The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Crucified by the Crowd, Holy Week Address by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
There’s a word that St John might have liked in connection with his passion narrative. It’sochlocracy, mob rule, the sway of a crowd. More than any other gospel, John’s underlines the role of the throng in deciding the fate of Jesus. They plead, they shout, they threaten, they argue, they mock, they sneer. And they kill, short only of hammering in the nails and pressing down the thorns. It is the crowd that secures Jesus’ arrest, screams for Jesus’ crucifixion, plays into Pilate’s fear of the emperor’s displeasure, convinces itself that its real king is Caesar and not God, taunts the Son of God and clamours for the release of a murderer. The turbulent atmosphere, electric with pent-up rage acts as a foil for the majestic figure of Jesus as he moves through the story towards his death.
Listen to some of their lines, so memorably set to music in the fierce crowd scenes of Bach’s St John Passion. To Pilate’s question, “Shall I release for you the King of the Jews? they cry “Not this man but Barabbas!” – the robber, the murderer, the bandit. To his Ecce homo, “Behold the man!” they clamour “Crucify him! Crucify him!”. When Pilate tries to reason with them, they answer, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die because he made himself the Son of God”. When he tries vainly to let this innocent man go free they ambush him: “If you release this man you are no friend of Caesar. Everyone who claims to be king sets himself against the emperor”. Pilate presents Jesus to them a second time. No longer “Behold the man” but now “Behold your king”. And they cry: “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”. “Shall I crucify your king?” he asks. To which they reply, in the ultimate blasphemy for a people who since their wilderness days had called on Adonai as the Lord. “We have no king but Caesar!”
The power of the crowd is the engine that drives much of the narrative along. The crowd is a major player in St John’s passion story, as essential indeed as the chorus in a Greek play. But whereas in Greek tragedy the chorus is there to comment on the action, interpret what is happening, suggest how the audience might respond, in the Fourth Gospel it is on the stage in its own right as a relentlessly hostile character. In the crisis of the passion I spoke about yesterday, John depicts the mob as the implacable enemy of the truth Jesus has come to bear witness to. They swallow all the falsehoods fed them by their corrupt leaders whether religious or political. Not once is there a glimmer of sympathy for Jesus in his plight, any hint that there might be more than one side to this drama they are instrumental in seeing played out to its bloody outcome. Leaders with no self-doubt should always worry us. When a crowd is like that, we should be deeply afraid.
No doubt there were good people in the throng who were also watching to see what would become of Jesus. We know that his mother and her sister were there, with Mary Magdalene and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Maybe Nicodemus who first came to see Jesus by night and who would bring spices to anoint his body, and Joseph of Arimathea the secret disciple who was afraid, who would bury Jesus and be the last person in this life to honour his sacred body. But if they were there that Friday afternoon, they remained hidden in the crowd, afraid to show their faces to a mob baying for death. Who can blame them? Would we have had the courage to behave any differently, for all that we had also been there on Palm Sunday to wave our palm branches and shout hosanna to the coming king?
The religious authorities know how to work a crowd. They play on its fickle emotions like a musical instrument. You can hear the hatred behind every refrain. Pilate, instead of restraining the mob simply gives into it out of fear, and that has the effect of escalating the violence. But what is it about the power that the crowd finds it has? Why is its hold over individuals so strong?
This was a theme that fascinated the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. He identified the frightening ease with which people lose touch with themselves, lose themselves in the pack and start behaving in ways that are unpredictable, irrational or even evil. He wrote that “one can only say of people en masse that they know not what they do… A demon is called up over whom no individual has any power”. He never tired of pointing out that it takes huge courage for someone to emerge from the hiding place the crowd provides and become an individual making decisions on the basis of conscience and belief. It took great courage for individuals in Nazi Germany like Sophie Scholl, Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to stand for truth and conscience against the lies of the mob. I guess every atrocity in history has only been able to happen because of good people who stood by and watched the crowd and did nothing, or people who at any other time could never have imagined themselves doing harm to their neighbours and friends. Such is the coersive force of the crowd. We’ve seen it played out in our own day in the rise of populism across the world, in the bullying that is the new normal on social media, in the upsurge of nationalisms that wouldexclude the immigrant and asylum seeker and the stranger in our midst.
Where does the cross belong in this landscape?
I want to go back to that notorious saying of Caiaphas I’ve already quoted a couple of times: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people so that the whole nation may not perish”. We’ve seen how the politics of expediency leads quickly into a politics of negligence which in turn gives birth to a politics of cruelty. What was never the conscious intention to begin with simply “happens” because of the dynamic of events and of participants in them. In particular, the need for the crowd to find someone to blame for the disturbance that threatens its safety and stability, the disaster that overtakes a society and risks destroying it. First century Judaea was part of a particularly febrile Roman province, that of Syria. We know that it was unstable, fragile, prone to messianic eruptions of violence and rebellion, yet always overshadowed by the imperial power that at any moment could sweep in and destroy it, as happened at the hands of Titus in the generation after Jesus when Jerusalem was overrun and the temple destroyed and what Caiaphas had most feared came to pass, and the nation perished.
Jesus sees through these fears that are driving Caiaphas and Pilate and the crowd. His is a kingdom not from this world, whose values are based on the truth that he has come into the world to bear witness to. He is no more interested than Pilate in the advent of some heroic deliverer who will redeem the people and set them free. He does not believe in this for a moment. For all the hosannas of Palm Sunday, his is not a messianic kingdom, for the truth he speaks about is not like that. And precisely because he will not base his witness on the vain hopes and false assumptions of the people, precisely because he will not accept and own the projected expectations they have of him, he becomes progressively isolated from them. And because nothing so fuels hatred as disappointed hope (which is one way of reading the story of Judas the betrayer), they turn on him. He must be driven out, banished, and must symbolically carry with him all the frustrated longings, the pent-up violence, the false ambitions he has been carrying all this time. It is not only expedient that he should die. It will be cathartic, cleansing, clarifying. So they shout “Away with him! Crucify!”
None of this happens consciously. Crowds have a mind of their own, but they often aren’t aware of why they behave as they do. Yet this kind of behaviour is familiar to all of us. The “othering” of people because they are female, or transgender, or black, or Jewish, or Moslem, or disabled, or gay; the subtle, then more overt ways in which they are separated from the group, marginalised, excluded from favour or full participation, even persecuted. My mother’s Jewish family were victims of the holocaust in Nazi Germany. They knew what it was to be blamed for the collective ills of a society, punished for it, banished either to another country (the fortunate ones like my mother) or to the death camps. But even in the school playground this dynamic can be acted out as many of us can remember; even in the workplace or local church or our own home. It may be in microcosm. But it is painful because it is a kind of crucifixion. The memories never go away and healing can take a lifetime.
The French philosopher René Girard has written about violence in religion. This is an aspect of the “dark” religion I spoke about on Monday, the shadow in which destructive forces can lurk. We are familiar with what happens when a crowd that is fuelled by religious passion decides to turn on some innocent victim. Girard’s image is that of the scapegoat, the innocent animal that in the Levitical code of the Hebrew Bible symbolically took the sins of the people upon it and was driven out into the wilderness to die. You may recall the bleak painting of this scene by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt. This ritual was prescribed on the Jewish Day of Atonement as an act of cleansing and purification. It’s a key theme of the passion, Jesus being driven out of Jerusalem to be crucified at Golgotha among the unwanted human detritus of every city – its bandits and abusers and murderers, crucified on that “green hill far away / without a city wall” as the hymn says, far enough away for eyes to be safely averted lest the sight of shed blood pollute a civilised society.
It’s one of those “but fors” of history. But for the crowd that is so large a character in the passion story, there would not have been a crucifixion, for there might not have been a critical mass of violence and hatred. The paradox for us in Holy Week is that this “but for” means everything. For in Jesus’ casting out and ignominious death we see nothing less than redemption. Glory is how St John speaks of it, this Place of a Skull that turns out to be precisely where Jesus accomplishes his work of self-giving love and is enthroned as Lord and King. Christian theology speaks of the atoning sacrifice once for all, the Lamb of God who “takes away” – key words in the light of what I’ve been saying – who takes away the sins of the world and whose precious memory is invoked at every eucharist of his broken body and shed blood when we sing Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Have mercy indeed: on this world that is so addicted to violence, on us who know the violence that lurks in our own hearts. Have mercy on our broken humanity, and grant us peace while there is still time to learn to be God’s people once again, to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
There are two consequences I want to draw out before I conclude. The first issue for any of us who covet spiritual intelligence is how we are going to emerge from the crowd – whatever crowds we populate - and free ourselves from the unconscious forces that control us or threaten to, so that we can become truly human again, the individual men and women God meant us to be. This is one gift of the cross, one dimension of what it means to be redeemed, because the man who was crucified, whose life of truth and love has led to him to hang there for us, has come, he said, that “we may have life and have it in all its abundance”. The passion of Jesus is to remake us in the image of God that he himself embodies. To achieve what’s known as individuation, becoming the unique individual human being we were meant to be should be the lifelong goal of our human journey. It means discovering what it is to be our best and truest and most authentic selves. The cross and resurrection will be at the heart of this transformation that enables us to follow Jesus in living cross-and-resurrection-shaped lives.
The second consequence is about our common life. We’ve seen how dangerous, destructive, even demonic, the crowd can be, how it can create innocent victims and then turn on them in vengefulness and hatred. What could it mean for the crowd to be redeemed so that it becomes not only a safe place but also a joyful one where people can flourish and find their truest selves? It may be fanciful to speak about the church as a redeemed mob, but as the people of God, his new humanity, isn’t that what it’s meant to be?
Earlier in the Gospel Jesus has said, “If I am lifted up, I shall draw all humanity to myself.” In being drawn closer to him, we are drawn closer to one another as a community and in relationships of grace and truth and love. This crowd of humanity is making the journey from the malign to the benign, from self-serving to self-giving, from cruelty to kindness. In John’s Gospel this society of friendship is born in little ways. It is found in the upper room where it learns to how to love to wash feet and to serve. It’s found again gathered round the cross, the mother and the beloved friend who are bequeathed to each other and who will care for each other once Jesus has gone.
This is the power of love that changes crowds, changes each of us, changes everything. In Holy Week we gather in this sacred space that exists for the coming together of God’s people. Here we tell the story of God’s great acts that make us the first fruits of a new humanity. I love to think that a crowd intent on crucifixion can become a crowd acclaiming a resurrection. In the light of this transformation, can we, the church, begin to grasp how the power of the crowd could be turned to good and noble ends in the service of God? “See how these Christians love one another!” We are never more truly ourselves than when we offer ourselves to the crucified and risen Lord, this King whose reign of truth and love we gladly make our own.