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The madness of crowds: Sobering thoughts on Good Friday

A local resident, playing the role of Jesus Christ, carries his cross during a Via Crucis representation on Good Friday in Cuevas del Campo, Spain.
A local resident, playing the role of Jesus Christ, carries his cross during a Via Crucis representation on Good Friday in Cuevas del Campo, Spain. | REUTERS/Pepe Marin

“Explain to me the current mass political hysteria going on in our country?” a friend recently begged me over lunch. He was referring to the progressive dogmas being forced on every level of society at the current cultural moment.

Dogmas such as: men can have periods, that a male swimmer is actually a female, that abortion-on-demand up to the point of birth is simply women’s health care, that all whites are racists, that the rush to pump children full of hormones and operate on them the minute they express even a passing confusion about their gender is enlightened, that everything is political, that tolerance should be repressive, that free speech is dangerous, not to mention the emerging tyranny of wokeness.

I responded by telling him of the British journalist Douglas Murray who has written about this recently in his book The Madness of Crowds. Murray begins his book with this sentence: “We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant.” Murray then writes about all the things we are supposed to buy into in the name of social justice, identity politics and intersectionality.

Identity politics, he says, has come to mean “the endless fomenting of racial animus,” “the vilification of all things male,” “the insistence that sexually eccentric people of all kinds not only should be tolerated but idolized.” Murray says this is what is playing itself out in workplaces, universities, schools and homes, and all at a staggering speed. He refers to this as “crowd madness” and makes an impassioned call for free speech, shared common values, and sanity in an age of mass hysteria.

I then told my friend that our society is not the first in which a kind of corporate madness takes hold. For instance, why did the Germans of the 1930s buy into Hitler’s delusions? Why did so many in totalitarian Soviet society buy into its lies? That system depended on ideological conformity and believing the lie. People were afraid to challenge the lies. I also told him about George Orwell’s 1949 book 1984, about a totalitarian society where the party decreed that “two plus two equals five” and everyone was supposed to believe this lie, along with other such lies.

Most importantly, I told him that we are not the first society to experience mass hysteria and reminded him of the events of Holy Week itself.

On that Friday of Jesus’ crucifixion, a misguided crowd pressed the Roman Governor Pilate to release an insurrectionist named Barabbas, and execute Jesus. Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. Jesus had done nothing worthy of death. In fact, Pilate wanted to release him. But he gave into the pressure of the crowd, which was shouting “crucify, crucify him.”

Let me pass on to you three sobering reminders about that momentous day. First, Good Friday reminds us that crowds, as persuasive as they sometimes are, can be maddeningly wrong.

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We all know that group pressure, the momentum of the crowd, the trends of popular culture can be powerfully intoxicating. But the majority is not always right. There is a higher law than opinion polls. Peer pressure to go along can be intense. But what is hot is not always good. On that Good Friday it was not Jesus who was on the wrong side of history. The crowd was. In his teaching, Jesus made the same point. One day he said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. For small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life” (Matthew 7.13,14, NIV).

Second, Good Friday reminds us that what we perceive as progress is sometimes regress. “If we just get rid of him, then things will finally settle down,” many thought. Moral inversion is a mark of societal decline. The prophet Isaiah said, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” (NIV, Isaiah 5.20) Empires can crumble from within. Societies can become decadent and mistake decadence for light. History is full of examples.

Finally, Good Friday reminds us that crowd hysteria does not have the final word. Which is why we call that dark Friday “good.” From the cross, Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.” The good news is, on that day and in the end, madness does not win. For “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them” (LB, 2 Corinthians 5.19).

Dr. Donald Sweeting serves as Chancellor of Colorado Christian University.

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