A Sermon from Sherborne

The crowd

A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 13 August 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

The appointed second lesson for this evening, Acts 14. 8-20, contains just one account amongst many of the role of the crowd in the history of Jesus in the Gospels and then of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. In tonight’s reading, we heard how the crowd reacted when Paul, in company with Barnabas, arrived in Lystra, in central Anatolia – now part of Turkey, where Paul healed a man crippled from birth. Instead of giving thanks to the one true God who had made the healing possible, the mob decided that Paul and Barnabas must be gods themselves, and wanted to offer sacrifices to them. Paul and Barnabas were just convincing the crowd that they were simply human, followers of the one true God, when the Jews arrived on the scene and turned the fickle mob against the two Christians, and began to stone Paul. He was defended by a circle of Christian converts, but next day he and Barnabas had little choice but to leave the city. From garlands to stones in just a few minutes. The power of the mob.

Then again, you will remember how, on that first Palm Sunday, Palestine was under Roman occupation, and was as volatile a land then as it is now. At Passover, Jews converged on Jerusalem in their tens of thousands, vastly outnumbering the Roman garrison. The Roman Governor and his court, and the quisling local leaders, were in a high state of agitation. It was a tinderbox.

Into this tense moment came Jesus. But he wasn’t allowed to walk into Jerusalem alone. The Jewish resistance movement saw in him an opportunity to stage-manage an uprising, and so the rent-a-mob swung into action, waving their palm branches which were the first century equivalent of nationalist flags. Jesus had no ambition for secular power – “My kingdom is not of this world”, he said – and he defused the moment by choosing to enter Jerusalem on a humble donkey rather than a conqueror’s stallion – a powerful symbol in the Middle East, then and now.

But soon the self-same crowd turned on him. Their “hosannas” turned into the shout of “Crucify him!” Why?

Well, the crowd is always fickle, and easy to manipulate. An historian who demonstrated that very clearly was George Rudé in his classic work The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730 – 1848 [1964]. From that book I learned always to be suspicious of the crowd whenever it shouts for this political programme or that; this popular cause or another; this religion or a different one or none at all. Tomorrow it will be shouting for something else.

I have been thinking about this a good deal in recent weeks. In my column in last Thursday’s Western Gazette, I wrote that I would not comment directly about the sad case of baby Charlie Gard because “I am not a bit-player in some great national soap opera about him, and nor are you – any more than we were 20 years ago when Diana, Princess of Wales, died in that terrible accident in Paris. The fact that the Great British Public cannot resist thrusting itself into these tragedies says more about our national psyche than it does about the events – and the issues surrounding them.”

Since then the media have been trying hard to get us emoting all over again about Diana’s death, which I cannot help but regard as a callous and cynical attempt to boost ratings. I have seen it described by one commentator as “grief porn”.

Less sensationally, there are some serious studies of the phenomenon of national, media-driven grieving which has been dubbed by some as “mourning sickness”. It has been traced back to the Dunblane massacre of 1996, the death of Diana in 1997, that of Linda McCartney in 1998, the murder of BBC journalist Jill Dando in 1999 and the murder of the “Soham girls” in 2002. Columnist Carol Sarler, writing in The Times, claims that this “ersatz grief is now the new pornography; like the worst of hard-core, it is stimulus by proxy, voyeuristically piggy-backing upon that which might otherwise be deemed personal and private, for no better reason than frisson and the quickening of an otherwise jaded pulse”. Robert Yates, Assistant Editor of The Observer, has described some media coverage of these tragedies as producing “gratification derived from a tenuous connection to the misfortunes of others; the gratuitous indulgence of tangential association with tragedy; getting-off on really bad news”.

“Getting-off on really bad news” is a shockingly graphic way to describe this great orgy of communal grief to which we now seem to be prone. I think it is accurate, but I prefer “recreational grief”. It means the same thing. But now we have to add “recreational anger”.

One blogger writing about this says: “Sometimes it is fun to be angry. Sometimes it is satisfying. Sometimes it fuels creativity. And sometimes we get angry on purpose, for the sake of being angry. We go out and look at angry-making things. To get angry”. A different sort of getting-off on really bad news, I suppose. And it’s growing. The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster illustrates that. It is becoming increasingly difficult to discriminate between the justified grievances – and anger – of the survivors who have lost their homes and all their worldly goods, and those who are simply jumping on the bandwagon for their own ends and their own gratification.

So as well as road rage and neighbour rage and – just a few days ago, when a pedestrian on Putney Bridge was knocked into the road in front of a bus – jogger rage, we now have whole communities succumbing to rage. And taking selfies to record it all.

It is at this point that all I can do is to remind you that, as Christians, we have to shake-off our natural inclination to march with and shout with the crowd. We are called to follow a different path, one that can sometimes be lonely and is often unpopular. When yesterday’s victims for whom we were campaigning become tomorrow’s oppressors, we may have to change sides to defend those who are now being persecuted. Ours is a shifting allegiance to the parties, the politics and the prejudices of this world because ultimately our only allegiance is to the God of love and truth and justice. Constantly we are called to go against the flow.

That’s why I, personally, cannot sign up to any one political party, because I know that, for every policy I can as a Christian endorse, there is another which, as a Christian, I can only oppose. I am not for a moment suggesting that any of you who are paid-up, card-carrying members of this political party or that should not be so. I simply ask you to be discerning, to be prepared to step outside the mob, sometimes to oppose the loudly-proclaimed prejudices of the crowd, even if it’s your crowd – and to do the truth – knowing that always, always, the truth will set you free.

And for that, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 13/08/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne