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Speaking to the Soul: A Riot was Beginning

Speaking to the Soul: A Riot was Beginning

Week of Proper 12, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 56, 57, [58] (morning) // 64, 65 (evening)

Joshua 24:16-33

Romans 16:1-16

Matthew 27:24-31

In the October 29, 2015 issue of The New Yorker, an article called “Thresholds of Violence” uses a theory about riots in order to explain school shootings. Why do ordinarily nonviolent people engage in destructive violence? The riot theory proposes that all of us have a “threshold” for participating in behavior that we’d otherwise consider immoral. Our threshold is the number of people who need to be engaged in a behavior before we join in ourselves. For example, someone might never throw a rock through a shop window on their own. But if someone else did it first? Still probably not. What about ten people? Maybe. And if hundreds of other people were throwing rocks through windows? None of us should be so sure about what we might do.

That’s how riots might work: a small number of people engage in violence, and more and more people join in as the total number of rioters reaches the personal thresholds of others for participating in acts they might never have believed they’d commit.

The author of the article, Malcolm Gladwell, asks us to think of school shootings as “a slow-motion, evolving riot.” Once upon a time, school shootings were rare occurrences dreamed up and carried out by deeply troubled individuals or pairs. But now? The number of school shootings is high enough to reach the “thresholds” of greater numbers of otherwise ordinary people, who join in the trend. Gladwell concludes, “the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement.”

In today’s gospel, the governor Pontius Pilate, presiding over the trial of Jesus, realizes that he’s facing a riot. He feels powerless against it: “Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning.” In response, he retreats by taking some water, washing his hands in front of the crowd, and declaring his personal innocence from whatever they do next.

I don’t know how fully the model of a slow-motion riot explains the modern forms of violence that increasingly captivate this world. But I do know that many of us feel like Pilate: powerless before an unstoppable riot that’s just getting started. And I don’t know what the best response is, but today’s gospel shows us what the answer certainly is not: focusing on our own personal purity, declaring our personal innocence. Perhaps we can simply act and hope as though the values of Christ’s kingdom are riotously contagious themselves.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as Priest Associate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and assists with adult formation and campus ministry at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.


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