“Anyone who curses God shall bear the sin.”

Putting blasphemer to death seems extreme, but what I’m most struck by the first part of this. That the whole of the congregation shall lay hands on him and stone him together. It’s an odd sort of diffusion of responsibility; for if only one person killed him that would be murder. Which is also punishable by death and I think we can all see where that particular trail of breadcrumbs goes.

But all together. I’m reminded here of two things. The first is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” which has long been a favorite of mine. The beginning is full of such community, and yet at the end it all takes this horrible tragic turn. I also think of executions by firing squad, where multiple officers or soldiers fire at once on the victim.

The communal action removes individual responsibility; it allows one to soothe one’s soul with the idea that they were not the cause — it was not their bullet that actually killed, it was not their stone that struck the fatal blow. It was someone else. It allows, in effect, anyone involved to continue to live with the illusion that there is no blood on their hands, not really.

It also confers collective judgement; military executions by firing squad are symbolic because it means that one’s peers have found one guilty. It is not just a judge that has convicted, it is a community that has passed judgement.

We come back here, then to “The Lottery.” I didn’t know much about Shirley Jackson until recently but I find it intensely interesting that she was writing in the 1950s, a housewife who also wrote. She was clearly calling up this type of imagery in her story, but I think she was tapping into a vein that, while less overly violent, has never gone away. The one person selected to be ostracized, often seemingly at random. Especially in closed communities, especially when there is plenty of closeness to grate and tedium to combat. One day you’re in, the next you’re out and there’s no rhyme or reason why. Don’t believe me? Go talk to a middle school aged girl and then get back to me.

Here, of course, there is a reason. But I can’t help think that something like that would also function as a pressure valve. A closed community is high-stress. You see the same people and you can’t, in a tribal society, escape. Your survival is dependent but at the same time everybody would be up in everybody’s business.

The community lays their hands on their head. Guilt is passed, and in some way, sin is too. For let’s be honest. Who among us has not, at some point, cursed God? Do we really imagine the ancient Israelites were any different? Blame is cast, judgement is passed and responsibility is diffused. And life goes on.