Friday, April 14, 2023

When the Mob is Sure

 No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.”  (Luke 5:36-39, NIV)

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. With the deck 127 feet above the water, it was one of the highest. The bridge can “flex” in height, depending on traffic, by as much as 9 feet. 

     With that much flex, and given that the new bridge was the first to use steel suspension cables, armchair engineers questioned whether or not the cables would hold at max traffic. (This was before most of the traffic was made up of cars.) On opening day, when more than 150,000 would walk across the bridge, there were fears that it would just collapse into the East River.

     So there was some fear about the bridge in the air. Many of the people who crossed would have been nervous about being there in the first place. All went well on opening day, but 6 days later, on May 30, a woman slipped and fell going down the narrow stairway on the Manhattan side. Another woman screamed loudly, which caused people nearby to rush toward the stairs. Others saw them running, and a rumor started to spread that the bridge was collapsing. Since there were thousands of people on the promenade, a pileup quickly formed at the staircase. They climbed over each other and trampled each other trying to get off the bridge before the “imminent” collapse. By the time it was over, 12 people had died and 35 were injured — not because there was anything wrong with the bridge, but because thousands of people thought there was.

     Isn’t this why outlandish conspiracy theories become legitimate political platforms — because enough people think they’re true?

     Isn’t this how runs on banks happen? Because enough people think that the bank is going to fail?

     Isn't this how relatively mild financial ripples can become full-blown recessions? 

     If enough people think it’s true, it can become, for all practical purposes, true.

     We were discussing Luke 5 and 6 in our Bible study last Wednesday night, and we came to the puzzling little parables about old and new clothing and old and new wineskins Jesus taught at the end of chapter 5. His point, from two contemporary (to him) illustrations of how life works, is that sometimes you can’t combine new ways of thinking and living with old. It has to be one or the other. Otherwise, you compromise the new and/or ruin the old. 

     Right after these parables, Luke tells us of two confrontations Jesus had with his critics — experts in the Bible all — about honoring the Sabbath day. In one, Jesus’ disciples are hungry as they travel through a grain field. They pick a few heads of grain, rub it in their hands to release the kernels, and eat them. Jesus’ critics say that’s “working” — threshing grain — on the Sabbath.

     They came to that conclusion by inference; their Bibles said to honor the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, by refraining from work. Threshing is work, and the disciples were threshing (on a very small scale). Voil√†, they’ve violated the Sabbath. They all think this. 

     Jesus answers them by appealing to Scripture as well, in this case to show that the great King David, a man after God’s heart, had seemingly violated Scripture to feed hungry people. In David’s case, it wasn’t an inference that was violated, but a command. But the need of human beings took precedence in that case over strict obedience to a law. 

      In the second confrontation, the stakes are higher. It happens in the synagogue, not in an isolated field. There’s a man there with a paralyzed hand. Jesus’ critics, maybe remembering the incident in the field, are thinking that Jesus just might repeat his “violation” of the Sabbath by healing this man. Which he does.

      If enough people believe something is true, it can become, for all practical purposes, true. It seems like this is what happened with Jesus’ critics. They all read the Bible alike, because to read it differently would be grounds for dismissal from “the club.” And, in fact, when Jesus comes along with a different reading, they do just that. They remove him from the club.

     That’s as good an explanation as any of the history of the church, of the ways we’ve divided over our reading of the Bible. I don’t know of a Christian denomination that ignores the Bible. But we’ve settled on interpretations in our own little tight circles — interpretations that sometimes have as much to do with cultural realities as they do faithfulness to the Bible — and enough people have believed those interpretations were true that they have, for all practical purposes, become true. And we’ve rushed to defend those interpretations, even when in doing so we’ve trampled and wounded good people. 

     There's a word for what we’re talking about: hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the interpretation of a text — like the Bible — and a hermeneutic is a particular method of interpretation. The hermeneutics of Jesus’ critics created an understanding of the Bible that said God preferred obedience to every law every time over the well-being of human beings. Jesus’ hermeneutic was the opposite. You hear it in what he says just before he heals the man with the paralyzed hand:  

“I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”    

For Jesus, the question of what’s good — what saves life — seems to have been one of his chief criteria for how to interpret the Bible. If your interpretation leads you to damage or destroy people, it’s wrong. 

     No matter how many people think it’s true, or who they are.

     In the next few posts, I want to take some time with this groupthink that we in the church call hermeneutics,  the interpretation of the Bible. I want us to consider how our interpretations of the Bible help or hurt people. This isn’t easy work. I already know that it might well upset some people. Jesus himself  acknowledged that at the end of his “new-and-old” parables, when he said, “No one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’” That’s the power of groupthink. It can make us prefer the old, the familiar, the comfort of being in the majority. It can make us think that what has “worked” for “us” is by definition right. And even when the majority has turned into a mob, running roughshod over vulnerable people, we can fail to see.

          Much of the interpretation we do when we read the Bible is unconscious. That isn’t always a problem, but it can be for reasons that I hope will become clear. So one of the things I want to do in the next few posts is help us be aware of the ways we interpret the Bible, in hopes that it will make us better interpreters. 

     In the next post, I’ll start by talking about Commands, Examples, and Necessary Inferences.     

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