Thursday, August 27, 2020

Merged into the Mob

It’s kind of breathtaking watching the news these days, isn’t it? So much mass craziness in such a little time!

Of course, there’s the hysteria surrounding COVID-19. First, we were told it was all a racist plot, then that it was an international pandemic, then that we were all going to die, then that we all had to wear masks ... or not ... and then go back to work and school ... then not ... that there will be a cure ... then that all cures are poisons ... that the economy is collapsing ... then that it must collapse, so we can all stay safe.

Who do you believe? Which side do you choose? What do you support? What do you do?

And then there’s our political rhetoric. Can you ever remember a time when it was so hot, so venomous, so polarized, so irrational? And how about the riots in our streets — or “peaceful protests”, or whatever they are? Or how about the blind way people are joining mass movements to condemn all people of a particular ‘race’ or sex simply for being who or what they are?

And violence and destruction. These things are, today, literally being held up as the dynamics of progress. There are not a few people who actually believe that the first step to “the future society” that awaits us is simply to burn everything that already exists to the ground and plow it flat. And then, presumably, goodness and light will spring like roses from a dunghill? I guess that’s the theory.

Do you ever get the feeling we’re sitting on a powder keg of mass emotion, and that at any minute, something might set it to exploding?

I do.

The Age of Mobs

We are in an age of mobs.

There are mass movements that are sweeping nations and the world, catching up many people and provoking strong feelings. Much of this is due to the worldwide web, I believe. It permits news from one small area to be disseminated incredibly quickly to masses of people across the globe, spreading small and local feelings of outrage into gigantic movements. Ripples, which are nothing in teacup, may well amount to tsunamis in an ocean. The more people are involved, the bigger the waves of craziness that can be generated; and just so, the internet magnifies local craziness into reactions of global size.

And we are being called to join. Everyone is. You have to declare yourself a Democrat or a Republican, a Brexiter or a Remainer, a Liberal or a Tory ... even if you don’t even live in any of the countries to which those terms apply! It’s like you don’t have a right to a private opinion; no, you’ve got to declare your group. Whose agenda do you belong to? What side are you on? Are you an ally or an adversary? Are you an SJW or a Nazi? Are you an “Islamic extremist” or an “Islamophobe”? Do you say “black lives matter” or “blue lives matter” or “all lives matter”? Do you “believe all women”, or are you “an apologist for the patriarchy”? Are you for trans-rights, or are you just a plain old bigot?

Whose “side” are you on, and what will you do to show your loyalty? Will you inform on your friends? Will you kneel in shame at our feet and confess your “crimes”? Will you join our “protest”? We’re pulling down a statue and burning down a courtroom today, and you should come. And if you won’t do that, can you at least come down to our tent city and show your support by giving us some free water or clothing or something else we need?

All this joining. All these masses of people pushing to and fro. What is a Christian to think?

The Madness of Mobs

I was reading the account of Paul and Silas being jailed this morning, and it occurred to me for the first time that scripture has a fair bit to say about mob mentality.

In that passage, you’ll recall, there was a small incident that started with a demon-possessed woman. When she was relieved of her affliction, her exploiters were upset at their loss of revenue, and brought a complaint to the magistrates, dragging Paul and Silas with them. But then look what happened: “The crowd joined in attacking them.”

What had the crowd to do with it? It wasn’t their demon-possessed girl. Instead, they had been ginned up by the false allegation of her handlers, who said, “These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.” They didn’t check the facts, and didn’t care to; the allegation was enough to get the crowd going, and the result was that the chief magistrates joined the hysteria, and “tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods”, and then threw them into jail — for no legitimate cause.

We have another such incident at Ephesus in Acts 19, involving the goddess Artemis. In that case, the scriptures tell us, the whole city was filled with rage, and yet “some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together” [emphasis mine]. And in Acts 21, a mob nearly kills Paul for having defiled the temple, though he did no such thing.

Acts 6, Acts 17, Acts 14 ... more mobs, more insanity, more lies, more trouble.

And do I need to point out what happened in the case of our Lord? Six days earlier, the crowds had hailed him with “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” So how did it come about that at the Passover, the priests and scribes were able to stir up the Jerusalem mob to call for the death of Jesus, to the point they overwhelmed even the Roman authority? My, how fickle the mob was in Jerusalem!

There are lots more examples, both in Old Testament and New. But these will do to indicate what is being taught about mobs — they’re irrational, dangerous and invariably wrong.

Crowd Psychology

Now, crowd psychology is certainly one of the most studied issues in all of psychology. And there’s an awful lot we actually know about it.

We know, for example, that when sane people enter into a mob, they begin to act insanely. Individuals are powerfully drawn to conform to whatever it is the other people around them are doing. Normally-moral people abandon their sense of individual moral responsibility.

Then, provocateurs begin to appear: people within the masses who begin to incite the crowd to new levels of hysteria and new extravagances of action, seeing how much trouble they can cause, and reveling in their newfound destructive influence. Agitators, vandals, anarchists and gleeful sociopaths enter the fray, sensing their increased opportunity to work mischief and escape punishment. And then, as the fury increases, many more hangers-on join, people who have no real stake in the original cause, perhaps, but cannot resist the siren call of being part of something going on. Everybody’s in: it’s the new way, the new thing that’s happening now. The mass builds, and builds, and builds ...

A perverse love of violence takes hold of all. Even the original reasons for the outrage get lost in the very phenomenon of outrage; and the actions of the mob become ends-in-themselves, devoid of intelligence, reasons, coherent direction or justifiable purpose. Things are being smashed for the sake of smashing. Anger is hot because of the hotness of anger. The crowd becomes implacable, relentless and idiotic. And in that state, there is nothing the crowd will not do, because no individual in it any longer feels accountable for what happens.

I don’t need to tell you all this. You’ve seen it for yourself, on the internet. You know this is how it is.

The Christian Position

Today, mobs are engaging in elaborate gestures of protest, accompanied by violence, destruction, outrage, and all the typical follies associated with such collective actions.

Do I need to say what the Christian position on all this is? Do not join mass movements. Period.

Now, I know it’s tempting, and all too human, to love excitement. If something new is going on, we all have a perverse desire to push it to further limits. It’s interesting. It’s entertaining, at the very least. And it’s fun to watch things change — especially quickly and spectacularly.

We also like to get in on the action. We want to be part of what’s happening, and not miss anything. And maybe we even have our own reasons for being unhappy with the established state of things, and experience a kind of glee at seeing it pulled down. Besides, we want to be a member of something. Life has become too mundane recently, too boring, too low-key. Wouldn’t it be neat to get involved with something that other people are passionate about? And wouldn’t it feel good to belong to something that seems bigger and more important than the lone individual?

But the lone individual is the base unit of Christianity.

Standing Alone

Do you doubt that?

Consider this: it will not be with a crowd or a mob that you will one day stand before your Creator to give your account. And you WILL give that account.

You will be alone. You will not take your people or your nation with you. You will not take your crowd along. You will not have your family or your friends with you. You will not take your church, your pastor or your elder along. You, and only you, will give your account, with your own mouth, to God.

That sobering fact should remind every one of us that there is no safety in hiding in the mob. We are still totally, personally, individually, and explicitly responsible for every single thing we do ... every word we shout in protest, every action we commit in the middle of the mob, and every single thing we do in the privacy of our own homes. It’s on us; it’s all on us.

Now, here’s some encouragement for that sobering thought. In that same context, Paul also writes this:
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
You see, the goal of the judgment seat is for the Christian to stand. It is not that your moral failures and badness may be exposed to the world, or that your hypocrisy may be indicted, to your eternal shame. It is that the debris of failure and evil may be purged from the record of your life, and the gold of what has been done in your life by the Spirit may shine forth in its ultimate and eternal glory.

The end of judgment is for you to stand.

Final Caution

But fear the loss that may come if you abandon your conscience to the psychology of the mob. Remember that you are always an individual, standing before God. And to him we all answer.

Always remember that, in his eye, we are never merged into the mob.

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