Tempted to Go Along with the Crowd

Part 5 of the series “Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 29, 2015
Isaiah 50:4–9a, Mark 15:1-15

Isaiah 50:4–9a • The LORD God gave me an educated tongue to know how to respond to the weary with a word that will awaken them in the morning. God awakens my ear in the morning to listen, as educated people do. The LORD God opened my ear; I didn’t rebel; I didn’t turn my back. Instead, I gave my body to attackers, and my cheeks to beard pluckers. I didn’t hide my face from insults and spitting. The LORD God will help me; therefore, I haven’t been insulted. Therefore, I set my face like flint, and knew I wouldn’t be ashamed. The one who will declare me innocent is near. Who will argue with me? Let’s stand up together. Who will bring judgment against me? Let him approach me. Look! The LORD God will help me. Who will condemn me?

Mark 15:1–15 • At daybreak, the chief priests—with the elders, legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin—formed a plan. They bound Jesus, led him away, and turned him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” The chief priests were accusing him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Aren’t you going to answer? What about all these accusations?” But Jesus gave no more answers, so that Pilate marveled.

Image courtesy wordle.net

During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising. The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did. Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” He knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead. Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done?” They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!”

Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

I. BEGINNING

The older I get, the less I like people.

Well, individual human beings I like just fine. It’s humanity I’m not so fond of these days. Especially when they’re in large groups.

Now part of that is just changes that take place as you get older. When I was younger I could handle being in crowded bars and restaurants surrounded by throngs of people who need to scream to be heard by the person standing next to them. Now, all I can think about is getting outside and away from everyone. When I was younger, I enjoyed festivals and large concert events. Now, crowds of a certain size start to fill me with anxiety and dread. During the inauguration in 2008, there was suddenly a point when the sheer volume of humanity surrounding me raised my anxiety to levels that were decidedly uncomfortable. Everyone was perfectly nice and civil and there were no problems at all. But there was something that filled me with a great unease all the same. And a couple years ago, when it was not ridiculously cold at the end of March, I went for a bike ride around the Tidal Basin, which was going well until I realized that I’d made a critical error: crowds of thousands of tourists to see the cherry blossoms. How do I get out of this crowd? was all I could think. It went well beyond my usual D.C. resident irritation at tourists.

So, yeah, I have an aversion to large masses of humanity as a function of changing personal preferences and fluid definitions of “personal space.” But there is part of it that is suspicious of large masses of people gathering. And a sense that rarely does anything good come of it.

Oh sure, sometimes crowds gathering together can be a good thing. But for every March on Washington, there’s a Nuremburg Rally. For every Woodstock there’s an Altamont. There was a reason that the Roman Senate and our own Founding Fathers feared the mob, they could be easily manipulated by demagogues to do terrible things. There’s something about the crowd that makes me uneasy.

II. THE TEXT: THE CROWD

Of course, crowds are all over the gospel accounts. The term shows up 137 times throughout the four gospels. And in Mark’s gospel in particular, the term ochlos, which means “crowd” or “multitude” occurs in very important contexts.

When four men try to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing, the crowds are so thick that they have to dig a hole in the roof to lower their friend through. (2:4) When Jesus goes out from there toward the sea, a crowd gathers around him to hear his teaching. (2:13) Later, he tells the disciples to prepare a boat for him, because the crowd was about to crush him. (3:9) That same crowd becomes so large that they couldn’t even eat. (3:20) Later, he has to teach them all from a boat, because the crowds were so great. (4:1) Crowds continue to follow him and “press on him.” (5:21, 24, 31) There were crowds of so many people that he had to feed them all with only five fish and two loaves (6:34) and another crowd with only seven loaves (8:1, ff.). Large crowds are present at his exorcisms (9:25), at his encounter with Bartimaeus (10:46), and when he has his first conflicts with the Temple leadership. (11:32)

And most famously, there were crowds welcoming him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, crowds there to arrest him at Gethsemane (14:43), and then calling to release Barabbas instead and to crucify Jesus (15:11, ff.). Crowds are all over the gospel of Mark, and though in the beginning they are often shown as eager to learn and to be fed, in the end, they turn on Jesus and call for his death.

Crowds are trouble.

III.  LOST IN A CROWD

What is it about a crowd that makes for such peril?

A.   Diffusion of Responsibility

In 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside her apartment in middle class Kew Gardens, Queens. As she lay in the street, crawling to the door of her building, she called out for help numerous times, even saying “I’m dying, I’m dying.” It was later determined that there were 38 bystanders who witnessed the entire episode, even the return of her assailant as he sexually assaulted her and stabbed her again, killing her. Not one of them intervened. Not one of them called the police until more than half an hour later. When the police arrived three minutes later it was too late. Doctors later concluded that had police arrived after Kitty was first stabbed, she could have been saved. But no one had called.

The nation struggled to figure out how such a terrible thing had happened. They tried to come to terms with the fact that 38 people had witnessed at least part of the assault and had done nothing. Many blamed television and the desensitization to violence. Many blamed the impersonal nature of urban life. Psychologists have since concluded that there is a psychological syndrome, now called the “Kitty Genovese Syndrome” that takes effect. In large crowds there is what is called a “diffusion of responsibility”—in effect, everyone believes that someone else will respond. Someone else will take care of it.

What they concluded was that Kitty Genovese would have been better off if there had been only one bystander, as opposed to thirty-eight. That one person would have had no choice but to realize that he or she had to respond, because no one else would. With a crowd, the idea that someone else will take responsibility is all too easy to maintain.

B.    Anonymity

But it’s not just diffusion of responsibility that makes crowds problematic.

You know, if there were one change in the world that I could make that would make the world a better place that didn’t involve massive changes of heart or mind or entire social or political orders, it would be a simple option for me: I would abolish internet comments. Anonymity also seems to be the enemy of virtue. People say all kinds of things in public forums when they feel that they’re simply part of a crowd. They say things as part of the mob that they’d never say to you face to face and that they’d be ashamed to say to anyone directly.

In large crowds, you can be anonymous. And your demons can run amok with little to stop them.

C.   Herd Mentality

And then there is the phenomenon of herd mentality. We are social creatures and we want to conform. Our brains release dopamine when we get affirmation from the crowd or when we find our beliefs or opinions validated by others. We feel safe and protected in the crowd.

And this leads us to do things in crowds that we would never do as individuals. People will engage in violence, bald-faced racism, misogyny, and all other manners of despicable behavior when crowds are involved. There is a mob mentality that takes over that leads us along dangerous paths.

When you were younger and you wanted to do something because everyone else was doing it, chances are your parents said something like, “Well, if everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you do that, too?” Most kids sheepishly respond, “No, mom …” but if they were being honest, they’d say, “Yeah, I probably would. But then again, so would you.”

Peer pressure is a very real thing because we are hard-wired to seek conformity in the crowd.

The pressure to conform is incredibly strong when we’re in a social environment like a crowd. It is a very difficult thing to be the iconoclast, the one who willfully chooses to swim against the stream. And even those who do so often do it with others who have decided to swim in the same direction.

IV. TEMPTED TO GO ALONG WITH THE CROWD

In this day and age, people derive a lot of satisfaction from earning likes on Facebook posts, or retweets and favorites on Twitter, or reblogs on Tumblr, and so on. We get satisfaction out of belonging to the group, of our place in the crowd. We are hard wired to seek the approval of the crowd and it is a very hard thing to resist. Who doesn’t want to belong? Who doesn’t want to be a part of something greater than themselves. In the herd is safety. In the herd is protection. In the herd is life.

When the crowd is oriented toward something good, that sense of belonging can be euphoric: a real sense of the kingdom of God. But even when the crowd gets stirred up to do something terrible, it becomes very difficult to resist. Whether it’s crying out “Burn the witch!” “Sieg Heil!” or “Crucify him!”. Our capacity for evil is always with us, but somehow it gets magnified in a crowd. I’m reminded of a lyric from an old song by Sting: “Men go crazy in congregations; they only get better one by one.”

We will always be tempted to go along with the crowd. It’s in our nature to do so.

But Jesus calls us to do something different. While all around him he is confronted with hostile voices, while even his closest friends and followers abandon him and deny him, he stands and testifies to the kingdom of God into God’s all encompassing love … alone.

V. END

Christianity is at its best when it follows the example of Christ. When it, too, seeks not to conform to the dominant culture but to stand up against it, testifying on behalf of those who are left out of the crowd. It is precisely when Christianity stands out from the safety of the mob and instead calls for justice and righteousness that it is at its most powerful.

Christ was by his example a model for us in resisting the herd mentality that can cause so much grief and sorrow. When all the world with clamoring for violence he sought the way of peace. When all the world was looking for self interest and the protection of the privileges of a few, he proclaimed the all-expansive love of God. When all the world was seeking power and glory, he preached humility and self-sacrifice. And we, sinners, in response, chose to dwell in the safety of the crowd and yell “Crucify him!”

But here is a Word of Grace: Jesus loved the crowds. He taught them. He healed them. He fed them. He forgave them. And he died for them. For us.

We might not always be able to free ourselves of the temptation to go along with the crowd. But we are in a relationship with a God who loves us even so. And therein lies our salvation.

Because what causes us to go along with the crowd is fear. Whether it’s a deep-seated primal fear that drives us to seek the safety of the herd, or the fear of rejection by others that compels us to blend in, or the fear of taking a stand for what is right at the expense of our own safety and security, our willingness to sacrifice righteousness for the crowd is the result of fear.

And as the scriptures say, ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ The perfect love of Christ, that accepts us as we are—fearful, conformist, unjust, self-interested, faithless—that love can drive out our fear. Such that we are freed to step out from the crowd and to follow the master who himself stood alone, testifying for God, for our sake and the sake of the whole world.