Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region. (Matthew 8:34)
There is something about the psychology of human beings that clings to the notion that we know what is right. There is an innate compulsion to convince ourselves that we make good choices, that we can discern good from evil. Even if we can admit that, individually, we are prone to mistakes, collectively, as a society or species, we are able to choose wisely. We have convinced ourselves through our history and our dogma that the collective “WE” of humanity is righteous and wise.
In Humanism we even created a secular religion built on the supposition that our rationality is the supreme source of what is right and good. “Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement,” declares the humanist.
Our public discourse and political debate is immersed in discussing the majority opinion as if there is some inherent goodness in the opinion of that fifty-percent plus one that elevates a thought to the status of “correct.” As if collective amnesia seizes a community; forcing all past wrongs done in the name of the majority into oblivion. As a species we laugh at the farcical herd mentality of the lemming but the sad reality is, that lemming is us.
Beware if you find yourself agreeing too whole-heartedly with the crowd. Even a cursory, clear-eyed examination of human history reveals troubling patterns of mass hysteria. Crowds, societies, the entire world swept up in horrific events which were sanctioned and blessed by the majority. Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Salem, Sand Creek, Nankin, St. Bartholomew, Nero; names associated with some of the great atrocities in human history. The tragedy is that humanity has compartmentalized these events as gross exceptions. In general, we counter when confronted with such events, humanity is good. We argue that we learn from the error of our ways. We right the wrongs of the evil among us and build a better benevolent world. But is it the collective, the majority, that strives for betterment? Or is it “A voice of ONE calling in the desert?”
Kierkegaard tells us, “Even though every individual possesses the truth, when he gets together in a crowd, untruth will be present at once, for the crowd is untruth.” But one can stand and in standing alone they are justified. Just as we separate out the evil among us, we tokenize those who stood alone as we recite the litany of solitary heroes: Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood to defend the defenseless while admiring throngs cheered the horrors of Hitler, Gandhi whose peaceful disobedience defied the British Empire, Rosa Parks sitting alone at the front of the Bus. Yet while we cheer, we lack any understanding.
The unadulterated truth of humanity is that the WE is prone to lead us all astray. The collective wisdom of our community has failed us over and again. Countless is the number of innocent good people who have suffered torment and death at the hands of the crowd. Even the most perfect of us to walk the dust of this earth was condemned by the masses.
Christ was condemned by the crowd. Everyone is familiar with the frenzied masses at the public trial overseen by Pontius Pilot. But, that is not the only occasion that Christ was rejected by the crowd. He was ushered out of town when, in the act of freeing a man lost to “demons”, he impinged on the economic fortunes of the good town-folk. Two separate incidents detailed in the book of John show crowds who attempted to stone Jesus because of disagreement with His teaching. His neighbors in Nazareth, instead of seeing the Messiah, could not get past their shared memories of Him as the son of Mary and Joseph. The wisdom of the WE proclaimed that Christ should be eliminated.
In Christ we find the true source of change of righteousness. He stood alone against the thronging crowd of history. It is instructive that he stood trial alone, died alone, rose alone. Alone he died and rose so that WE, the human race could claim no credit for our own salvation. His example should also serve to remind us “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.”
We are called to follow. In following we will find ourselves standing alone. But to stand alone against the crowd is a better way. We forget at our own peril that misery loves company.