Violent Mobs of Victims

The Preaching of Saint Paul at Ephesus, Eustache Le Sueur, 1649

Not long ago this British TV interview of Canadian professor Jordan Peterson  went viral on YouTube. If you don’t know what I am talking about, click on this link – it takes less than 30 minutes to watch. I will warn you, though – it is the sort of video that you feel compelled to watch over and over (as of this morning it has over six million views).

For those of you unfamiliar with Peterson (as I was until I watched this video), his early work focused on how ideologies like Marxism and Naziism engulf entire societies. He recognized that at the heart of each system was a fixation on group identity, class in the case of Marxism and race in the case of Naziism. And so Peterson is a defiant opponent of modern versions of this sort of thinking at play in the identity politics of the far left and the far right.

Back to the aforementioned interview. It is a classic example of what happens when someone who is serious about discussing the truth tries to have a conversation with someone who is only serious about scoring points. Over and over again the interviewer distorted what Peterson actually said in order to caricature him as a voice of patriarchal oppression, transphobia, and all of the other humbugs of the radical left. The interviewer’s ideologically induced sloth prevented her from doing any meaningful background prep into Peterson’s career (such as his many years of work counseling women to further their careers), or critically evaluating what he said in real time (preferring to hilariously misinterpret him with a “so what you’re saying is…”). No, the interviewer had a cartoon villain in her sights, and some hastily cribbed quotes to (attempt to) exploit, and a game to win. It was like watching a modern theater version of Socrates versus the Sophists (without the hemlock!).

The interview itself is not what I want to focus on. It went just like you would expect a confrontation between a lazy ideologue and a formidable thinker would go. What interests me is how Peterson and the interviewer responded to the debate after the interview. In this video, Peterson explained (at the 27:24 mark) that while it was obvious that he “won” the showdown, it was not a healthy victory, because the exchange reflected the highly polarized nature of “discourse” in the west rather than a genuine conversation between truth-seekers. By contrast, the interviewer (as a true sophist) relished the game that they had just played.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my bout.”

That is, until the TV station decided to change the narrative from the anticipated “feminist heroine slays alt-right dragon” to “damsel in distress.” By January 20, the news was reporting that the station had consulted with the police over various threats made on social media against the interviewer. Based on subsequent analysis, it is not at all clear that substantive death threats were made against the interviewer, and some have suggested that far more threats were directed toward Peterson. The fact that any abuse was directed toward either participant is outrageous.

Whatever the true extent of those threats on social media may have been, there’s no question that Peterson has been the target of ugly mobs, as this link illustrates. Because he challenges certain cherished orthodoxies in radical academia, Peterson has gotten the treatment we’ve seen in so many places in America – the use of physical force to shut down debate. Yet I am sure that the mobs that interrupt his speaking events consider themselves “victims.” These are peculiar victims – over and over again we’ve seen them deny people – victimize people – of the rights of free assembly and free speech. These violent mobs of victims do not care to engage the ideas in question – that requires far too much work. It is much easier to choose the path of raw aggression and blast air horns or scream obscenities while someone is trying to talk.

When the apostle Paul came to Ephesus he confronted the pagan ideology of a city famous for its glorious temple to Artemis. So powerful was his message that many Ephesians turned from their idols to follow the Lord Jesus. The result:

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater.  (Acts 19:23-31)

God is the most fundamental issue of all. Does God exist, and what is God like? You can gather from Demetrius’s tirade what Paul’s basic argument was: if men have to make the gods, they aren’t really gods. Pagans in other places (like Athens) we willing to engage Paul’s arguments – even if they ultimately rejected them (see Acts 17:16-33). But not these Ephesians. After all, Paul’s words had victimized them! Too much power was at stake, and when power rather than truth is your highest value, reasoning gives way to riots.

Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:32-34).

It isn’t difficult to imagine how ugly this situation could have become, except for the intervention of the city magistrate:

And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly. (Acts 19:35-41)

Because this anonymous town clerk had respect for the rule of law and the standards of civil society, horrific violence was averted.

I am deeply concerned that the ranks of such fair-minded people are shrinking moment by moment in our culture. We are increasingly polarized, especially as the extremes on the political spectrum play the victimization game of racial resentment (whether attacking “white privilege” or promoting “white identity”). It is cynical, and it is lethal – as all power struggles are.

And it is a game that (as history testifies) Christians have been all too eager to play as well. We must not compromise the gospel and malign the name of Jesus by responding to hate with more hatred, or violence with more violence. As Jesus told Peter in the garden, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Instead, we must respond to threats with courage, to power with truth, to resentment with redemption, and to hate with love. Such courage, truth, redemption, and love will endure long after the mobs are gone and the shrines of pagan ideology (whether ancient or modern) are in ruins.




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