The stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:55-60) was the first lectionary reading for May 10.
I forget what I was reading that prompted me to reflect on this as a kind of first century lynching, but I cannot get that imagery out of my mind.
Stephen, though a Jew, was by all accounts “the other.”
He was a Hellenist, which means that, as a Jew, he had adopted Greek as his primary language, as well as incorporating other Hellenistic patterns into his daily life.
So, he was already suspect by the mainstream; and perhaps the mainstream of the early Jerusalem church as well as the larger Jewish community.
No wonder the religious authorities were infuriated by his preaching. It wasn’t simply what he was saying, but that he, a less-than-orthodox Jew/Christian, was saying it.
I suspect they reacted more out of their suspicion and contempt for the Hellenistic Jews than the content of his sermon. After all, Peter had preached essentially the same sermon on Pentecost and he did not face the lynch mob.
Maybe a large part of Stephen’s death can be attributed to the reality that he was “the other” in their midst.
That tension between the Hellenistic Jewish Christians and the non-Hellenistic Jewish Christians, which caused Stephen to be ordained as a deacon in the first place, certainly plays itself out in the rest of Acts and the writings of Paul as the church struggles with the “Gentile question.”
Paul declares, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself … and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Yet, the church has often not done enough to address the walls separating the community into groups of “others.”
But my reflection did not stop there. The author of the piece prompting this reflection asked us to consider the actors in that story.
There is Stephen, who could rightly be called the protagonist. There are the religious leaders, who could rightly be labeled the antagonists. But there are two others.
First, there are the bystanders – that crowd that always shows up for a lynching.
Some are there because they support the antagonists. Some are there for the pure sport of it. Some are there and are horrified by what they are witnessing, but do not lift a finger to stop the action.
How often, I asked myself, have I been a bystander to the violence perpetrated upon another because they are, quite simply, “the other.”
The lynching of black people continued well into the middle of the 20th century because of that last group: the bystanders who did nothing.
The harassment of women has gone on far too long because too many of us men have been content to stand by. After all, we are not doing it.
Then there is the final character in the story: Saul. Luke records that the lynchers laid their coats at Saul’s feet while they stoned Stephen.
Saul, though not an active participant in throwing the rocks, nevertheless played some role in this event. What was it? Was he the one who incited the crowd to action?
It is common for the inciter to stand by and watch the incited carry out the actions he has inflamed.
Luke tells us that immediately after this, a general persecution broke out against the church with Paul at the forefront.
We sometimes denigrate the power of words. But make no mistake, words are powerful.
We see this everyday as words are used in such a way to incite people to become the worst versions of themselves.
And these same words are used to create plausible deniability for the speaker, thus allowing him or her to avoid culpability for their words.
We see this when words are used not to clarify but obfuscate, when words are used to diminish the humanity of “the other” rather than build it up.
Stephens are stoned every day. Maybe not for proclaiming the gospel, but most certainly for being “the other.”
Jim Holladay is pastor of the Lyndon Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.