Saturday, October 10, 2009

Crowd Without a Cause

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. (Acts 19.32)

Looking for a Fight

Hopefully school life is more civil than when I was a kid. But I rather doubt it, since what we’re discussing today has been around forever. The behavior is so basic and universal, I'll set up the anecdote and let you finish it. Sixth grade: the class stud’s name is Charlie—cute verging on handsome, smooth operator. Eileen is the early bloomer, and thus Charlie’s de facto squeeze. When another girl, Melody, starts coming into her own, Charlie shows interest in her, too. The class bristles as tension builds to the inevitable after-school face-off. The final bell rings, the school empties, and kids from the other classes notice the sixth graders rushing in the same direction. So what do they do?

Something in kids loves looking for a fight. Maybe it’s part of the tribal compulsion to fit in—or fear of being left out. Whatever it is, when we’re “tweens,” a fight is not to be missed. And though our enthusiasm is fairly harmless at this point (since the fights are usually benign), it seeds a dangerous tendency that sprouts up in adult behavior. Left unchecked, avidity for ringside inclusion will choke the tolerance, compassion, and gentleness every follower of Christ strives to cultivate. Conflicts we flock around as adults carry far greater potential for hurting others and damaging us than two sixth-grade girls fighting over a boy. If nothing else, eagerness to join the crowd often finds us where those described in Acts 19.32 are: “Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”

None of Their Business

These people have no clue why they’re there because what’s underway is none of their business. Like most conflicts that simmer until they boil over, it’s basically a spite match. The Apostle Paul has had great success in Ephesus, converting many new believers from the cult of Artemis (Diana), whose massive statue is the city’s world-famous centerpiece. Artemis is good for commerce. She lures out-of-town tourists to Ephesus and regional devotees spend small fortunes on personal shrines to her. Paul’s ministry puts a serious dent in the Ephesian economy. Shrine sales are down with no sign of rebounding, which prompts a silversmith named Demeterius to call a meeting of the city’s craftsmen. He exploits their financial worries to stoke their fears and superstitions. Because of Paul, he says, they and their business are verging on obsolete—and worse than that, the Artemis mystique is vaporizing before their eyes.

A mob scene ensues. The craftsmen grab two of Paul’s colleagues and hustle them into the town’s theater to assault them. Paul wants to rush to their aid, but his friends beg him to stay put. Meanwhile, the rest of the city catches wind there’s a big fight going on. People drop what they’re doing and hurry to the theater. As the crowd surges, havoc breaks out. Everyone’s shouting and shoving, though very few ascertain what the ruckus is about. The reason for the riot gets lost; as far as the crowd can tell, somebody insulted Artemis. Demetrius’s issues with Paul inflate into an anti-Semitic squall. Local, non-Christian Jews shove a spokesman, Alexander, onstage to defend them. But it’s too late. Everyone’s fully convinced this is an Us versus Them situation. He can’t be heard over the crowd chanting, “Artemis! Artemis!” The city clerk finally quiets things down, reminding the mob it’s at risk of being charged with rioting. “Let the courts decide this,” he advises. Confronted with the prospect of arrest, the people trickle back to work and the matter is dropped.

Part of the Problem

A wise person said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” That’s what we’re looking at in Acts. It’s something we see every day. Call it morbid curiosity, armchair activism, fear of exclusion—call it whatever you like—that kid inside us keeps looking for a fight. Even though we’ve outgrown the urge to fight, the chance to cheer with the crowd can be irresistible. But a crowd formed around an issue it knows little about and has no intention of resolving is a crowd without a cause. It fits Shakespeare’s description of hollow bluster: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” All it gets from its rush for inclusion are a few thrills before skulking back to work it left undone.

For believers, being part of the problem causes bigger problems. From our neighbors’ perspective, joining crowds without a cause signals conformity, even if we root for the non-conformist or underdog. Thus, when we rally behind a cause we truly care about, we monitor ourselves closely lest our motives wither under pressure we conform to the angry, confused crowd’s demeanor. Writing to Roman believers, who were infamous for constantly looking for a fight, Paul says: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” (Romans 12.2) Spiritual transformation calls us to test and approve, the opposite of protest and disapprove. We base tests and approvals on God’s expectations, not what we hear or think.

Faith becomes the engine driving our cause. Because God dwells in us, He enters every situation with us and through us. We don’t act like the crowd because we’re not like the crowd. They look for a fight; we seek a solution. They watch; we work. Our faith enables us calm confusion, as the city clerk does or, as Paul’s friend’s do, persuade others to avoid harm. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead,” James 2.17 says. Any time we gather around a cause, it’s because we believe God's presence in what we say and do will have a positive effect on the situation. If that’s not our cause, we've no cause to be there.

A crowd looking for a fight is a crowd without a cause.

(Tomorrow: Stillness)


gary Lewis said...

As a grown man of 44 (groan man, some days!) I can honestly say that I have broken up far more fights than I have been in over my years.

In 5th grade, Chris punched me in the stomach. He felt so bad that he apologized. It went off the record. Bobby made me kiss a pine tree over a girl who later moved to Texas. Mike socked me in the eye and blinded me for half an hour when we were around 12. I later smacked his head against a solid core entry door. We still talk twice a month :)

Religion aside, I have always done my best to avoid conflict in my own life, and help settle differences in the lives of complete strangers. Jumping in the middle of two drunken pool players is no place for a pacifist, but I did it more than twice -- and here was I, without a pool cue, a bridge, or even a chalk square! Sometimes something internal, fraternal, paternal or maternal fires up and you just know what is happening is wrong and can be stopped.

I can fairly safely say my Zebra days have passed. Now I just blow the whistle if I know someone is getting a late birthday card or our dinner plans have changed.

Honestly, it is less exciting, but in the end I think it will be more valuable. Time spent with those who love me, rather than those who want to take my head off with a piece of shiny Oak!

Tim said...

While writing this, Gary, two experiences kept flashing in my mind.

The first was my only school fight--not because I was an angel, but I was a skinny dork with no athletic talents whatsoever. I kept my head down and avoided confrontations. (I also helped the bullies with their homework to get on their good sides.) But this one kid, Richie, had it out for me and the only way to end it was to face him. Who knows how I did it, but I landed a good one square on his nose. He staggered back and that's when I saw blood. I scared me to death and I couldn't think straight because of all the racket from the kids watching us fight. At that moment I despised them more than Richie for using me for their entertainment. They had no business being there.

The second story happened several years ago, when an ex-husband violated his restraining order and attacked one of my neighbors just outside our building's pool area. When she screamed, about 10 of us (mostly gay) ran like gazelles to help her. Part of wrestled her ex to the ground while others made sure she was okay. It took a moment to realize a crowd had gathered to see what was happening--with no intention whatsoever of doing anything but watch. They were useless.

Both experiences brought the Acts story to life for me. If we're not there to help, we've got no business being there...

Thanks for the comment, and I'm relieved your staying out of pool rooms and no longer kissing pine trees!