Christianity 201

January 17, 2021

Riot in Washington; Riot in Thessalonica; Riot in Ephesus

NIV.Acts.17.1. When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

“These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.
 (v. 6  NKJV)

Today we have another new writer to introduced to you. Jonathan E. Mills writes at Living in the Present Tense. We’ve introduced today’s thoughts with words from Acts 17 (in Thessalonica), but note it is a subsequent chapter, Acts 19 (in Ephesus) to which he refers.

NIV.Acts.19.32 [two chapters later]The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.

You’re encouraged to send some link encouragement by clicking the header below and reading this at its source.

Jesus and the Mob

As the scores of images and video footage from the occupation of the US Capitol came in a fortnight ago, I started thinking about the power of mobs and the weakness of the individual. I’m not going to give a hot take on what happened, for far wiser people than I have already done that, but I want to explore for a moment the terror of The Crowd.

Mobs scare me, not the thought of facing them alone (though that is horrifying to contemplate) but the knowledge that I would most likely join them. The pictures of the mob scare us because they reveal that we as a species have a lot less autonomy than we’d like to think. The West has built her self-image upon the ideal of individualism, but too often that seems like a very shaky foundation.

I was in Year 11 when the Arab Spring began in 2010. I have such clear memories of following the various conflicts and the hoards of opinion writers who claimed democracy could now flourish in the Middle East. We’d just studied the French Revolution and I was fascinated by its contrasts and similarities with what was happening live. But one thing that puzzled me was how quickly protests could fall into violent riots. I couldn’t understand how a few leaders could utterly change the direction of a crowd and that everyone would go along with it. Perhaps I prided myself on my individuality, thinking I’d never succumb to the crowd.

I was walking around uni a few years later, just after a lecture on some obscure South American poet. I had no place to be, so I let myself wander. Soon I found myself headed in an unexpected direction, herded by a hoard of students exiting a building. I didn’t think where I was walking, I just followed.

It’s easy to follow the crowd. Or perhaps it’s easy to follow than to try to resist. At 27 I have a lot less confidence in my individuality than I did at 17, and a lot more awe in the power of The Crowd. Back then I imagined myself being a sole voice of reason in a riot, today I know I more likely would be just another sheep.

In his account of the early church, Luke, a follower of Jesus, records a riot that happened in the city of Ephesus. You can read the full story in Acts 19, but here’s the gist:

Ephesus was famous for its Temple of Artemis, and got a lot of its income from worshippers who’d flock from everywhere to purchase and to prostrate. You’d go there to worship the big shrine and then buy a little ‘silver shrine’ to take home (Acts 19:24). Paul’s ministry in Ephesus leads to many becoming Christians and then discarding their religious/witch-crafting scrolls and trinkets (see Acts 18). A successful silversmith named Demetrius realizes the threat Christianity might make to his business and so gives an impassioned speech to the traders, working them up into a religious frenzy. Soon the whole city is in an uproar.

Like most mobs, it’s a very confused one. Luke tells us ‘some were shouting one thing, some another. Most… did not even know why they were there’ (vs 32). The fearsome mob meets an abrupt anticlimax when a city clerk tells everyone to go home and appeal to the court system to meet their perceived injustices.

The crowd is confused, yet violent. The mob is powerful, yet easily dismissed. People are drawn into her without knowing what she’s arguing about. But does that excuse their behaviour? If individuals in a mob commit violent acts they’d never do if they were acting alone, does that excuse their behaviour?

Is there such thing as ‘good’ mob? Can Christians ever be part of one without compromising? And what does God think of it all?

I’m going to attempt to answer most of these questions over the next few posts.

[…at this point Jonathan invites readers to join the discussion; “but please keep it civil. Don’t give into the violence of the mob.” Because this was posted just a few hours ago, readers here are invited to go to his blog and comment, and I’ll close comments here…]