I recently mourned the death of French philosopher René Girard, whose insights on group psychology and the scapegoating mechanism were very influential in my life. He says that a kind of community is formed precisely when a variety of people, who would otherwise rather dislike one another, come together in a common hatred of someone else.
We can see this, Girard tells us, at all levels, from the most personal to the most collective, from families to nation-states. How often there is a “black sheep” in a family? He or she plays an important role in family stability and identity.
What is the only thing that two scholars can agree on? How poor the work of a third scholar is! Likewise, what is the only thing two musicians can agree upon? How awful another musician’s composition is.
This dynamic is in effect in one of the most beautifully crafted stories in the New Testament: the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), which we hear today at Mass. The text tells us “They caught her in the very act of adultery.”
The first thing we wonder is, where were they situated in order to catch her in the very act? The voyeurism and perversion of these men is shocking.
Then they come en masse, in the terrible enthusiasm of a mob, and they present the case to Jesus.
Now what does Jesus do in the face of this violent mob that is seeking release from its tension? First, he bends down and writes on the ground. Sometimes silence, a refusal to co-operate is the best opening move. But the mysterious writing might indicate something else: the writing down of the sins of each person in the group, as some of the Church Fathers surmised.
Then Jesus says “let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” He forces them to turn their accusing glance inward, where it belongs. Instead of projecting their violence outward on a scapegoat, they should honestly name and confront the dysfunction within them. This story, like all the stories in the Gospels, is a foreshadowing of the great story toward which we are tending. Jesus will be put to death by a mob bent on scapegoating violence. Yet in sacrificing himself, he will ultimately absorb the violence and defuse it.