From: Jonathan Bailes
On August 7, 1930, two young African American men by the names of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched by a mob of white civilians in Marion, Indiana. The murder of these two men is a horrifying but not unique story in modern American history. Thomas and Abram were two out of more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched by angry mobs between the years of 1877 and 1950. What makes this incident particularly disturbing, however, is the photograph that was taken of it. In what is now a well-known picture, the bodies of Thomas and Abram can be seen hanging in the background, while in the foreground we see a large crowd of perpetrators and onlookers who have gathered for the lynching. The lynching itself is terrible, but the faces of the crowd are what is most disturbing, not because they look like a crowd of murderers, but because they don’t. They look normal. They look like the kind of people who would be considered upstanding citizens of their town, like people who would be civically engaged, maybe even churchgoers. They look like our neighbors. They look like us.
In Matthew 27, we find a scene not unlike that gruesome scene in Marion, Indiana. A Jewish rabbi is brought before a Roman prefect to be tried for treasonous activity, but we know that it’s all a farce. Judas, his accuser, has killed himself out of guilt and even Pilate, the Roman prefect, recognizes that the accusations against Jesus are driven by nothing but envy and his own wife warns him against unjustly condemning this Jew. Because of this, Pilate tries to give the crowd a way out: “Should I release to you a violent insurrectionist named Barabbas, or this Jesus?” Twice he poses this question to them. But the crowd is insistent. They want Jesus to be crucified. They want blood.
When I read this account of Jesus’ trial and condemnation, I find the behavior of the crowd to be despicable. How could you, who just one week ago sang greetings to Jesus, now demand for his death? Like Peter, I tend to think of myself as entirely distinct from this mob. “Though all others abandon you, Jesus, I would remain.” Were I in Jerusalem that day, I would have sided with Jesus. I would have deplored the brutality of the crowd and the cowardice of Pilate. I would have been on the side of justice. Wouldn’t I?
Martin Luther often compared the Bible to a mirror. When we read the Bible, we see ourselves for what we really are instead of what we wish we were or what we tell ourselves we are. But in order to see ourselves rightly in this mirror, we have to look with honesty. And in order to read the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion with honesty, I think it is important that we don’t distance ourselves from the crowd too quickly. Instead of seeing them as deplorable, as somehow deeply flawed in a way unlike us, maybe we need to see the crowd as a mirror. What if they are like those people from the photo in Marion, Indiana? What if they are more like us than we want to realize? It’s an uncomfortable thought, but perhaps a more honest one. So, now I’m trying to read this story in a fresh way and see what it may be telling me about myself. The crowd’s envy led to the murder of an innocent man. What about mine?
I am a doctoral student at Boston College and a newly ordained deacon at Church of the Cross, enjoying the fall and looking forward to another moderate (?) New England winter.