People can act a little crazy when they are in groups and behave terribly when in a crowd. You would think that being in public would make them more conscious of their behavior, but that isn’t always the case.
The Book of Numbers knows this. Israel complains, reminisces, and questions Moses’s leadership in unhealthy ways. Then God punishes them as a group. There had to be individuals within the group who knew they had overplayed their hand. Perhaps a few felt uncomfortable with the construction of the golden calf. Some who knew the food in Egypt wasn’t really better. A man or woman here or there who believed Miriam, Aaron, and Moses were doing a fine job. But put people in a group and things change. Mediocrity rises. Emotion is privileged. Nuance gets canceled.
It’s called herd behavior; people exchange individual wisdom for shared stupidity. The crowd feels more secure in believing and acting in irrational ways when they know those ways are accepted and celebrated by the people on each side of them. At times, anonymity can lead to immorality. A person who is unknown is unaccountable. In his reading of Gustav Le Bon’s The Crowd, A Study of the Popular Mind, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarks: “Crowds are particularly prone to regressive behavior, primitive reactions, and instinctual behavior. They are easily led by figures who are demagogues, playing on people’s fears and sense of victimhood.” Le Bon’s 1895 work came during the Dreyfus Affair, a corrupt legal ruling laced with blatant antisemitism, and just decades before the rise of Hitler (Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, 245).
Sacks reminds us that Judaism brought the world a critical teaching that should challenge group behavior gone bad: humans are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). This particular belief was novel in the ancient world where cultures were characterized by despots, war, slavery, oppression, and other systems that make individuals insignificant. That’s not the view in Israel, which upholds both individual dignity and individual responsibility.
Dignity is not found in a person’s gender, class, skin color, religion, political party, geography, or education. It is a gift of God. The same is true for character. Our decisions are not justified because others support them. Instead, God judges our decisions on whether or not they value the image of God in others.
But individuality should not be mistaken for individualism. We are not our own (1 Cor. 6:19). We are responsible for our individual behaviors, but we must act for the good of others (Mic. 6:8). The second commandment is the love of neighbor (Mt. 22:39). Going along with the group does not mean we love them, and can sometimes be little more than endorsing bad behavior.
The church is no different than Israel. Individuals are called to make individual decisions for the sake of others. Healthy churches excel in generosity, hospitality, mercy, and justice–all for the sake of the group.
The church in Memphis will need to be better than Israel in Numbers if we are going to fulfill God’s mission. We can do this when we use our individual disciplines, attitudes, and behaviors for the good of the community. Think of it like a herd mentality, but instead one that is energized by goodness. When we are generous we use our individual giftedness for the good of others. When we refuse to gossip, we use our individual discipline for the good of the group. When we show up we show solidarity with the lonely. When we encourage we lift up the hurting.
There can be weakness in numbers. But there can be strength, too. God’s church offers that strength.