For the first eight years of my life I stood in front of an ancient oak tree in front of my family home on South Highway, McGehee, Arkansas, and caught a big yellow school bus to McGehee Elementary School. My buddies, Craig Towles and Pip Runyan, wickedly violated school bus riding etiquette and abandoned their boring bus stop two doors down and joined me so that we could surreptitiously deposit acorns AKA pretend “soldiers” in the middle of the road to be squashed by speeding autos AKA pretend German Panzer Tanks. The old oak tree liberally deposited brave acorn Wehrmacht African Korps recruits on the crab grass carpet that my grandmother had futilely tried to replace with St. Augustine grass.
We made the most of the oak’s munificence. Those little buggers made a wonderful chartreuse stain on the already steaming South Highway concrete crown. This was innocent enough—no one would miss a few acorns from a stupid oak tree—but before long, you guessed it, we—more precisely Pip—who was always full of errant but terribly interesting pretend scenarios—that boy always worried Craig and me—suggested that we abandon the acorns and started throwing grenades AKA rocks at passing cars (Pip will deny this of course but you must corroborate this story with Craig). We finally hit (blew up) a few Tiger Tanks and got into big trouble (were captured by the enemy—the Gestapo—and were thoroughly punished–our parents beat the crap out of us).
The truth is Jimmy, Craig, Pip alone would not do such a depraved thing (well maybe Pip would do it—he tortured cats too). In a group, together, however, such a thing not only was plausible, it was downright desirable. Jimmy, Craig, and Pip did things Jimmy or Craig or Pip would never do alone. In a crowd we did things we would not do as individuals.
A Christian theologian named Reinhold Neibuhr said as much in a book he wrote called Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr insisted that public politics is concerned with correcting, balancing as it were, the sinfulness of human nature, that is, the self-centeredness of individuals and groups. But he understood that while little boys, and political despots might behave nicely if they are alone, in groups, they became monsters. He suggested that moral men became immoral men when they were together in a social group.
Niebuhr fervently hoped that a person would experience redemption and thereby redeem his society by a Hegelian, reductionist struggle with sinfulness. Hegel said, in short, that folks changed as they struggled with life. Hegel hoped that people came through a struggle, hard times, as better people. Just like my mother hoped that my whipping for throwing the rocks with Craig and Pip would cause me to be a better person too. In my case, the mental dissonance, combined with physical pain, worked! I have never thrown rocks at cars since then. I still relieve myself outside behind another oak tree once in a while—another terrible thing that Pip and Craig taught me to do and my fussy mother told me not to do—but, hey, I live on a farm! But I have never thrown rocks at cars.
Niebuhr advanced the thesis that what the individual is able to achieve singly cannot be a possibility for social groups. He believed that Jimmy Stobaugh would be a good boy alone but inevitably, without a doubt, once he was with Craig and Pip or his other buddies he would indulge in chicanery. It was inevitable. Thus, Niebuhr believed in moral individuals and immoral societies or groups. He called it “the herd mentality.”
In other words, Niebuhr correctly saw the immorality of systems in society (e.g., social welfare) and its futile attempts to ameliorate individuals and their needs through systemic interventions. In other words, Niebuhr was not naïve — he knew that systems and cultures change and individual hearts change. But it was much harder to convince a group to change than an individual.
Niebuhr warned that one should try to change individual hearts first, but, in a last resort, power could and should be used to stop societies from harming its members and then other societies.
Once Craig and I were melting down Mr. Chilcoat’s discarded tar shingles to make spears. We were full of bad ideas but they always exhibited élan and ingenuity. We carefully placed the tar shingles in empty discarded metal pork and bean cans sitting in a roaring fire. Once the tar was bubbling we placed old broom handles in the mixture and, once the broom handles were removed, and the tar somewhat cooled, we place stone heads–carefully chiseled as surrogate Indian spear heads–into the warm tar. Thus, we created a alligator killing weapon that we used to kill pretend reptiles in Mrs. Beck’s water garden.
My dad, observing our behavior, and, furthermore, discerning the obvious dangers of placing boiling tar and eight year old boys in the same vicinity, prophetically warned, “Jimmy, stop or you will burn yourself badly.”
Well, he was right. Within the next hour I spilled burning tar on my right hand causing painful third degree burns. I spent the rest of the day in Dr. Parker’s waiting room. Even looking at lovely Jane Parker, Dr. Parker’s oldest daughter, my first heartthrob, only to be replaced by perennial goddess Jamie Fraser the following year, could not mitigate the pain. It was a Sunday afternoon and Jane had accompanied her dad to his office, which was normally closed. I longingly lobbied for curative sympathy from this exquisite beauty but Jane, always the pragmatist, simply thought I was stupid and resented that her dad had to waste his time on such a dope.
The thing is, I always wondered, why didn’t my dad STOP me from burning Mr. Chilcoat’s roof shingles and, more pointedly, from burning to the third degree his accident prone, stupid middle son’s hand? What if I had killed myself or something? I imagined Dad saying, “Well Jimmys dead—I told him it was going to happen.” Or “Well, now what am I going to do—there is no one to take the trash out in the morning!” My dad would have been sorry, I was convinced if the fates of burning tar had snatched me from this world.
Or, worse, what if I hurt Craig—something I was always doing. Poor Craig, more times than not, got hurt more often by my dim-witted choices than I did. Craig got four stitches in his chin the next year when I caught his face with an army surplus shovel as we dug fox holes to escape the inevitable Japanese Banzai charge that would be visited on us at Guadalcanal. Didn’t Dad at least want to protect poor Craig? It would have been pretty embarrassing to tell Mom, and Mrs. Towles, “Sorry to tell you—Jimmy and Craig were killed while making tar spears to kill pretend alligators in Mrs. Beck’s water garden.” Pathetic parenting.
I once asked Dad and Dad with an iconic grin responded, “Jimmy, even at age eight, you manifested an obduracy that I could not overcome. In the presence of Craig, in order to maintain your pride, I knew you would never listen to me. You needed to experience the consequences of your actions before you would stop the action.”
Especially as I look down right now, as I type this digital magazine, and I look at my scarred right hand I realize my sagacious father was right.
Dad’s point was, individuals may be sincere in their understanding about several issues. In fact, they may be right about some issues. But they are wrong, too. But when that group gains political hegemony, it can lose focus and direction and can do immoral things—like throwing rocks at cars—and stupid things—like making tar spears.
Individuals can be moral in purpose and in actions. But combining a bunch of individuals into a coercive group can cause the group to become immoral. For example, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was initially a pretty good thing for Germany. However, as he gained power, the good was replaced by the bad. This may not be inevitable, but it happens so often that we should be cautious in giving so much power to groups. As an interesting sidebar, Niebuhr is directly contradicting the liberal Dewey who applauded the notion that the community, or larger society, created the greater good.
The answer to this apparent contradiction is, of course the Gospel. Societies and groups change as individuals change. Niebuhr stressed the role of the Holy Spirit (what he calls the “religious imagination”). In a sense the group remained moral because the individuals in that society answer to a “higher power,” not to the coercion of the group or to the agenda of the group. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German
World War II martyr, for example, was perhaps the most patriotic of Germans because he loved his God and his country enough to obey God and His Word above all persons. This was the only way, Bonheoffer understood, that his nation could be moral and right before the God he served. Unfortunately, he was a lone voice in the wilderness!
We live today in a world that is full of the tyranny of the majority. The world tells us to relax, be happy and do what is right in our own eyes. We do things as a group we would never do as individuals. But judgment comes not to groups but to individuals!
The truth, then, is change—real change—is a “God” thing. Only God can really change persons. And as he changes persons, families, then he will change communities and nations. For Such a Time as This believes this with all our heart and anxiously wait for God to change our individual hearts, then our nation, and then the world. For the time we have left, with all the effort we have, FSATAT wishes to do exactly that: share the Gospel with one person at a time so that the world will change and God’s Kingdom will come on this Earth as it is in Heaven!