Last week in Mandela Park, the location in which we worship on Sundays, several teenage boys were murdered in retribution for acts of theft and rape committed against members of the community. The events were chronicled in the regional media; we heard about them from our pastor who saw the police in pursuit of the boys. According to his account, a mob surrounded the boys. A mother of one of the boys was alerted with the news that her son was about to be killed. She arrived on the scene, but was chased off by the mob, helpless to save her son. The police looked on as the boys were beaten to death.
"I am not on the side of the thieves," the pastor said to me, "yet no one deserves to die like that."
The story brings to mind for me the witness of Jesus when confronting similar mobs, in particular his words to those who had gathered to stone the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 7:53-8:11). His statement, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her", describes perfectly the crux of the dilemma. In violence-plagued communities, whose son or daughter, mother or father, is not a participant in such sin? Those who beat the boys to death, without mercy, are the same ones who on another day have played the part of the thief. In fact, their very act of vengeance implicates them in the moment, for the violence they committed is of a piece with the initial act of offense. They show themselves to be of no higher character than the boys.
The irony of the gospel story, of course, is that the only one without sin, opposite his words, also did not "cast a stone." Those who live by violence will die by it (Mt. 26:52)--an apt description of reality--but God in Jesus does not treat us as we deserve. He gives us a new word: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy" (Mt. 5:7).
I am amazed, given the hysteria of mob dynamics, that Jesus was able to defuse that situation with his words. For those who believe, there is more hope in that he was able to do so than there is despair in what transpired in the events of last week.
"No one deserves to die like that", "Let one without sin first cast a stone" will yet right the wrongs of our violent world.