Volume and Violence: A Lesson From Passion Sunday (and Saturday Night Live)

Yesterday, during the reading of the Passion, I was distracted by the memory of an old SNL commercial. But it was a classic from 1988 about a bank that only makes change. It’s motto: “When you only do one thing, you do it better.” A banker in the commercial says:  

“We will work with the customer to give that customer the change that he or she needs. If you come to us with a twenty-dollar bill, we can give you two tens, we can give you four fives – we can give you a ten and two fives. We will work with you.”  

At the end of this two-commercial segment, the bank representative says, “All the time our customers ask us: How do you make money doing this? The answer is simple: Volume.”   

It’s a brilliant bit of comedy writing, based on the ridiculous premise that “volume” is a reason. The simple multiplication of a zero-sum exchange could never produce a profit. It’s obvious to the point of comical.  

Here’s what prompted the distraction. The crowd shouts for Jesus’ death, “Crucify him!” and Pilate asks for a reason: “And Pilate said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him.’” (Mark 15:14) He asks for a reason; all he gets is an increase in volume. What is not at all comical is, in this case, the volume is a prelude to violence.  

We are rational beings, beings who live and flourish by reason. We have the ability and the corresponding responsibility to ask and answer the what and, more importantly, the why. Pilate asks for the cause (the Latin root gives us the legal term “case” as well) asking what case there is against Jesus. In John 18:38, he says he finds no case against him. And we, the crowd, respond with shouting, shouts that demand death. Again, volume without reasons is a prelude to violence.  

We live in a world of increasing volume. When giving a reason these days, one is more likely to be shouted down than argued against. What Pope Benedict called the “dictatorship of relativism,” which denies truth and hence reasons, can only advance by yelling louder. It doesn’t engage in debate, it silences its opponents. It shouts its own “truth” in order to silence yours.  

It is symptomatic that free speech is in crisis in our country. Some would say that only certain ideas get to be voiced. This can only come from a mentality that doesn’t believe in truth or in debate. A generation or more has been educated with slogans but without reasons, unschooled in civil discourse or debate, unable to hear the arguments of another and refute them.  

Merely having thoughts critical of others is not what critical thinking is. But that very statement is a claim about objective reality, that cannot be refuted by, “Says you!”  

It can, however, be silenced. And such shouts seem to be the only sound bites left in our culture. It is not a good sign, for those shouts increasingly tend toward the “Crucify him” variety. Volume is prelude to violence.  

Non-violent resistance is and can only be a battle of reasons. To help others find the truth is to help others hear the voice of Christ: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) 


Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.