New Zealand gossip columnist Pebbles Hooper was publicly ostracised after tweeting about the deaths of Ashburton mother, Cindy George, and her three children. The family reportedly died after breathing exhaust fumes of a car left running inside a closed garage to ‘keep the battery turning over’.
Hooper’s tweet called the tragedy ‘natural selection’. Within hours hundreds of Hooper’s Twitter followers voiced their rage, railing against her cruel comment. Within days Hooper lost her job, shut down her popular Twitter account and went into hiding.
Just a few months earlier X-Factor judges Willy Moon and Natalia Kills faced a similar public flogging after they rudely bullied a contestant on the popular television song competition. Within 48 hours both were fired from the show and received death threats before retreating to inevitable career obscurity.
In both cases I was fascinated as a virtual trial by public opinion swiftly identified the targets, took aim and fired. Just like the angry mob I felt outrage when I read Hooper’s tweet, and I felt fury when I saw the video of Kills and Moon unnecessarily mock X-Factor contestant Joe Irvine.
What rude, insensitive idiots?! How dare they say that?! Of course they should face the consequences! As Seymour Skinner said in an episode of The Simpsons, ‘there’s no justice like angry mob justice’!
In the midst of my outrage another feeling began to creep in—disquiet. I felt uneasy about the level of hatred spewing forth online; apprehensive as I watched lives undone with one stupid comment, one ill-advised tweet.
A global epidemic
Monica Lewinsky was at the heart of the adultery scandal that nearly destroyed Bill Clinton’s presidency. In her TED talk she describes her mistake and the unprecedented online, worldwide public shaming that followed:
‘…when the story broke in January 1998, it broke online. It was the first time the traditional news was usurped by the Internet for a major news story, a click that reverberated around the world.
What that meant for me personally was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide. I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously. This rush to judgment, enabled by technology, led to mobs of virtual stone-throwers’.
Imagine your worst mistake, your most profoundly stupid moment, immortalised and made available for public ridicule: horrifying.
Journalist Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed explores the alarmingly popular cultural phenomenon of internet-based public shaming.
The book describes the hordes of social media users as a ‘pitchfork mob’, simultaneously ‘the hanging judge’ and ‘the people in the lithographs being ribald at whippings’.
No stranger to mob justice
Jesus was no stranger to mob justice, throughout his life he was relentlessly pursued by people determined to trap and condemn him. Ultimately, the will of a crowd led to his death on the cross.
On one occasion Jesus was confronted by a group of religious leaders—Pharisees—hoping to force him to break the law, and they had the perfect trap: a woman caught in adultery.
This angry mob was not concerned with the truth—there was no proper hearing for this woman, no testimony of witnesses or lawful legal defense. No, these religious leaders were using the situation to entrap Jesus. They were not truly interested in justice, they were interested in winning.
Does this sound familiar? Instead of winning favour with religious rule keepers we are slaves to media and popular opinion. There are no pitchforks or torches, just keyboards and Twitter accounts.
We are all like the Pharisees, claiming to pursue ‘justice’ when we are more concerned about winning a Facebook fight. And yet, we are also like the woman caught facing the consequences of her sin, after all, we are only one stupid comment, tweet or Facebook post away from self-destruction.
A remarkable response
Jesus flips the situation on its head and addresses the heart of the issue—our hearts.
The Teachers of the Law begin to question Jesus, ‘the law says we should stone her, what do you say?’, but Jesus bends down to write in the sand. The taunting continues, so Jesus asks, ‘Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’.
One by one the angry mob disperses, as Jesus continues to write in the sand. Finally, it is just Jesus and the woman. ‘Has no one condemned you?’ he asks. ‘No’ she replies. ‘Then neither do I condemn you’, he says, ‘Go, and sin no more’.
Whether our sin is like the murderous Pharisees or the adulterous woman we cannot deal with sin on our own. Jesus knows our sin is a problem, and he knows each of us needs his mercy. In Jesus’s death and resurrection we find the perfect blend of mercy and justice.
It is good to care about justice—we are to pursue holiness because God is holy—but we must remember mercy. Let us consider how to model justice with mercy the next time we find ourselves baying for blood in an online fight.