This is the beginning of what for our traditional Christian sisters and brothers is the most important religious observance of their year. It begins today with Palm Sunday and continues through the last supper, the betrayal - the several betrayals - the trial and condemnation and then finally Good Friday and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus on Easter. When a story reaches mythic proportions - and by that I am saying nothing about the truth or falsity of the facts, but merely the story's power to transform and mold a culture - it usually has many aspects of interest to human understanding. One of the most important aspects of this story to me is the behavior of the crowds involved. The first was on Palm Sunday. Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph riding his donkey over the coats and cloaks and palm fronds that the crowd had laid before him as they greeted him as the long-awaited messiah, shouting hosannas and proclaiming him king. The story is told as if the entire populace had turned out to do him honor. Were they the same ones who on Friday, at the behest of the high priest, chose a convicted thief to be released and instead of hosanna, cried, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" in judgment on Jesus. It might have been a different group, of course, since whole populaces seldom really turn out, though it may seem that they have, but it could have been the same one. What moves them one day in one direction may move them just as strongly in another in what seems like no time. They don't even have to be in the same room or on the same street as long as the influential communication goes forth. Even if there were different people in the two crowds, those in the first crowd were no longer supporting him. Not so surprisingly when even his disciples deserted him, and Peter, the rock upon which he was to build his church denied him three times. "I do not know the man," he said.
It is frightening to think how easily people are influenced, sometimes even to great evil that would be utterly foreign to them as individuals. In Hannah Arendt's book, The Banality of Evil, she describes the way perfectly ordinary and ordinarily moral people found it very easy to commit atrocities during the holocaust. There were those who resisted, who weren't carried away by the so easily inculcated fear and hatred of Jews, but they were the exception. Most people went along, hardly anyone protested, and far too many participated to the last edges of horror. The story of the young German soldier, a loving son, an excellent friend tossing up a Jewish baby and catching it on his bayonet is only one of many. We saw it here during the civil rights era when the same policeman who would have comforted a weeping, lost, black child with an ice cream cone used cattle prods on the demonstrators. It happened at Abu Graib when the soldiers encouraged one another to torture and humiliation of the prisoners. It happens when a few kids get together - sometimes it only takes two - and do violence that they would never think of doing alone.
There seems to be what researchers have identified as a kind of lessening not only of judgment but of personal responsibility. They started looking at it when the woman in New York was killed in the midst of a crowd while screaming for help and no one came to her aid. I no longer remember the details, but I do remember thinking that I wouldn't have either. I would have expected someone else to do something about it. Everybody was expecting someone else to do something about it, and nobody did. I happened to me just the other day, and I was even alone, though I knew that there were others in nearby apartments. A smoke alarm started going off, faintly, somewhere. I wasn't sure where, but I could hear it. I couldn't smell smoke, I couldn't decide what apartment it was in, and I said to myself, "Oh, someone else will know what to do." They didn't, and I didn't, and luckily I was right that it was simply a malfunction, but what if it hadn't been? That's comparatively trivial, but it might not have been. I'm often asked how I decide what to preach on. Sometimes I am goaded by my own sins. One of the easiest to commit is to put one's own responsibility on the shoulders of others, and we do that with all kinds of judgments - especially the judgments of a crowd.
It amazes me how often an idea becomes a trend, becomes an obsession. We who think of ourselves as independent thinkers are in no way immune. President Obama's grandmother was a Unitarian Universalist. When he talked about it in his book, I understand that her uneasiness with one aspect of it was one of the reasons that he did not go our religious route. We lacked, he thought, seriousness. Sometimes when we become the church of "what's happening now" I find myself agreeing. G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown said that when people don't have a religious tradition behind them they are likely to take up just about anything in its place. There's also a country song that says, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." Too often, I'm afraid, our leadership has failed to impress upon us our rich religious tradition of personal responsibility and left us open to an almost obsessional trendiness. In the 60's it was the sexual revolution and boundaries were breached all over the place. Some of our churches got involved and the ones that did are still feeling the consequences of that irresponsibility. Some closed, some reacted with the placing of rigid behavioral rules - unhealthy in the other direction - and others have never dealt with it, and are still creating conflict over a lack of boundaries. In the 70's it was pop psychology, and too many of our worship services became like unlicensed group therapy sessions. Then it was New Age nuttiness, human potential, and the beat goes on.
I have a saving grace - or perhaps it's more of a distortion than a grace - but as soon as something is so trendy that it starts to appear in ads or as themes for popular TV shows, I start to push back. It doesn't matter how interested I've been, how convinced I've been, if it gets fashionable, I get suspicious.
When I was in college Ayn Rand was very trendy. I understand that that's happening again, and there was even an exchange of letters in the Naples Daily News recently, the sane one being from an attendee of this congregation. I read it back then.... Well, I didn't read the last chapter, exactly. Have any of you who have read it actually read the last chapter? If you have you've got a lot more stamina than I do. I read it the same way I can sort of say I've read the book of Numbers in the Bible. That's the one with all the begats. I dipped into it here and there. Anyway, I was blown away by it for about three days. I mean, she really convinced me. Then my suspicion monitor clicked on, and I found myself realizing that she was essentially a fascist. She really believed that people who could create and run businesses should be the only ones with power and that lack of success was a sign of weakness for which there should be no pity and toward which there should be no generosity. Yet a lot of people climbed on her bandwagon, and it may be that in these difficult times the band may be starting to play again.
Bandwagons are awfully easy to follow. Recessionistas are the latest, of course. When I blamed the news writers and pundits for deepening the lack of confidence of the public in our economic future, I left out the most culpable, the ad writers. I don't think I have seen or listened to any ad, other than the ones for pills and health treatments of various sorts that didn't hang itself on the hook of the economy. Sell/buy gold, save money here, it's the only way to be safe, spend it there, it's the only way to save it, or in the case of, I think it's the Mercedes dealer, to keep from getting depressed about it. The economy is tanking. We can help. No wonder it has become chic to be frugal, thereby causing stores to lay off more workers, lessening the buying power of consumers, reducing confidence in the economy.... I'm turning off my hearing aid.
One of the most attractive bandwagons is that of diversity. The problem with fighting idolatry which is what trends are when they become an obsession and acquire a moral tinge is that the golden calf really is beautiful and has intrinsic value. Such is the case with diversity. It enriches our lives, widens our experience, challenges our comfort zones. It is unquestionably a good thing. My suspicion monitor clicked on, though, when the school board in a parish in Louisiana pleaded a commitment to diversity as a reason for establishing the teaching of creationism in their science classes. When the goal of diversity can and does justify hypocrisy, dishonesty and injustice - and I have seen it used in all those ways - then we have to look at it more carefully.
The latest, of course, besides the economy, is the environment. Well, I've really been passionately opposed to air and water pollution all my life, I have clearly understood that fossil fuels are not renewable resources, but I think even that can become too much of an obsession, too tinged with moral righteousness. The signs are all there. Even Wheel of Fortune had it as a theme week. I think, too, of the ad hominem arguments on both sides of the climate change argument, which despite the statements of both sides that the argument is over is not over. Probably the fact of climate change is no longer arguable, but the amount of human responsibility involved is, believe it or not, still an open question. There is a scientist in this very congregation, a man of unquestioned integrity, unreachable by the usual argument that he is being paid off by the fuel producers, who seriously questions how much difference human use of fossil fuels makes on climate change. I, for one, have to at least listen to him. If we refuse to listen and dismiss such thinkers as interested or as fools, I think we are guilty of becoming true believers, of allowing our judgment to be owned by others. It is under those conditions that my suspicion monitor clicks on.
The tension between the rights of the individual and of the community has never been resolved, and I think never will or even should be. It is a place of creativity. Individual thinkers, those who march, as Thoreau said, to the beat of a different drum, sometimes are those who carry us forward, transform us or our society. Sometimes, of course, they're just quirky, and sometimes even problematic or dangerous. It is in community that we live and even in the case of the most individualistic of us, discover who we are and establish the essential meaning and purpose of our lives. However, we must not give over our thinking, our judgment or our conscience to the community, however good or caring it may be. Still less should we jump on bandwagons and give up our ability to think critically in following the music. The key is always responsibility. Being with someone else, one or many, can never lessen our own responsibility for our opinions and our actions. We can never accept something without question however plausible it seems, or dismiss responsible contrary argument.
The tragedy of the Palm Sunday crowd has always seemed to me to be that they cheered and waved and worshipped, and then when the crunch came, they slunk away, or worse, perhaps, with no other evidence than the word of their leader, cried to crucify the same man they had deified. I hope it was really a different crowd. I fear it may not have been. It is so easy to give over our responsibility, our judgment to another. It is always hard to retain the moral courage to be free. Your free spirit is your own, not another's. Within community you can test your own truth, and should. Every one of us can be wrong, but so, sometimes, can the crowd and never more so than when it gives its moral responsibility away. We must follow the beat of our own drum, giving due consideration, of course, to the rhythm of the community.