The Passion of Christ as a Mass Formation event

I may have criticised one paragraph of Mattias Desmet’s Psychology of Totalitarianism in my last post, but his overall thesis is compelling and powerful. I find myself wondering if it might help cast light on what, humanly speaking, led to the trial and crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.

Not that this is the first time a “mass psychological” approach has been taken to the Passion: Rene Girard’s work focuses on Jesus as the scapegoat on whom the mob focuses their hatred to relieve their own angst. But I find Desmet’s model to be neater, and furthermore to account for more of the detail in the biblical accounts both before and after the first Easter.

One of the most surprising aspects of Desmet’s approach, pretty well documented in his book from, for example, leading Nazis’ testimony during the Nuremburg war trials, is that the perpetrators of the deception that envelops a whole population are also victims of it. The key to this is that the real origin of the evil lies in an ideology, an ultimately false narrative that is so persuasive to powerful people that it seems to justify not only one-sided interpretation of issues, but even deliberate falsification of facts.

We see this now in most controversial modern issues. In climate alarmism, for example, belief in global meltdown is so entrenched that strong evidence against it must be suppressed by fair means or foul, lest people come to doubt the coming doom. False tales of white on black violence are considered on an equal footing with true ones, because “white supremicism” is an ideological axiom. And only today I saw a video of a British military leader on Channel 4 trotting out blatant lies about Russian war crimes demonstrably perpetrated by Ukraine, the logic apparently being that Russians are so self-evidently evil that making up their wrongdoings is the right thing to do, if no actual evils are to hand.

In other words, these people actually believe that deception and even oppression and the death of the innocent are justified, according to a tortured logic, for the ideological greater good, a good which on the largest scale today I take, as does Desmet, to be the triumph of a technocratic new world order.

This denial of obviously true facts to support an ideal may seem implausible, but we actually find exactly the same process in the New Testament. In John 11 and 12 we read that the chief priests and the Pharisees, normally mutual enemies, recognise the reality of Jesus’s miracles performed by the power of their own God, and so perversely decide he must die, in case people believe in him. Furthermore, knowing that Lazarus has genuinely been raised from the dead, the chief priests decide to kill him too.

The same pattern is to be found in Acts 4, where the public healing of the beggar in the temple cannot be denied by the Sanhedrin, which admission would logically cause them to believe in Christ. But instead they act to prevent the spread of the truth among the people.

It also accords with Paul’s writing on the final deception of antichrist in 2 Thessalonians 2, which encompasses all unbelievers, presumably including the kings of the earth gathering the nations for the final battle against God’s people under antichrist. No doubt Satan doesn’t believe the lie, but he only has to generate a sufficiently plausible ideology and read Desmet for the rest to follow!

So, perhaps my first task is to identify those caught up in the furore against Jesus during that Passover. The prayer of Acts 4:24ff identifies them:

“…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel.”

Secondly, we need to identify an ideology that might unite these disparate characters, around which one of Desmet’s “Masses” could form. I suggest we have a likely contender in John 11, where the Sanhedrin says:

“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

It takes no imagination to understand the “free floating anxiety” that must have existed in Judaea at this time, of the kind that Desmet requires as a catalyst for Mass formation. The distinctives of Jewish life and worship had already come under acute attack by the pagan Romans, not to mention the insecurity and oppression of the Roman occupation overall. Pilate himself, we read, had killed worshippers over their sacrifices with complete disdain for their religion. Reverence for God, and the Temple, became perverted in Jewish minds by the ideology of holding everything together for its own sake: in Luke 19:42 Jesus himself weeps for Jerusalem’s failure to grasp where their true peace lies, predicting the bloodbath of 69-70AD that was the inevitable result of Mass formation.

And so the Pharisees bought into the ideology because they feared the abolition of true piety, and the Sadducees because they were typical power-politicians, and feared for their own position and revenue, as well as for the nation they ruled.

Herod was a client king allowed to reign (and stay alive) in order to keep the Pax Romana, and Pilate‘s own position and career depended, too, on a stable status quo. Tradition relates that after his recall to Rome in disgrace a few years later, Pilate committed suicide: the stakes were certainly that high. And Herod found himself exiled to obscurity in Lyons by Caligula. All these are the leaders who were anxiously committed to the ideology, for different motives, but who had the power to use lies and injustice to promote it.

Below them were the downtrodden crowds, described by Jesus as “like sheep without a shepherd.” We know from the existence of the Zealots, and several false messiahs, that resentment against Roman rule simmered just beneath the surface of society. It is often hard to imagine how the crowd that bayed for Jesus’s crucifixion and the release of Barabbas could have been the same that had cheered him in the streets not long before. But I suspect that volatile mob would not have required much propaganda from their leaders to become angry that the man who had seemed to promise the restoration of Israel (and the trouncing of the Romans) had been shown to be a failure, even a fraud, through his arrest by the “proper authorities,” and by his broken appearance after a Roman scourging.

After all (to make a trivial comparison), Eric Clapton has recently been turned from a national hero to a pariah conspiracy theorist simply by owning up to vaccine damage, thus threatening the mainstream COVID ideology. His former status and his victimhood only, apparently, increased the animus against him.

Maybe even Judas‘s obscure motivations for betraying Jesus fit this pattern, too, though Scripture does not make it plain. If we suppose that he became disillusioned because Jesus didn’t fit the expectations of the ideology he imbibed, his treachery for a few pieces of silver resembles the familiar demonisation, and even denunciation to the authorities, of family members who broke lockdown regulations. Such is the malign control of the Mass.

Because the same ideology continued after the Passion (until the final destruction of the Jewish nation in 130AD), we find the same model of persecution of the early Church at the hands of the Jews in Acts, especially in Judaea.

But perhaps you will suppose that such a psychological account of the Passion removes the sinful accountability of the actors involved? As far as the Bible is concerned, it in no way does, and that maybe is instructive for how we might view Mass formation theologically in our own times.

Jesus tells Pilate at his trial that because any power Pilate has over him comes from God, the one who delivered him (the High Priest, in fact) has the greater sin – but not the entire guilt, which Pilate too must share.

Judas Iscariot, of course, is universally given a bad press by Scripture, implying that it was his poor character that gave Satan the opportunity to induce him to betray Jesus (in my present model, by his submission to the Mass, instead of to the teaching of the Lord).

The High Priest Caiaphas is not only unwittingly prophesying, but knowingly abrogating justice, when he says:

“…it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

And so we learn that “national security” does not excuse Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci for their organising of a smear campaign against the Great Barrington Declaration founders, nor the Deep State for framing Julian Assange. This message of individual moral accountability is still powerful – I gather that what led Sajid Javid to resign from Boris Johnson’s cabinet recently was hearing, at a House of Commons prayer meeting, about the need for integrity in public life. Did he not know this before? Yes, but I suspect that being true to whatever ideology is driving our governments seemed at the time to relativise that truth. But it doesn’t: even a Mass is a mass of morally accountable sons of Adam.

As for the crowds, undergoing the same kind of mass-hypnosis that seems to possess most of the public now over such an apparently wide range of issues (yet all, under the surface, related to the same ideology), Peter in his first sermon in Acts 2 does not spare them from personal accountability:

“…this Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men…”

It is a charge he repeats before the collective of the Sanhedrin in Acts 4. If Mass Formation is, as Desmet avers, essentially a kind of mass hypnosis of all those involved, then how does Scripture hold those succumbing to it culpable?

Quite simply, although the Bible is from start to finish a book about belonging to a community, and even about limiting our own autonomy for its welfare, we are called to belong as free and accountable people. The Church is an organic body, not a mass. For the ordinary person, Mass formation takes hold when we suspend our own judgement for that of the majority. Yet Exodus 23:2 says:

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice.

The fact that susceptibility to the process begins with alienation and anxiety is not an excuse, for we are supposed to deal with our human anxiety by placing all our needs in God’s hands through prayer, thus accessing the peace of God himself (Philippians 4:6-7; Matt 6:25-34).

As for those leading the charge, the “conspirators” who knowingly submit to whatever ideology forms the deception, their sin is greater. And that is because they have put some kind of utopian dream above the Kingdom of God, which (to cut a long story short) comes only through suffering and the eschatological intervention of God, and not through some utopian human effort or philosophy.

And of course, there are also numerous exhortations in Scripture for leaders to act according to truth and justice, and not expediency. Hence the “deluding influence” in 2 Thessalonians 2 deceives those “who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.” In the end, we choose to be deceived, just as we choose to sin and so become slaves. And so awakening from a Mass formation requires repentance as much as it seems to require a work of grace, opening our eyes to see the truth.

Growing one’s character to resist the power of delusion therefore requires all the resources of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, if we are to escape the deceptions of the world and stand as beacons in the darkness. It includes being alert in the whole of life, even the trivial: I now find myself more than a little offended when my Apple Juice carton tells me over breakfast, “The future of the planet is in our hands!” Even Little Richard knew better than that.

How ironic it is that by accepting God’s sovereignty over ourselves, and our world, we become independent thinkers and actors. But then, Jesus told the Jews that long ago:

So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

It seems most of them preferred the prevalent ideology, because the conversation ended with a serious attempt at cancellation – using stones. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to The Passion of Christ as a Mass Formation event

  1. Levi says:

    This idea of “the Mass” and its outworkings in the Bible is all detailed in Girard’s 2001 exposition “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning,” his masterful resumé of his entire 3-pillared hypothesis (mimetic desire/scapegoat mechanism/christian revelation) down to the references to Caiaphas’ political genius, Herod and Pilate (former enemies) coming together against Christ, John the Baptist’s beheading, the crowd celebrating Jesus 3 days before crucifiying him etc. etc.

    If you haven’t read that book, you really must, because the concept of “the Mass” as mobile (hence mob), flip-flopping, hostile, idolatrous (ideological) and insane, identified by the luminaries like Kierkegaard, Le Bon, Canetti, or recently Douglas Murray, are all succinctly subsumed within Girard’s universal hypothesis, what he calls the mimetic crisis, under the power of Satan, in which scandals. It is such a masterful, succinct and brief work, it would do no harm at all if only to buttress Desmet’s theory, although I insist that shows that theory to be but a mere shadow and ape of Girard’s own, more universal and parsimonious hypothesis, with his development of the Biblical terms Satan (the accuser), diabolos (the scatterer/sower of discord), skandalon (stumbling block), Paracleitos (advocate for the accused) etc.

    Although I must sound like a monomaniac, I do so only because the recent themes you’ve tackled so adroitly at this blog converge so well with those Girard has turned to, and mastered with genius. Give it another go, you won’t be disappointed!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      There is indeed a confluence, or at least overlap, in the thought of Desmet and Girard. In fact in one video review of the former, somebody (it may have been Heather Heying, but I forget – but definitely an atheist science type) questioned if he cited Girard, and if not why not. I was quite impressed that they had read Girard.

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