A Movement or a Mob
Nicky Gumbel, the Rector of Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican church in London said, “Movements grow from the intersection of a personal story and circumstances.” It’s true. Movements do not begin without an extraordinary individual, but they are not just a series of rallies around that charismatic individual. That person must come at just the right time and under the right set of particular circumstances to make change possible.
Because so much of what I believe about human behavior and group dynamics comes from stories in the Bible, I’ve looked at the number of times mobs came up against the movement of the early Church—a movement founded in hope in the resurrection, a true fellowship based on shared values, authentic while imperfect leaders, and the supernatural agape love that was turning the world upside down.
Enemies of the fledgling Church stirred up the mobs time and again. However, they did not inflame haphazardly. There was a method to the way they exploited fear, madness, ignorance and frustration. They stirred up but maintained control. They agitated but knew how to manipulate and direct what they created to get what they wanted.
It’s the same technique we see today in populist politics.
In his New York Times column this week, David Brooks wrote, “Every presidential candidate needs a narrative to explain how his or her character was formed. They need a story line that begins outside of politics with some experience or life-defining crucible moment that then defines the nature of their public service…Without a clear formation story, a candidate is just a hodgepodge of positions and logos.”
It’s interesting to watch what some are calling a movement growing around Donald Trump right now. Trump was recently quoted saying, “This is a movement. We’re going to make our country great again — believe me. We will make our country great again.”
But my question is, “Are we witnessing a movement or a mob?” What is the formation story? It appears the conditions and his personality are in perfect alignment. And as Erik Erikson writes, “Ideological leaders, so it seems, are subject to excessive fears which they can master only by reshaping the thoughts of their contemporaries; while those contemporaries are always glad to have their thoughts shaped by those who so desperately care to do so. Born leaders seem to fear only more consciously what in some form everybody fears in the depths of his inner life; and they convincingly have an answer.”
And nothing incites groups of already restless people like fear and paranoia. All it takes is someone who seems to be a strong leader to voice what they fear and give them permission to react. H.L. Mencken said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
The herd instinct is often what takes over in a time of change and uncertainty. The ancient pagans sacrificed someone to the gods to appease them. The Old Testament Hebrews chose a scapegoat to turn away the wrath and reset things to normal. Uncertainty and fear always lead mobs to look for one of two things: A savior to conquer the enemy in triumph or a sacrifice to appease the gods and return things to normal.
But it’s not just the ancients, is it? We are still today — maybe more now than even a few years ago — susceptible to people stirring us up to look for a savior or someone to blame. A savior or a sacrifice.
Mobs create havoc. Movements create change.
Mobs are fueled by fear and anger. Movements are fueled by principles.
Mobs take prisoners. Movements take time.
A real movement does not merely attract people who have come to see the show but creates a sense of membership. A true movement is an alliance of people who share each other’s dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs and also share deeply held values.
Before we evangelicals lose our way and become “those useful innocents” as we are labeled by politicians, let’s make sure what we are joining — a movement or a mob.