by Father Mike Stubbs
At unfortunate moments, mob violence has cast an ugly mark on our nation’s history.
For example, in January 1901, a lynching party forced its way into the Leavenworth County jail and carried off a young black man who was then chained to a stake and burned alive.
Fred Alexander, 22, had been held in the investigation of an assault upon a young white woman. At first, the mob intended to hang him on the courthouse grounds, but instead took him to the scene of the young woman’s murder, where he was doused with coal oil and set afire as he cried, “Lord have mercy! Lord
People as part of a mob will sometimes undertake horrendous actions that they would never consider as individuals. We see a good example of that in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 8:1-11.
A crowd approaches Jesus as he is teaching in the Temple area. They have brought with them a woman caught in the act of adultery and want to stone her to death. They believe that through this act of cruelty they would be carrying out justice. They point out that the law of Moses condemns her to death and they would like Jesus to ratify their judgment: “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
In a sense, they are inviting Jesus to become part of a lynch mob. It does not appear that they want to bring the woman to trial. Instead, they want to drag her to her death.
But Jesus is able to break through the mob mentality. He appeals to the people as individuals, not as a part of a group: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Notice that Jesus says, “the one among you,” not “those among you.” And one by one, the people hear the voice of their conscience. They had assembled as a mob. But they leave as individuals: “And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” The elders, who should have taken the lead in the pursuit of justice, now take the lead in the move toward mercy.
As individuals, the members of the crowd were able to recognize their own need for mercy. They were reminded of the fact that they also were sinners, even if they had not committed the exact same sin as the woman whom they wanted to stone. As individuals, they were forced to face the guilt that they could ignore as members of a mob.
I have never believed in the notion of collective guilt. When we look upon ourselves as part of a group, we are able to evade responsibility for our own actions. We can pass the blame on to others. It is only when we look upon ourselves as individuals that we accept responsibility for our actions, even actions performed as part of a crowd.
As a church, we acknowledge our sinfulness. At the same time, we do not lose sight of our individuality. For example, we recite together as a congregation, “I confess to Almighty God.” We do not say, “We confess.”