and social circles when people who think like us demean someone who is on welfare, an Arab or a Jew, or an immigrant. Will we add our voices to theirs? When the people around us begin to attack others of a different political persuasion, will we feed that fury until it erupts in hatred and violence?

In all of these situations, Jesus asks us to stop thinking with the mob. Instead, he asks us to stand alone before God, remembering what God has done for us and who God calls us to be. In that silence before the Lord, we will lose our desire to throw stones. In God’s presence it will become less likely that we judge, hate, and hurt. Alone before the God who loves us, our pent-up anger will fade. Then, the only prayer that will make any sense is this: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

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