from St Faith's
Fr Mark Waters
So - we’ve come down into Jerusalem again this week.
Our annual trip to the festival. Why have we come? Well it might sound
a bit strange for a nice respectable group of people like us, but we’ve
come here this week to take part in a public lynching.
The dictionary says that a lynching is "Any act of violence inflicted
by a mob upon the body of another person which results in the death of
the person," And during Holy Week we recreate in our liturgy the
remembrance of a public lynching.
The word ‘remembrance’ in the bible is ‘anamnesis’ – which means
putting back together again – we’re putting back together again all the
aspects of a public lynching. We do it in every mass or eucharist. But
in Holy Week we do it in detail.
Why should we want to do that? For one reason only. Because it’s the
only way to make sure that we do not ourselves get involved in lynching
Some years ago there was a famous experiment conducted by social
scientists. They put some volunteers in charge of the controls of
equipment which they were told gave electric shocks to some other
people they could see through a glass screen sitting in electric chairs.
The volunteers were told that they were to give electric shocks to the
people in the electric chairs when the leaders of the experiment told
them that those people weren’t being cooperative in giving the correct
answers to some questions.
What the volunteers did not know was that the people in the electric
chairs were actors, and that when the volunteers worked the controls
the actors would pretend to be suffering pain.
The scientists were not prepared for the results of their experiment
which was that almost all of the volunteers were ready to turn up those
controls until the people in the electric chairs were (apparently)
screaming with pain. As long as the experiment leaders told them to
turn up the controls, the volunteers kept turning up the controls –
even though they thought they were giving electric shocks to real human
beings and causing great suffering.
We human beings have a frightening tendency to objectify people. If
they are not one of us, if they are anonymous, if we think they deserve
it, there is little that we would not do to them in certain conditions.
Left to ourselves, we human beings get involved in lynchings.
Right from the beginning of our biblical tradition
- Cain killing his brother for the sake of a meal.
- Joseph’s brothers in a jealous rage throwing him in a pit and leaving
him for dead
- The killing of all the Old Testament prophets who had an
- Herod beheading the troublesome Jn the Baptist
- The scribes and Pharisees preparing to stone the woman caught in the
act of adultery
And countless examples in between. If you want other examples, just
open a newspaper. It’s as if we can’t help ourselves.
A lynching is the most extreme form of excluding behaviour. The
permanent form. It’s about permanently getting rid of someone from
among us – someone who we feel perhaps dangerously different to us, or
eccentric, or who makes us feel uncomfortable, or who challenges us.
You can see the same dynamic working itself out amongst prisoners in
our jails. They’ve clearly done wrong or they wouldn’t be there.
They have offended against society’s laws, and there is no way they can
deny it. But the murderers, the rapists, the child abusers – well they
are something else aren’t they – we ordinary prisoners are not like
them. They need some real punishment. They’re going to deserve all that
they’re going to get. We have no compunction at all about injuring or
killing them. In fact we’ll be doing the world a favour. It will also
make us feel better about ourselves – even if we are prisoners – at
least for a short time.
Or think of the scenes outside courtrooms when some vile murderer is
driven away to prison. The people who scream abuse, and bang their
fists on the side of the police van. What would those people do if the
van stopped and the guards opened the doors? We know what they would do
– they would kill whoever was inside. And they would feel justified in
doing it. Remember those scenes when the toddler James Bulger was
killed by those two young boys. It was abundantly clear that if the
mobs that gathered outside the courtrooms could have their way they
would have literally ripped those two children to pieces.
But before we get carried away with examples of other peoples’
behavoiur. Let’s not kid ourselves that we are somehow not like other
people. Let’s not ever get to the point where we tell ourselves that we
couldn’t do that. Because that’s the most dangerous place to be –
thinking that somehow we are better than ‘they’ are – whoever ‘they’
Because lynching behaviour starts small. It starts maybe with envy of
other people or with small feelings of resentment. It gets acted out in
gossip, or in malicious joking, which are small ways of collaborating
against someone behind their back. Character assassination we call it.
The first step in excluding someone.
Then lynching behaviour moves on. It moves on to objectifying groups of
people – thinking of them as things, less than human – asylum seekers,
muslims, black people, gays or lesbians, evangelicals – anyone – as
long as we can find a way of marking them out as different to us.
Finally our patterns of human behaviour move on to mutually destructive
conflict – Northern Ireland, Palestine, the Balkans or wherever – we
have moved on to elimination now. The final solution.
This evening in our Maundy Thursday liturgy we allow ourselves to
remember that God in Jesus allowed himself to be publicly lynched. He
opened himself to the mob – to the worst that human beings could do to
him. He allowed himself to be taken away from us through violence. And
on this night he forever left us a reminder that the context of the
eucharist is social violence.
So the mass is not a private thing. It’s not about individual piety. We
stand around the altar tonight as semi-penitent participants in the
violence of the world. The violence we have done – in ways no matter
how small – and the violence done in our name, on our behalf.
The lesson is this - we do not have to sacrifice other people in any
way at all, in order to feel good about ourselves, in order to feel
powerful, in order to feel forgiven. We do not have to plot or scheme.
We do not have to indulge in back stabbing. We do not have to imagine
plots against us, or point the finger at anyone.
Jesus is the innocent victim. The innocent victime who through love,
and in the resurrection life is given back to us as the forgiving
victim. So making us whole, and taking that elemental sin away.
Jesus who died, who was killed, will rise, is risen. It means that we
are saved from ourselves – not by some transaction between God and
Jesus 2000 years ago - but by the possibility that we too might act
without objectifying others, without excluding them, and without trying
to eliminate them.
As long as there is injustice in our society, as long as there is
hunger in our world, as long as there is prejudice against other people
in our hearts, as long as there are obscene inequalities in the sharing
of God’s bounty – then you and I are still part of the lynch mob. We
should not be under any illusion about that.
But there is hope.
Over the next three days we are invited once more by God to take the
journey from death to life. From people who cannot help but to
objectify, exclude and eliminate other people, to those who have met
the risen Christ, those who have become one with the forgiving victim,
and begun to make a difference in their lives and in their communities
by living in the Spirit of that forgiving victim.
So we should quietly, gently, with no undue drama,
take our part in this wonderful festival tonight.
The simple washing of one another’s feet,
the mumbling apologies of our confession and prayers,
the simple standing as ordinary human beings,
shriven – we hope, awed – we hope, and humbled before God,
our hands open to receive the the bread of life.
In these simple acts of love lie the meaning of our lives,
which we are so slow and reluctant to learn.
May Christ the forgiving victim renew our lives this Eastertide.
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