The Woman Caught in Adultery (Part 1): Jesus, the Crowds, and the End of Violence

Many of us have probably read or seen the recently wildly popular Hunger Games. One of the aspects I so enjoyed about the movie adaptation was the raw emotion that went into The Reaping scenes, where young boys and girls are chosen via lottery to represent their districts in a fight to the death. The dread that fell on everyone’s faces in the moments before the “winner” was chosen, the sighs of relief from crazed mothers when they heard someone else’s child called, the screams of Katniss as she realized her own little sister was picked. Even the colors of that scene exuded complete despair as an innocent citizen was chosen for certain death.

This is not the case however, in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” As the reader, we come across a peaceful little town on a clear, sunny day at the end of June. Children are running about, the boys building stone piles and the girls laughing to each other. This town seems to run smoothly, the only complaints coming from Old Man Warner, the oldest villager, who can remember only “better times long ago,” and the biggest town outcry coming when there is a mere suggestion of replacing an old dilapidated box with a newer model. Jackson’s town is light and breezy compared to the dreaded town square in District 12. The townspeople gather themselves together once a year to hold a lottery. They call to each other, poke fun and hold conversations as the town readies itself for another winner. Slowly the lottery and its rituals are played out until there is a family that wins.

Then suddenly this breezy little town changes. It seems that everyone breathes a little easier once the Hutchinson family has been chosen. The wife, Tessie Hutchinson, immediately begins challenging their win, and yet the town calls for an individual winner, and so the family again chooses slips of paper, revealing that Tessie herself is the individual winner of the lottery. She breaks down into a pleading mess, begging for her life But where once stood her neighbors and friends, now stands a vicious mob selecting rocks. And as the story closes we leave a sunny town in the middle of stoning one of its innocents.

The anthropological philosopher Rene Girard would revel in this story. Among his greatest work, arguably, is his study of mimetic theory and scapegoating among humans. According to Girard and attested throughout history, humans are a naturally violent species. As the centuries have passed however, we have attempted to civilize and socialize ourselves, stripping away, or at least covering up our violent natures. However, Girard points out that communities of humans still experience a buildup of tension and repressed violence. If no controlled outlet is used, chaos can break out. The scapegoat theory, therefore, offers a violent outlet for a community, a way of releasing our violent natures in a ritualistic and traditional way that everyone can agree on. All of the sins of a community, everything that is wrong with the world is placed on the scapegoat, so that scapegoat must be punished and expelled through death. Once blood has been shed, the community can return to normal. This scapegoating has changed throughout the years, from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, to the sacrifice of wars and the scapegoating of religions or ethnicities or sexualities or genders.

Girard relates this theory of scapegoating to Jesus, who through his ministry and death broke the cycle of violence and brings humanity out of it. When talking about Jesus’ role Girard reflects on the woman caught in adultery. She stands accused before the Pharisees, deserving of her punishment, death by stoning. And yet Jesus calls attention to the ground. Jesus attempts to dissipate the building violence of the crowds by directing their thoughts elsewhere. But it is no use, the crowds have found an outlet for their violent nature in the form of this woman. She has been lost behind her crime, she is no longer a human being but the object of sin. The Pharisees have succeeded in taking away her humanity.

And so, Jesus responds by focusing all the attention on the first stone. Girard states that the first stone is the most decisive because it is the most difficult to throw. This is because it has no model to follow. By focusing on the first stone Jesus emphasizes the responsibility of the one who is to throw it. Once the firs stone is thrown the second can come faster, because it has a model to follow. But once the first person drops their stone and walks away, Jesus has set a new model, one of nonviolence. Now the crowds find it easier to follow that model, to drop their own stones, and to walk away. Jesus has broken the chain of violence and spoken new life into this woman. He has done more than forgive her sins, he has restored her humanity in the face of crowds.

In Jackson’s story Tessie Hutchinson is seen joking with the crowd as she arrives late. She greets some and laughs with others. She is a valued part of the community. Yet when it is she who has chosen the black-doted paper, the crowd, her neighbors, all begin scrambling for stones. Her friends whom she was just talking to grab stones so large they must heave them with two hands. Tessie is reduced to the black dot she drew, and because she loses her humanity to a slip of paper, the villagers are able to loose the first stones. The crowd has found its scapegoat, and though her death stands for nothing, appeases no vengeful god or rights no sinful atrocity, it satiates the murderous desire of the village for one more year. Girard would nod his head in silent contemplation.

Yet since we are Christians we must add a deeper shade to this story of ritual stoning, we must see Tessie’s meaningless death through the light of that adulterous woman. We must see ourselves in the place of the Pharisees and the villagers holding onto their stones, ready to dehumanize and victimize those who have chosen the lottery, those who have been caught in their sin. These people are many and varied. There are the people who, like the adulterous woman, have done something wrong, have grieved the justice system. And so, we dehumanize them, pack them in overpopulated prisons to sit and rot in their cells. We take their humanity and are hesitant to ever give it back, even once the punishment has been justly paid. And there are others, the ones who win the lottery of our oppressive government systems, much like Tessie, the poor who are caught in the endless cycles of extreme poverty and can do little to nothing to escape. We dehumanize them, reduce them to the signs they hold, murmuring that any money we may give them will probably buy drugs or alcohol. And it is so much easier to deny human rights to a sign, or to a black-doted paper.

And yet Jesus calls our attention to the first stone, and we must decide if we are to be a model for the crowd by casting it, or be a model for the crowd by dropping it and going home. It is so easy to scapegoat in order to satisfy our desire for violence. After all, it is better for that person to die in their sin than for mine to be found out. It is better for Tessie Hutchinson to lose her life for the safety and security of my own family. Isn’t this the argument Caiaphas the high priest makes in John 11 concerning Jesus? Why is it that we can read Jackson’s short story and bulk at Tessie’s meaningless death while millions of meaningless deaths occur daily around the world? Are we that good at dehumanizing our neighbors? Are we that good at allowing the ritual violence to rear in ourselves?

In the story of the adulterous woman Jesus has done more than free the woman from death. He has humanized the scapegoat, shown light on her humanity and on the ritualistic violence. And yet he has also freed the crowds from participating in this violence. They are given the chance to step out of the cycle of violence and to walk away. Jesus has freed everyone in the story, and as a result no stoning takes place. This is good news for everyone involved. This is the gospel of the adulterous woman. So as the reader finishes “The Lottery” asking why the village does not simply give up their old tradition so that all can live their lives to the fullest, so Jesus comes to us asking us to give up our old traditions, to drop our rocks, to see the woman for who she is, and to let her walk free from our oppression.


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