Can we talk about something I dislike?
I really dislike internet mobs.
In fact, I really, really, really, really, dislike them.
There is nothing good about them. It is vigilante justice at its best and evil at its worse — and no, I do not say that lightly. Yes, the harassment might be digital (or at least begin digitally), but our lives are so dependent and wrapped around the digital world nowadays that being harassed and digitally abused affects us physically in profound ways.
Our youth are particularly affected by the digital mob, and often in tragic ways. I used to help run a website for teenagers. And whenever there was a news report about some teen that had committed suicide due to online harassment — not from our site, mind you, usually from Facebook — we would share it amongst the leadership and reflect on the various ways that we could avoid those same mistakes that were made. Why? Because we cared about the kids that we come in contact with and wanted to make their lives better.
Because let’s face it: being harassed online is tough. There are people who are literally dying from it — many of them who are young. Others have nervous breakdowns. I’ve seen entire campaigns on Twitter undertaken to defame and expunge ordinary people who might have said something offhand that wasn’t worded the best way. And no amount of apologies will ever be enough for the mob.
And yet! It can be so tempting to tell somebody that they are wrong, that you are right, and dismiss them entirely. It can be so tempting to crow in delight as we see someone who is obviously more sinful than ourselves get what is coming to them. The Germans even have a word for it: schadenfreude.
Jesus was no stranger to this part of our human condition either, and He spoke about it. Check out this bible passage:
9He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. 10“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 11The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ 13But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ 14I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This self-righteous behavior is bad enough on its own. After all, this sort of self-righteousness is almost a belief that we are perfect and that God cannot and should not change us — or, if we aren’t perfect, then at the very least God should change those other people before He even begins to work on us. It is spiritual pride to the extreme and it rejects God in our own lives while dehumanizing our fellow neighbors, who are sinners, not unlike ourselves.
So this sort of attitude is dangerous on its own! But in the context of the mob mentality, it is worse because it allows us to feel vindicated to feeling the way that we do. After all, in the silence of our lives, God can help us overcome our spiritual pride if we only present that spiritual pride to Him with earnest and allow Him to work in our lives. But when we are surrounded by voices that agree with — nay, applaud our self-righteousness and encourage us to act with even more extreme measures, then that little voice that God uses when He speaks to us can get lost in the mob.
A Saint for Our Times?
Jesus was no stranger to the mob. He was almost stoned a couple of times by a mob. And finally, just before He was crucified, He stood before the mob. (This artwork immediately comes to mind when I think of the mob… try to find the person who you identify with the most in the picture!) We can always trust in Him to deliver us through even the worst trials.
And yet, when I think about mob violence, one saint springs to my mind at once:
Normally when most people think of St. Nicholas, they think of Christmastime. After all, through his example of generosity in throwing gold coins down the window, we now have the legend of Santa Claus!
And yet, if you look at the legends of his life, there is another compelling story:
Now, a corrupt governor was bribed to kill three innocent men for political reasons. It was one of those times in which everybody knew that the reason why they were being killed was political, but nobody wanted to speak up because they also didn’t want to be killed.
So, on the day that they were supposed to be killed, they were kneeling down, awaiting the sword, when St. Nicholas, who was a fearless and remarkable man, stepped up, grabbed the sword from the executioner’s hand, and threw down the sword. Then he marched up to the governor and demanded that the charges be dropped, or else he was going to tell Emperor Constantine.
All charges were dropped!
That would be a remarkable story all by itself, but wait! There is more!
As it turned out, three of the officers who watched St. Nicholas step in and save the innocents’ lives were subsequently slandered and imprisoned for something that they didn’t do! Why? Because of their politics. That was already pretty bad… but it became worse when they found out that their political opponents had arranged for them to be killed by the Emperor Constantine himself!
What happens when you’re all out of hope and need a miracle?
You call for a saint.
Well! While St. Nicholas wasn’t dead yet, but sometimes living saints can help us too. And that is what happened! They remembered the courage and strength of St. Nicholas and his willingness to intercede for the three innocent men. Now, they were in no position to contact him personally. But they could pray. And pray they did! They called upon God so that St. Nicholas could somehow intercede and save them from death that was planned the next day.
That night, the Emperor Constantine had a strange dream. In this dream, St. Nicholas spoke with the Emperor Constantine, urging him to have mercy on these men, who were unfairly accused, and telling him that they were innocent.
When the Emperor Constantine woke up, he woke up profoundly disturbed. He summoned the men and asked them if they had done any witchcraft or summoned any spirits. The men were startled by this and denied any wrongdoing. “Then how did I have this dream?” the Emperor said, and related to them the dream.
Surprised, they related to him how they had watched St. Nicholas save the three innocent men and how they, desperate for a miracle, had prayed for the intercession of St. Nicholas.
The Emperor Constantine, startled by the miracle and amazed by their faith, pardoned them at once.
Now, St. Nicholas is a very special saint to the Russian people. Indeed, it is hard to find a city that doesn’t have a church dedicated to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, as he is often called! So it is no surprise that there he has a special place in Eastern iconography that depicts the various scenes of his wondrous life.
As more Western influences creeped into the Russian culture toward the end of the nineteenth century, the artistic styles changed to a more classical feeling to art, which led to more realistic depictions of St. Nicholas’s life… including this picture:
It is an image of St. Nicholas, coming to the scene where the three men are about to be killed. His eyes are wild and he grabs the sword in mid swing.
And the scene? The scene is set in Russia with the people dressed up like Russians. The executioner is big, stocky, well-fed, and powerful while the prisoners look weak and emaciated in contrast. It is as much of a depiction of the political unrest in Russia at the time as it is a religious art.
And political unrest there was! When this was made in the late nineteenth century, Russia was starting to fracture in two. A lot of the elites in Russian spoke in French and dressed in the latest Western fashion while the common Russian people lived in poverty. Two different cultures were starting to appear: an angry commoner and a clueless (but cultured) elite class. And this is perhaps a gross oversimplification — trust me, these societal problems are always complicated — but it was definitely a divisive time. A couple of decades later, the Russian Revolution would begin, starting with a 1905 revolution (which Lenin called a “dress rehearsal”) and finally culminating into the 1917 Revolution which saw end to the Tsars and started quite a bloody reign in which an estimated 8-61 million people were killed under the Stalinist regime. (The exact number will probably never be known.)
But in this art, there is still hope. After all, the fierce St. Nicholas stops the sword. He rescues the weak. It is a reminder of the hope and power of God and His ability to send us — who will also hopefully become saints! — out into the world to stand up and protect the innocent.
Our Divisions and Healing
Right now, there are a lot of divisions in our world. To make it worse, there are people willing to take advantage of this divisive time and use anything in their power to stoke that division so that their side — whatever their side is — can win. And some will even weaponize communication to do so in order to “win.”
Even if that means that innocent people’s lives have to be targeted and smeared.
Even if it means that they have to be ruined.
History show us that this is nothing new. St. Nicholas interceded (twice!) to people who were unjustly condemned to death for their politics back in the 4th century. The Russian Revolution was full of people condemned for their politics in the 19th century.
The only thing that is new? The technology. Now we can hurt even more people than we can actually meet. Kyrie eleison.
As Christians, we are ambassadors for Christ. As ambassadors, may we strive to always be charitable to our neighbor. May we give people the benefit of the doubt and act in true mercy toward one another. May we pray for each other, including our enemies, and strive to see each other as people and not just caricatures to be slandered. We are each made in the image of God — may we see each other with that light.
And may we never forget God and His mercy towards us.
And may we remember: is the Devil the one that drives us away from God and from truly loving our neighbor. It is God Whose Love overcomes all. May we always live in that Love of Jesus Christ.
St. Nicholas, pray for us!