By Rev. Joan Kessler
I begin with a question for you today and that is: What are you like in a group? Or in other words, what role do you play? The other day, I put pen to paper and made a shortlist of all the groups I belong to. I am part of a family group… I have groups around the church that I am part of by my position as your minister… and my richest friend groups come from this source as well. I belong to my condo strata, to my neighborhood… I am an alumnus of a university and a seminary… I have the Insight Timer app that connects me to others who are meditating at the same time as me… my roles and my attachment to these groups differs from group to group. Sometimes I am an active participant, and other times I'm passive and only a name on a long list of others.
You may be recalling the various groups you interact with on a weekly basis: the group of people you live with and call family … the group of co-workers you belong to, the group in your classroom … the group of people you volunteer with … the groups you zoom with, play sports with … the group in this congregation here this morning. Which ones feed and sustain you? Which ones give you stress and maybe even a sense of dread? Which ones are easy to belong to and which are challenging?
I did some research this week on group behavior and the notion of herd mentality. The idea that people’s behaviors and beliefs conform to those of the group to which they belong. And I found a very interesting article that summarizes decades of research written by The Atlantic magazine. Herd mentality is a group dynamic where the idea of one or a few are easily accepted by others… it’s a go with the flow kind of thinking. When we are uncertain about what’s normal, we trust what others are doing as the appropriate thing to do. For example, we are more likely to recycle and evade our taxes when we see others doing it. You won’t be surprised to know that we also follow others when we are self-conscious and want to fit in.
A study asked a group of Army officers about their leadership ability and told researchers they believed they would make good leaders, but when told others didn’t agree with their assessment, 37% changed their answers. Herd mentality also sees us mimic the behavior and even mannerisms of those we share group space with. When we are distracted, we can easily make bad decisions or just stay with the status quo because that is seen as the easiest option.
So, the question that this article asked was, “why is it so hard to think for ourselves?” The compiled research suggests that it is just easier to accept what is presented to us rather than chart a different course and risk changing our behavior and beliefs. It is human nature to look to others for answers to a dilemma or problems; to follow popular opinion. But group behavior can have positive effects. In Chicago, for example, in order to hold a drivers license, individuals were required to answer the question, “Do you wish to be an organ donor?”. Because an answer was required rather than making it optional, 60% of drivers chose to become organ donors, far surpassing the US national average of 38% - a success story indeed.
When I considered the gospel reading for this week, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain as it is known, I found myself drawn to the crowds that surrounded Jesus that day. Jesus has just come down the mountain after a time of prayer and discernment and he was met by his disciples and others who have traveled from near and far to see him. They are pressing in on him, desperate for the change they believe Jesus holds for them. They long for healing, for peace, for reconciliation and wholeness. They wanted to touch him. And as Luke tells us, all were healed.
Jesus knew how to read a crowd. He saw those before him… they were the poor, the marginalized, the sick and the tired. And he doesn’t address them directly but rather speaks to his disciples… Why does he do that? To teach them something about how to handle crowd situations, a lesson perhaps in group theology and leadership? He speaks to the group’s deepest wants and desires… they were used to being hated and despised and relegated to the fringes of their community. They longed to be noticed for their dignity and accepted for who they were. “Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep, you who are hated… for yours is the kin-dom”. And he has a warning for those who profit off the backs of the poor, those who hold the highest positions of power without accountability. The beatitudes put the disciples on notice, to be prepared for tables to be turned. Because this is how things work according to Jesus… justice and mercy; kindness and compassion will prevail.
Padraig O’Tuama, a favourite writer and theologian, suggests that Jesus’ crowd theology involved a test of his disciples to see how many of them had the intuition to see beyond the chaos of the mass of people that surrounded them. Could they read the deeper, individual needs of the crowd and name them? And perhaps more importantly, how could a change in belief and behavior be affected?
We have all been watching the protest unfold and escalate these past two weeks in Ottawa and Windsor, and other places across the country. It makes me most anxious and deeply concerned. I am a proponent of peaceful protest regardless of whether or not I agree with the position being proposed. But I find myself wondering about the group dynamics we have witnessed in the media. How will this come to an end? I find myself asking who is going to mediate a resolution when the two sides are so very far apart, and blockades are stopping other citizens from exercising their rights and freedoms. I am not sure what is being gained but it is clear to me that there are groups that do not feel they have been heard. What is to be our response, as people who value independent thinking, owning our behavior and beliefs? So, I have to leave you with this crowd-tension. Blessings become woes and woes will become blessings… that’s the way it works according to Jesus. Jesus sees their deep need right at their level… not above them or standing apart from them or ignoring them… but right there in the midst of them.
I invite you to take some time this week to consider the groups you belong to. What is your overarching desire towards these groups? Is it to nurture and be nurtured, to challenge and be challenged? How do the beatitudes shape your membership in the groups you belong to? How can you be part of standing in solidarity with others in the group so that needs are met? May we read the signs and know how to respond to the hunger of others.