A little over a year ago, three million people gathered in Washington, DC for the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States. Of all the commentators I heard reflecting about that great cold day in January, my favorite was congressman John Lewis of Georgia. He remarked about how he has been on the mall in 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he was proud to see our nation turn a page in history. I remembered reading his autobiography, “Walking with the Wind” with my San Francisco church. He starts out that book with a story about how his family’s home was so ramshackle, that when a strong wind came, the house would sway and a corner would lift up. His grandmother got the family together and told them that when the wind blew, the whole family had to walk to the corner of the house what was being lifted up. They needed their collective weight to hold it in place. This is what it meant to work together. The collective weight of good people coming together to save each other was the same power that Jesus spoke about when he mentioned the reign of God. Our job, said Lewis, is to walk with the wind. Find those places of threat to life and livelihood and gather people together to preserve life. When the wind blows, gather your friends and walk with the wind. Howard Johnson told me that the most amazing thing about that event was that with all of those cold tired people, there was no violence whatsoever. This is a crowd at its best—a movement.
On the last week of Jesus’ life, he went public—I mean really public. Public at a dangerous place—Jerusalem—a tense city at a tense time in history. He seldom did anything in secret. He often remarked to his disciples after a healing, “don’t tell anyone about this.” It was a sure sign that the news would spread. Jesus preached his radical words about justice and inclusion and peacemaking and mercy and humility to increasing audiences all across the tiny Hebrew nation. By the time he reached Jerusalem, they were honoring him. They were waving palms in the air. They were saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
These were revolutionary words. And their marching Jesus into Jerusalem was an act of defiance against Roman rule. The people found their voices and were ready to follow Jesus into battle. And the more they chanted, the more excited they got. They whipped themselves into a frenzy of religious fervor and all of that social unrest begotten by the fact that they were occupied by a foreign army boiled over. They finally had found their long-expected messiah. They sang, “Come thou long-expected Jesus, born to set our people free. From our fears and sins release us. Grant us your true liberty.”
And the sheer delight, the release and the heady glee of it all put people in an altered state of mind. And when you are in that state of mind, we can do great things. We can also do horrible things.
I have been at my share of rallies. I’ve spoken at them. I’ve yelled from the sidelines. I’ve gotten caught up in the euphoria of it all. I have also seen rallies turn hateful. I have seen people cheer on violence against another. I have seen people with their pent-up frustration being willing to debase themselves by hurling epithets. There is safety in numbers. You can hide behind the crowd. We have seen this just this past week as Congressman John Lewis was called by a racial epithet, Barney Frank was called by an antigay epithet, and people were likening Barack Obama to the Nazi party. When does “kill the bill”, translate into “kill the author of the bill”? How quickly and easily a crowd can turn into a mob.
Jesus had just gotten off his donkey when the crowd realized they were not dealing with what they expected. They wanted a revolutionary—a military revolutionary. What they got was a revolutionary, but one who used a force of nonviolence. He called upon people to take off their blinders. He was not harsh enough against the Roman rulers. He called upon the Jewish people to get their own house in order. Like the prophets before him, he told the people that they had engaged in idolatry and that this sin would drive a wedge between them and the reign of God.
Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers and told the people to change their ways.
Jesus told people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. The people were busy hating their enemies and they wanted a revolution against them. They wanted a military leader. But Jesus wanted people to change their hearts. That’s how you know God. Rid yourself of hatred and fear. See your enemies as your neighbors. Welcomed the strangers. Help out the poor. Free the slaves. Embrace the unembraceable. Be ye compassionate as your God in heaven is compassionate. Then you shall know the true power of God.
Well, the crowds did not like it. They were ready to go into battle. They were so angry that Jesus had let them down, that he did not act as they thought he should act, did not say what they thought he should say. They were so angry that they used their large crowds to punish their would-be messiah. “Crucify him” they chanted. It felt good to have an enemy. And it felt even better when Pilate offered to release a prisoner. The one they chanted to release was not Jesus, but Barabbas. Barabbas was a zealot. A revolutionary. It was his type that led the ill-conceived Jewish revolt that spelled the defeat of the Jewish people and the destruction of the temple in the year 70 CE.
Throughout the Lenten Season, we have looked at six types of organized evil that conspired to crucify Jesus. These forms of organized evil still exist today and they merit our attention. We have looked at graft and political corruption; religious bigotry; militarism; class distinctions; a corrupt judicial system. The last form of organized evil is Mob spirit.
The mob spirit is a powerful force. I have seen the mob spirit infect denominational meetings. We know from hard experience that groups of congregations can do tremendous evil. I have seen it on the left and the right, demonizing people and debasing themselves in the process.
But how is a gathering different from a mob? Is a gathering something that is positive and mob is something negative? A mob is a term given by the opposition. And it often comes when the group turns violent. Then it has crossed the line. It has gone to that base hatred and evil. It has often struck the insidious and indicting sling of fear in the minds of people. And it has appealed not to their highest ideals, but to their basest fears. That’s the difference between a movement and a mob.
In 1917, Walter Rauschenbusch wrote:
“The mob spirit is the social spirit gone mad. The social group then escapes from the control of its wiser and fairer habits, and is lashed into action by primitive passions. The social spirit reacts so powerfully on individuals, that when once the restraints of self-criticism and self-control are shot back, the crowd gets drunk on the mere effluvia of its own emotions. We know only too well that a city of respectable and religious people will do fiendish acts of cruelty.
There are radical mobs and conservative mobs. Well-dressed mobs are more dangerous than ragged mobs because they are far more efficient. Entire nations may come under the mob spirit, and abdicate their judgment.
Rarely are mobs wholly spontaneous; usually there is leadership to fanaticize the masses. At this point this sin connects with the sins of selfish leadership which we have analyzed before. Sometimes the crowd turns against oligarchy; usually the oligarchy manipulates the crowd.” (A Theology for a Social Gospel, 1917: 254)
Woody Guthrie once wrote “Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.”
I was flipping through the channels the other day and I landed on a great film starring Denzel Washington called The Great Debaters. This film tells the story of a debate team from Wiley College in Texas in the mid-1930’s. The debaters worked with their teacher and coach to not only become great debaters, but focused and responsible adults. In one memorable exchange, their coach Melvin Tolson prepared them for a debate by saying:
“Who is the judge?”
Samantha, Henry Lowe, James Farmer Jr., Hamilton Burgess: “The judge is God.”
Tolson: “Why is he God?”
Samantha, Henry, James, Hamilton: “Because he decides who wins or loses. Not my opponent.”
Tolson: “Who is your opponent?”
Samantha, Henry, James, Hamilton: “He does not exist.”
Tolson: “Why does he not exist?”
Samantha, Henry, James, Hamilton: “Because he is a mere dissenting voice of the truth I speak!”
In the climactic scene, James Farmer, Jr. then 14 years old who would eventually go on to found CORE and become a leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement, spoke in a debate with Harvard students about civil disobedience. He spoke most eloquently about what a mob can do. Here’s what he said:
“In Texas they lynch Negroes. My teammates and I saw a man strung up by his neck and set on fire. We drove through a lynch mob, pressed our faces against the floorboard. I looked at my teammates. I saw the fear in their eyes and, worse, the shame. What was this Negro's crime that he should be hung without trial in a dark forest filled with fog. Was he a thief? Was he a killer? Or just a Negro? Was he a sharecropper? A preacher? Were his children waiting up for him? And who are we to just lie there and do nothing. No matter what he did, the mob was the criminal. But the law did nothing. Just left us wondering, "Why?" My opponent says nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral. But there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow south. Not when Negroes are denied housing. Turned away from schools, hospitals. And not when we are lynched. St Augustine said, "An unjust law in no law at all.' Which means I have a right, even a duty to resist. With violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.”
In the coming week, Holy Week, we’ll remember the story of Jesus’ last week on earth. And we’ll be faced with the same choices as previous generations. Will we follow the crow for good or for ill? And if we follow the crowd, which crowd will we follow? The disciples were a crowd that dispersed when the mob took over. But that crowd regrouped and became the church of Jesus Christ. That coming together is evidence of the resurrection and also that the mob does not have the final say.
The church’s role is to not be a mob, but to be a movement.
The church’s calling is to be a movement of people who when they feel the wind moving and threatening to take our livelihood away, we are to walk and use our collective weight for good.
It’s easy to move from a community of good to a mob.
It happens when we demonize another.
It happens when we dehumanize someone.
It happens when we make jokes about them.
It happens when we are hurting and we long to feel a little bit better and we do so by stepping on someone weaker than ourselves.
We cannot become a mob. Even though we are gathered together and we love to stand up to our enemies and give them a taste of their own medicine, we know that a gathering of strong and free and faithful people is much more powerful than a mob.
A mob is a childish force. It debases itself as it reaches its lowest common denominator.
A community of faith in Jesus Christ holds to a stronger and more powerful notion of the people gathered.
It is a notion that together we can walk with the wind.
We can make sense out of a crazy-making world.
We can check our propensity toward violence at the door.
We can celebrate over good food and friendship a force that will change lives and make us more powerful ,more loving, more free and more hopeful.
We are gathered here.
Are we a mob?
Or are we a people that walk with the wind.
Only one kind saves.
Which do we choose?