“Away with him!”

It’s been a terrible year, one for the history books. But it’s still too early to tell just how that history will play out or be remembered.

There is, of course, the continuing specter of COVID-19, and all the collateral damage it has done to our social fabric. Add horrifying and ongoing racial injustice to that simmering cauldron of discontent, and it’s small wonder that cities have been rocked by riots.

I am intentionally not adding any images to this post, because the ones that might make the most sense thematically could themselves be triggering of the trauma this season has brought. Here, I simply want to make a plea to Christians to consider what we might learn from a single phrase in the book of Acts.

The phrase? “Away with him.” 

. . .

As we’ve seen, the situation in the Jerusalem temple was critical. Ethnic tension between Jews and Gentiles was reaching fever pitch. The city was filled with pilgrims, adding numbers and boldness to the Jewish side of the equation.

And there was nothing resembling social distancing. The temple precincts were packed with people, making emotional contagion and mob violence more likely. All it took was one loud accusation against Paul — albeit a false one — to set things off.

The Roman commander, Claudius Lysias, came running to get the situation under control. He clapped Paul in chains first, then tried to figure out what all the fuss was about. But with emotions running high, Lysias couldn’t get a straight answer:

Some in the crowd shouted one thing, others shouted something else. Because of the commotion, he couldn’t learn the truth, so he ordered that Paul be taken to the military headquarters. When Paul reached the steps, he had to be carried by the soldiers in order to protect him from the violence of the crowd. The mob that followed kept screaming, “Away with him!” (Acts 21:34-36, CEB)

People were involved for different reasons. As in the previous riot in Ephesus, some were probably swept along in the tide of emotion. And while the mob backed off at first when they saw Lysias and his troops, their rage soon began to surge again. I imagine the commander’s questions didn’t help. Wanting to be heard, people didn’t just shout; they shouted over each other. It would take only seconds for chaos to reign once more.

Out of options, Lysias moved to get Paul back into Antonia Fortress. The mob, naturally, followed. They had tried to beat Paul to death. Seeing the object of their anger being carted away by Roman soldiers — themselves objects of hate — no doubt inflamed them further. They weren’t intimidated anymore; unarmed Jews swarmed armed Romans. Their anger and hatred were so fierce that the soldiers had to carry Paul to keep him out of reach.

And as the mob continued to push from behind, they shouted, “Away with him!” They weren’t simply asking for Paul to be removed from the premises. They were shouting for Paul to be snuffed out of existence.

In some ways, the scene is reminiscent of the trial and stoning of Stephen. But in other ways, it echoes the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate had interrogated Jesus; finding him innocent of any capital crime, he wanted to let him go.

The mob that stood before him, however, would have nothing of it. “Away with this man!” they shouted, calling for Barabbas instead (Luke 23:18). In this scene and in Acts 21, therefore, Luke uses the exact same verb, and in a similar context: an angry mob wants Jesus or Paul to be taken away and executed.

That, in itself, is hardly surprising. But remember: most of the people in the two mobs did not wake up that morning saying to themselves, “Today, I’m going to call for the execution of an innocent man.” Rather, they fell prey to those who manipulated their emotions for their own purposes, whether the chief priests who wanted Jesus out of the way, or the Ephesians Jews who hated Paul. 

And as I’ve suggested before, there were almost certainly Christians in the mob that called for Paul’s head.

. . .

Please don’t get me wrong. I am most emphatically not saying that those accused of racial injustice are innocent. Peaceful protest of injustice, moreover, is always warranted. But we have to beware of the fact that as human beings, we are perfectly capable of doing wrong things for what we think are the right reasons, of behaving unjustly in the name of justice.

And Christians, if Acts 21 is any indication, are not immune.

We serve a just and merciful God. May our own actions always reflect the same.