I guess many of us just like to be on teams, to be part of something larger than ourselves. We like to put forth a mighty effort, focusing on it together, and to feel the might of its spirit when we do so. We multiply ourselves when we work with others, and we savor the power of that.
This is so true of most people that it has created major moral problems, more than once. Rheinhold Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society is about just this: the moral power of the individual to transcend himself for the sake of the whole becomes demonic when the values of the whole are demonic. Neibuhr adduced the figure of "the good German" to illustrate this: a patriot who follows orders and loves his country, carried, by the very fact of his devotion, into a perverse moral universe in which it becomes an act of righteousness to kill innocent people. We wonder, often, how so many ordinary people could have participated in the horror of the Holocaust. How did they get so unmoored from their own sense of good and evil? The question makes us uneasy; our moral sense may be a lot more community-relative than we like to think it is. It's not just ourselves that we must transcend. Sometimes we must transcend our whole world...
This is important. It's important in little ways, like the cultural imperatives I wrote about the yesterday, where violence as a way of thinking is inherent in people's very upbringing, and it's important in big ways, like Auschwitz and Abu Ghraib. We grow up, we bring our own children up, conditioned to put the mores of the group ahead of individual conscience, and to use violence as a response to suffering, and then we wonder how these atrocities occur.
Of course, most people wouldn't admit to these forms of upbringing, if you put it like that. But look at "team spirit", look at fraternities and sonorities, look at "keeping in with the neighbours / up with the Joneses", look at "standing up for oneself" when it actually means using explicit or implicit violence to stand up for the values of the family, or the school, or the cadet force, or...
Henri Nouwen wrote:
When you are interiorly free you call others to freedom, whether you know it or not. Freedom attracts wherever it appears. A free man or a free woman creates a space where others feel safe and want to dwell. Our world is so full of conditions, demands, requirements, and obligations that we often wonder what is expected of us. But when we meet a truly free person, there are no expectations, only an invitation to reach into ourselves and discover there our own freedom.Is there a contradiction here? Freedom in this sense is above all freedom from the very "conditions, demands, requirements, and obligations" I've been writing about, and yet Nouwen is speaking of the attractiveness of the free woman or man.
Where true inner freedom is, there is God. And where God is, there we want to be.
I wonder if this doesn't lie close to the heart of the Gospel message... Jesus was apparently a shockingly attractive man. People, sometimes in crowds, would leave everything, families, livelihoods, homes, just to be with him, to listen to him speak and to watch what he did. And yet, ultimately, it was the people who condemned him to death, calling for the release of Barabbas (Matthew 27) rather than Jesus from Roman custody.
As I said yesterday, society doesn't much like folks who live free of cultural imperatives, from the will of the crowd. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Steve Biko, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, came to a sticky end. St. Francis (see this account, paragraphs 5 & 6) had a most painful interview with his own father, who was standing almost as a representative of his class and society, and were it not for the far-sighted intervention of his Bishop, things might have turned out worse than they did.
Writing of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, Leonard Foley OFM, says:
In a modern inner city, one local character kneels for hours on the sidewalk and prays. Swathed in his entire wardrobe winter and summer, he greets passers-by with a blessing. Where he sleeps no one knows, but he is surely a direct spiritual descendant of Benedict, the ragged man who slept in the ruins of Rome's Colosseum. These days we ascribe such behavior to mental illness; Benedict’s contemporaries called him holy. Holiness is always a bit mad by earthly standards.Perhaps we are called to be a bit mad. If you recall, Jesus' own family (Mark 3.20-30) thought him more than a bit mad, as did Francis' townsfolk of him!