In 1895 the French polymath Gustav Le Bon published an influential book called La Psychologie des Foules, translated in English as The Crowd: A study of the popular mind.
As a young man Le Bon joined the French Army as a doctor at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. His experience of defeat, and his first-hand observation of the Paris Commune in the early months of 1871, heavily coloured Le Bon’s world view. He became deeply conservative, suspicious of democracy and social-ism. In his book Le Bon developed the view that crowds are not the sum of their individual parts, arguing that within crowds there forms a new psychological entity which overrides individual decency and common sense.
His book was read by, amongst others, Churchill, Roosevelt, Freud, Lenin, Sta-lin, Mussolini and Hitler. All of them were won over by the view that crowds behave as one unit, irrationally. Le Bon argues that people respond to crisis with panic and violence.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Churchill and his generals were consumed with worry that if the Germans bombed London – which Churchill described as ‘a valuable fat cow tied up to attract the beasts of prey’ – then the city would swiftly descend into pandemonium. They feared the army would not be able to fight the enemy because it would be occupied dealing with hysterical masses.
Hitler, who had read the same book, agreed. On 19th October 1939 he told his generals to expect great things from the planned strikes by the Luftwaffe, which would attack the British will to resist. The plan was put into effect, and on 7th September 1940 348 German bomber planes crossed the Channel. What followed became known as The Blitz, which lasted nine months, and during which more than 80,000 bombs would be dropped on London. Over 40,000 people, mostly civilians, lost their lives.
Did panic, hysteria and brutish behaviour ensue? Not a bit of it. The British responded with humour and resourcefulness, a fine display of the stiff upper lip, exemplified by merchants putting up signs outside their wrecked premises saying MORE OPEN THAN USUAL and OUR WINDOWS ARE GONE BUT OUR SPIRITS ARE EXCELLENT: COME IN AND TRY THEM. The British endured the German bombs as they would a delayed train: irritating but tolerable. There was sadness, grief and fury, of course, but the psychiatric wards remained empty and alcoholism actually decreased. In later years the British would look back nostalgically on the days of the Blitz spirit, when everyone pulled together.
This is all true, but it is misleading, because exactly the same happened in Germany a few years later. Ignoring the evidence of the people’s response to the raids on London, Churchill endorsed a plan to break the will of the German people by carpet bombing Dresden and other industrial centres. A prolonged attack ensued, culminating in the late spring of 1945. RAF bombers almost obliterated more than half of Germany’s towns and cities. On one night in Dresden more people died than had been killed in London during the whole of the war.
Again, there was no hysteria. Neighbours became wonderfully helpful. Members of the Hitler Youth rushed around putting out fires and tending to the homeless. Research later showed, just as in London, that the bombing had had very little impact, not even on productivity: indeed the reverse, as towns which had been attacked increased their contribution to the war effort.
This vast miscalculation by both sides was based on a false understanding about human nature. Hitler and Churchill alike had fallen into the same trap, believing that our state of civilisation is no more than skin deep, that our capacity for kindness and decency is no more than a veneer over the savage beast within.
Military doctrine does not evolve very quickly: the same vastly expensive, destructive but ultimately futile exercise was repeated by America during the Vietnam War.
I am indebted for this story, and for my theme today, to a new book, Humankind, by the Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman. In it he puts forward the revolutionary view that most people are pretty decent. On the whole they look out for one an-other; they act altruistically; they do not automatically follow the crowd.
Examples of non-hysteria don’t make the news, but they are not hard to find. During the attack on the Twin Towers, thousands descended the stairs calmly, making way for firefighters and the injured. In New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – when official rescue efforts were seriously hampered by breathless reports of rising anarchy, rape and murder – subsequent investigations revealed that a veritable Armada of small boats sailed in to offer help, from as far away as Texas; that hundreds of civilians formed rescue squads; and that while there was indeed looting, sometimes for good pragmatic reasons, and sometimes involving the police, there was not one confirmed case of rape or murder.
Somewhere, deep in our psyche, is the tendency to believe bad news. We can perhaps attribute it to the fact that over the millennia of our evolution a warning of approaching dangerous beasts was best taken seriously, even if it proved false.
The result, today, is that if we are asked to assess whether things are staying the same, getting better or getting worse, then we consistently say things are going to the dogs. Major surveys have demonstrated this. News is always about the ex-ceptional, and especially about what is going wrong. As a result, you have never seen a headline saying NUMBER OF PEOPLE LIVING IN EXTREME POVERTY FALLS BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY, even though this could have been accurately reported every single day for the last 25 years.
You will need to read Bregman’s book, which I warmly recommend, to follow his arguments and his fascinating illustrations. But his underlying thesis, that civilisation is not a veneer, but operates deep within our natures, is one I find convincing from personal observation.
This misleading metaphor, the idea of the veneer of civilised behaviour masking the savage beast, can be discovered all over our media. Take the hugely popular BBC Two police series Line of Duty, which was ranked in a Radio Times polls as the third best crime drama of all time. It concerns the Anti-Corruption unit AC-12, which exposes corruption in the force. On the face of it, for such units to ex-ist is an indication of a strong moral sense at the heart of the police service. But, of course, AC-12 is itself corrupt, and viewers are taught to be skeptical about every officer’s testimony.
It’s gripping stuff, but is it true? A couple of years ago I edited Leroy Logan’s account of his life as a black cop, published last year under the title Closing Ranks. In it he tells how he battled racial discrimination to rise through the ranks. He encountered prejudice, but he persevered, and became one of the founding members of the Black Police Association. He would become one of the police re-sponsible for organising security at the London Olympics. What sticks in my mind, however, was the response of one of the choir members in the choir to which Grace and I belong. This chap had been a working cop all his life. I told him about Leroy’s book, and to my surprise the normally affable gentleman went red in the face and started shouting about the Black Police Association – not because he was opposed to black coppers, but because the Association by its existence called into question the integrity of the force to which he had given his life. He is a deeply decent man, and it offended him to his core that such a body might be thought necessary.
I wonder what your experience of the cops has been, law-abiding people that you are? Pen and I compared notes the other day, and agreed that every policeman or policewoman we had met, in a combined life span of more than 130 years, was a thoroughly decent human being: responsible, kind, longsuffering, helpful.
The idea, however, that the human race is fundamentally depraved is deeply rooted in the Western intellectual tradition and in Christian theology. St Augustine claimed, ‘No one is free from sin, not even an infant whose span of earthly life is but a single day.’ The concept of original sin was a foundation stone for John Calvin, over a thousand years later, who observed, ‘Our nature is not only destitute and empty of good, but so fertile and fruitful of every evil that it cannot be idle.’ It was Calvin who defined the doctrine of Total Depravity, by which he meant that there was no aspect of the human condition that had not been touched by sin. The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, one of the key texts of the Protestant Reformation, described human beings as ‘totally unable to do any good and in-clined to all evil’.
On the face of it, Jesus would seem to agree. In a dispute with the Pharisees about hand washing, recorded in Matthew 15, he comments: ‘the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander.’ In his comment to those who were planning to stone a woman caught in adultery, he famously observed, ‘Let him who is with-out sin cast the first stone.’ John records, ‘Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest.’ The older you get the more you perceive your deficiencies.
St Paul repeatedly made the same point. In the letter to the Romans he explained, ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’ The whole point of Christ’s sacrifice was to mend the bond between God and his people, which had been broken by their sin.
The Book of Common Prayer makes the same point in Article 9: ‘Man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil.’
Alongside this, however, you need to place another strand: that of the nature of creation. The repeated refrain in the creation storis of Genesis is that ‘God made … and saw that it was good.’ This perception, that in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, is a counterbalance to the emphasis on our sinful nature.
The question for us this morning, I think, is to what degree the image of God in us is marred by our capacity to do wrong? Preachers and theologians have carved out careers for themselves by emphasising our wickedness, but are they right?
The answer is: Partly. Rutger Bregman puts forward the case, which he makes well, not that people are fundamentally good, but that people are fundamentally kind and fundamentally sociable. The reason that Homo Sapiens survived and dominated, after tens of thousands of years living alongside other intelligent and possibly more powerful human species such as Homo Neanderthalis, is not be-cause we were more savage, but because we learned to cooperate fluently; to pick up one another’s signals.
This can also be a weakness, because we can become caught up and mesmerised by a strong leader. Reportedly Hitler could change people’s opinions simply by his captivating presence. Our capacity for empathy can mislead us, and leave us vulnerable to narcissists and egomaniacs, who can harness for darker purposes our instinct to work together.
What, then, is the impact of salvation – of accepting Christ – on the human condition? Part of the impact is ontological: in other words, we become daughters and sons of the Most High, co-heirs with Christ, forgiven and accepted. Another part of the impact is experiential: we gain the presence of the Spirit. As we become freed from sin we become more and more transformed into the image of Je-sus Christ. One of the fruits of the Spirit is kindness; another is self-control. The more we are rooted in Christ, the more we become capable of discerning what is wholesome and good, and of finding the courage to stand up to those who bully and seek to dominate. As Jesus explains in John 16, ‘When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth.’
I’d now like to turn to the account which Sue read for us this morning [John’s Gospel, Chapter 21, verses 1-19] about Peter’s encounter with Jesus, because it sheds light on what it means to be kind.
Just to remind you of the background: Peter, the most fervent of Jesus’s disciples, has been tested and found wanting. During Christ’s trial, three times Peter has been accused of being his disciple, and three times, out of fear, he has denied his Master. The strong, impetuous, loving man has been found wanting, and the knowledge is eating him from the inside. His whole sense of himself has been called into question.
Yet, as shown by his actions on that morning in Galilee, his devotion to Jesus is undimmed. John records that they were fishing a hundred yards offshore, a distance at which the keenest eyesight might be misled. Yet when Peter realises who is standing there, he flings on his garments and leaps overboard, leaving his companions to haul in the bulging net.
After breakfast, Peter and Jesus talk beside the sea shore. Peter is happy to be once more in his Master’s presence, but a paralysing awareness of his own failure grips him.
What, he must have wondered, will Jesus say?
A conventional view of kindness would have Jesus assuring Peter that he still loves and trusts his disciple, that everyone makes mistakes, that Peter’s failure was entirely understandable in the circumstances. Jesus does none of these things. Instead he asks the most penetrating and the most healing of questions, helping Peter, the impulsive man and external thinker, to look into his own soul: Peter, do you love me? This cuts to the heart of Peter’s motivation and to the root of his self-doubt.
Kindness is not about being soft and soothing. Kindness requires discernment and insight, and at its best is penetrating. What Jesus did was to restore to Peter his confidence in his own most outstanding characteristic: he was a man with a great capacity to love.
This rings more true than all the nonsense about the thin veneer over the savage breast. Not all of us are capable of so much love: in some of us such currents run sluggishly. Nor are we all equally discerning. But, as a species, we do have the capacity to be kind; and under the Mercy we have the capacity to penetrate to what is real.
In the name of Christ, Amen.