“Man’s conquest of nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be nature’s conquest of man.”
— C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1943)
A lot of us have been trying to figure out how to make sense of the protests that turned into riots that turned into the storming of the Capitol Building this past week in DC. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And then I read an article by an author named Bruno Macaes called, “The Roleplaying Coup” with a picture of that big bearded dude with the face-paint and the horns, which everyone is familiar with at this point. The subtitle sums it up well: “Yesterday’s events are further proof that we live in an age that is collapsing the distinction between fantasy and reality.”
The article itself is sort of a tough read. It’s more philosophical than political. But it was refreshing to me, because, of course, we’ve seen so many people online condemning the rioters and what they apparently stood for–and I’m sure there were others defending them (though I haven’t seen much of that)–but, at the same time, there’s been astoundingly little talk about what actually happened. And I don’t mean all the details of what exactly happened that day. I’m sure more will come to light over time. Maybe it already has. What I mean is: what happened that would make an event like this happen? How did we get here? And you might respond, “Well, Ross, bad people do bad things. It’s that simple.” But it’s not to me.
For clarity’s sake, I’ll begin with my own condemnation. Let’s just say it: the storming of the capitol was really bad. Especially considering the symbolic significance of the Capitol building itself, not to mention the fact that Congress was in session deciding on the nation’s election at the time. To threaten our democratic process at that climactic moment by means of chaos and violence is a high crime and nothing less. It should not be tolerated. And that’s not even to mention the symbols of hate and racial animus that were apparently present. It was very very bad. Condemnation is an appropriate response.
But I’m not sure all our condemnation is doing quite as much as we think. Whenever these sorts of things happen, there’s a pattern that plays itself out on the internet: a kind of liturgy of condemnations. And again, that makes sense. But…this event–and others like it–bring up deeper questions that are worth asking right now, which are seemingly not being asked, because we’re all busy casting moral aspersions from our iPhone screens and acting like that should suffice as an explanation. But I don’t think it does.
Would Jesus Condemn The Mob?
A friend of mine asked me this past week if I thought Jesus would condemn the storming of the capitol on his social media account. (For now, we’ll hold off on speculating whether Jesus would have a social media account, and just focus on the condemnation piece!) It’s a good question. And a complicated one. Jesus was not a straightforward political leader–at least not in the way people wanted him to be. For example, when they wanted him to condone bringing the sword against their oppressors, he was frustratingly restrained: “My kingdom is not of this world.” But then when they expected him to preach about heavenly peace, he said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In other words, the conventional notion of “maintaining the social order” was not exactly the nature of Jesus’s business. In the Gospels, he just always seems to be surprising people, so it’s hard to say what he would or wouldn’t do. Not that he’s totally unpredictable. He just won’t submit to our patterns. The wind blows where it pleases. You cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. But you can learn to get a feel for it. To love it. To dance with it. To sail in it. The point is: What Jesus came to do goes deeper than the social order. Deeper even than morality.
So what would he say about the capitol mob? He did address current events sometimes, but seemingly not to moralize. And to make it even more complicated, moralizing about mobs is a tricky subject, because it’s hard to tell what a mob is trying to do exactly. After all, what we mean by “mob” is a kind of amoeba-like collection of humans with a mind of its own. If the pit bull three doors down breaks loose and bites your child, you don’t bring your moral complaint against the dog. You bring it against the master. Okay, then who is the master of the capitol mob? At first glance, it is obviously President Trump. As far as politics is concerned, it seems clear that he should bear responsibility for the capitol uprising. But again, I’m not sure that’s going deep enough. I mean, on the political level, perhaps it is. But what we witnessed at the Capitol was more than just politics. That mob had other, deeper masters.
So what would Jesus say? Well, we do have one example in Scripture of Jesus addressing a mob. It was the mob that killed him. I think it’s safe to say: the most morally incorrect mob in the history of the world. And what did Jesus say about them?
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. This talk is not about forgiveness. I’m not saying we should be quick to forgive what happened without understanding it. In fact, I’m very much against cheap acts of forgiveness. That has its own dangers. I want to focus on the second part of Jesus’s saying: “They know not what they do.” Was the mob that killed Jesus wrong? It’s a stupid question. Of course it was. But the whole unfolding story of God and his people through Scripture–the hopes and fears of all the years–didn’t reach its final, most horrifying and most climactic moment in order for us to simply conclude: “It was morally wrong to kill Jesus.”
Again, of course it was wrong. But the well of that moment is too deep for us to just skim off the surface. A better question would be: What did the people who killed Jesus think they were doing? And what were they actually doing? And what does it mean? I repeat: What did the mob think they were doing? What were they actually doing? And what does it mean?
These are the sort of questions the Bible compels us to ask over and over again. Christiainity is about the heart of human beings and about the heart of God. It’s about finding a cure for the iceberg of self–the parts of you and me which we cannot see and which we know the least–the parts of us which long to be married to God but tend continually to flirt with demons instead. What the Bible is saying, Freud also proved: the invisible drives the visible. What is seen is temporary; what is unseen is eternal. For better or for worse. (God help us.)
And yet, when dramatic events like the storming of the capitol happen, seemingly no one asks questions about what’s going on beneath the surface:
What did the mob think they were doing? What were they actually doing? What does it mean?
If a mob killed Jesus today, the internet would go wild on both sides. Most people, I’m sure, would be moralizing about how wrong it was. “We unequivocally condemn this brutal act.” Others might celebrate how right it was. But almost everyone would miss what actually happened…and what it means.
What I’m saying is, in these moments, we, the internet onlookers, are not so disconnected from those partaking in the events as we might seem. We might act like the Pharisee, saying: “God thank you that I am not like this man with the buffalo horns and the Chewbacca bikini.” Or perhaps we’re more like Pontius Pilate, washing our hands, declaring: “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” But the irony in Pilate’s gesture is that all the water in the world couldn’t wash away his guilt. Just because he tried to put the responsibility on the Jewish mob didn’t mean it was transferred off of himself. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Pilate, “wishing to satisfy the mob, released for them Barabbas.” They all had blood on their hands. Both Pilate and the Chief Priest bear responsibility for Jesus’s death, though of course neither of them hammered the nails into his hands. But it’s also evident that neither of them were the master of the mob.
Traditionally, when Christians speak of the crucifixion of Jesus, we do it in the passive voice. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” That’s the Apostles Creed. The point is not that no one was at fault, but rather that everyone was. Who killed Jesus? The Christian response is: We did. Not just Pilate. Not just the Chief Priest. Not just the ones screaming, “Crucify him! Let his blood be on our hands.” But also his best friends, who at that same moment were hiding and cowering and denying they knew him. And, for that matter, what about the people living a thousand miles away who would later hear and laugh at the silly failed uprising of yet another false Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth. The point is: where a mob begins and ends is never entirely clear. And oftentimes, neither is the master of a mob. That’s what makes it a mob.
Living On The Internet
So what do you and I have to do with the storming of the capitol? Nothing, as far as I know. Except that we have one very important thing in common with those who did. We were born from the same womb. Or perhaps I should say, “born again” from the same womb. And no, I don’t mean that we’re all Christians. Though, I’m sure many of the protestors called themselves Christians (after all, a large majority of Americans still do, according to polls). I mean a different kind of born again. I mean: born again on the internet.
I know, I know. But hear me out. In the last 15 years or so, through the internet, we’ve done something with our way of life that amounts to a kind of religious conversion. We’ve left our old ways behind for a new dream–a new way of being, which has allowed us to be everywhere instead of somewhere, to know everything instead of some things, to be known by everyone instead of someone, to love everyone instead of our neighbor.
We have struck a deal with something very powerful. And so far, it’s been easy to see the benefits; not so easy to see the cost. Because of that, we continue to strike more and more deals with the same powerful thing. We give it more and more responsibility, more and more of ourselves. But as we live increasingly more of our lives on the internet, those costs are slowly starting to make themselves known in places and ways we didn’t expect.
Think about it. We used to live in a physical place and get certain things done on the internet. Now we live on the internet and get certain things done in a physical place. It’s easy to overlook just how much of a shift that is–not just culturally but personally. The internet is a kind of de-incarnation of Self. We are living huge parts of our lives outside our bodies. And, during COVID, this de-incarnated Self–this virtual reality–has reached new extremes, with everyone living on Zoom and Netflix and email. And that’s not even to mention: Facebook, Instagram and News Apps…virtual school and virtual work. And, in a sense, that’s the power of this technology. At least, for those of us fortunate enough to do so, we’ve gone on with our lives in the midst of a global pandemic, without the stubborn constraints of biology and geography to hold us back. The internet has protected us from the world of bodies.
And just to clarify, de-incarnation–living outside our bodies–is not new. Every time humans write their thoughts on paper, a part of them is imprinted on the page…and possibly passed around the world. But the scale and speed and accessibility by which the internet does this same thing has created a different kind of thing entirely. Paper was a vessel we could travel on. The internet is a world we now live in–except, again, without our bodies. The internet has successfully given real life to our fantasies, but no real way to embody those fantasies. And as a result, we’re living more and more of life in a kind of virtual reality.
But that’s where the trouble begins. Because souls want bodies. Ideas want bodies. Fantasies want incarnation. It’s inevitable. And when we do actually attempt to embody our internet fantasies–as in the storming of the capitol–it’s just weird. And bad. And unsustainable. It uncovers a kind of dark dream-world-politics that was never meant for the light of actual day. The storming of the capitol was less a political coup and more an internet meme come to life. And yes, it was actually violent and rage-filled. But some of the same people who fought so hard to get in the door were simply posing for selfies in their strange costumes once they got in.
That’s the weirdest part. The storming of the capitol did not “do” anything in the traditional political sense. Our representatives simply reconvened and finished their duties a few hours later. Those who stormed the capitol were neither warriors nor rebels nor saints nor traitors of our institutions. Nor did they think they were. They simply let their internet selves spill out into the world of bodies. And people died in the process. But the deaths were not so much casualties of war. They were more like the accidental deaths of virtual reality. Not entirely different from falling off a cliff while trying to catch a Pokemon or trying to take a selfie for Instagram.
And I’m not making a joke of it. Obviously, these people believed they were doing something serious. Their anger was real. And whether right or wrong, they were seemingly standing up for something they thought was true. The content of politics is much more serious than Pokemon Go. But in the digital age, they’re both played out on the same medium. The line between entertainment and politics is becoming less and less clear. Why are we as a culture so much more consumed by politics than we were a few years ago? At least partially, it’s because it’s now in our pockets instead of in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our houses of government. Traditional politics has largely given way to virtual reality. And there, on the familiar screens of our iPhones and social media echo chambers, it kind of works. But then when we go and try to live that out in the world of bodies, it gets immediately confused.
What we witnessed at the capitol was the virtual world spilling out into (and colliding with) the very real, physical symbol of traditional politics. And it was…stupid and ineffective and meaningless and laughable and sad.
Imagine a drone pilot who plays so many other video games in between his actual job that he can’t tell the difference between bombing fake people and bombing real people. Either way, it’s all the same. Because his job, his entertainment, his identity is found in the virtual control chair and nowhere else.
What I’m saying is: To some degree, we are all that drone pilot. Or at least slowly moving in that direction.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying the internet itself is to blame for all our woes. That would be like blaming the stray dog for biting the child instead of going and finding its master. But what if its master isn’t one person? What if the dog is everyone’s dog and no one’s dog at the same time. What if the wild dog we’ve raised to protect us is now attacking our own children?
At first, I was comparing the dog to a mob. Now I’m comparing it to the internet. So, by the transitive property, maybe what I should do is compare the internet to a mob.
Who is the master of the internet? Who decides what you see when you scroll–the content of your virtual neighborhood, of your praise, of your outrage? As much as the algorithm might trick you into thinking so, it’s certainly not you. But it’s also not Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey or Donald Trump–or even a team of powerful engineers somewhere, pulling switches to decide your destiny. They all play a role. But so do we. It’s all of us and none of us. It’s something beyond us and also in us.
And it’s doing something to us. And what we’re starting to discover is: that something will inevitably spill out into the world of bodies. In fact, it is daily doing so. It’s easier to see when it happens dramatically “out there,” on the news. Harder to see when it happens in our own homes and in our own hearts.
Again…we have struck a deal with something very powerful, which allows us to be everywhere instead of somewhere, to know everything instead of some things, to be known by everyone instead of someone, to love everyone instead of our neighbor. So far, it’s been easy to see the benefits of such a deal; not as easy to see the cost. But the cost is slowly making itself known, whether we choose to look at it or not.
So Father, even now, forgive us, for we know not what we do.