The Perils of Group Think

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The liturgy of Palm Sunday has always disturbed me. Always. We gather outside with palms, and we feel the excitement. Everyone waves their palm leaves and many wear specially-made palm crosses. It’s festive. We process into the nave singing, “All glory, laud, and honor” after proclaiming “Hosanna in the highest heaven.”

There is a lightness in the liturgy, something that one could even describe as joyful…

Then….

After proclaiming Hosanna and All glory, laud, and honor, our proclamation dramatically and suddenly shifts:

“Crucify him!” the Gospel reading says, with the crowds gathered shouting and demanding out of anger. A celebratory street party gives way to a mob mentality that demands blood.

Every year, I get spiritual and emotional whiplash on this Sunday. Part of me blames the Bishop of Jerusalem, who many centuries ago, stretched the celebrations of the Triduum, the great three days around Christ’s Passion, into a Holy Week to accommodate more pilgrims in the Holy Land. The Church created the Palm Sunday observance to mark this moment in the Passion story. I think it’s ironic that we created a celebration to ease the pressure of crowds, and introduced a liturgy that focuses on a mob-mentality.

We can feel the whiplash in this day with its two names: Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion—two facets to the tension we feel as we step into Holy Week.

It is such a quick shift from palms to passion, isn’t it? Just an easy slip from proclamations of celebration to proclamations of crucifixion.

This year, the greatest lesson this Sunday teaches me is to be very mindful and very wary of the seduction of “group think.” Be very mindful of the way a fervor can sweep into a group of people…and overflow into something so painful.

“Group think” is so easy, isn’t it? And, it’s dangerous, because simply allowing ourselves to be swept up into the crowd makes us feel as though we are part of something—yet being swept up into the crowd mentality also makes us feel as though our own individual responsibility is lessened.

Overflowing in proclamations of Hosanna in the Highest is a very wonderful thing. The potential for spilling out with proclamations of “Crucify Him” should make us deeply concerned.

I remember being in the seventh grade and participating in a Passion Play at my church back in Arkansas. We all dressed up in costumes as close to authentic first century Jerusalem dress as we could get: robes and barefeet or sandals. Thank God no one wore a towel.

I remember how much we missed our cue, to switch from Hosanna to Crucify Him as we all walked down the aisles of the church. We kept missing the cue to switch over from celebration to crucifixion. Until, the choir director asked the lead bass to be the first to yell. He had the loudest voice I have probably ever heard, and at a certain point, he yelled out, “Crucify Him!” And we all nodded….and immediately joined right in with our shouts of crucify as well. Easy as that to make the transition. All we had to do was follow.

We are not called to be a people defined by “group think.” We are not called to be a people ruled and guided by our passions. Rather, we are called to be a mindful people ruled and guided by The Passion, the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

And the Passion of Our Lord shows us that the way of the cross demands that we—to put it bluntly—get over ourselves. Our Lord’s life, death, and burial show us that, as Bonhoeffer said, there is indeed a cost to discipleship.

We’re getting into a very tricky season, aren’t we: Election Season…the ultimate season, as it were, for “group think.” These can be tense times, to be sure. Lots of opinions. Much passion to be sure.   How to navigate all this craziness within a spiritual community that seeks to be a space that welcomes in all and seeks to uphold our Baptismal covenant “to respect the dignity of every human being.”

It has been helpful for me to view the tensions of election season through the lens of the Passion Narrative—paying close attention to the dynamic of the crowd. For me, it is the Passion of Our Lord—and my participation in it—that ultimately defines me.

We should never forget that, to have the Mind of Christ, as St. Paul describes it, we must empty ourselves in order to be filled with the love of God. Ours is a spiritual practice, as we have described before, of kenosis, of self-emptying, that enables a deeper participation in the Incarnation of God in this world.

Because what we are called to participate in this week—what we are called to share in for our entire lives and for always—is nothing less than a complete reorientation of our entire selves, becoming attuned to the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ.

I love what our Presiding Bishop said in a recent New York Times article, when the reporter asked him for thoughts on specific political candidates. He said,

It’s not appropriate…to make a partisan pronouncement on any candidates. But to articulate the values on which we stand. Love, at least as Jesus articulated it, has to do with seeking the good and the welfare of others before one’s own enlightened self-interest… (New York Times, March 18, 2016).

As we step into this most Holy Week, let us pray, again using the words of today’s collect:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Palm Sunday, Year C
St. Luke’s Passion Account
March 20, 2016

One comment

  1. Wow, that was powerful. I would love to use that in a sermon, with your permission. I am always pleased at your ability to step out of your place of privilege and truly walk into the text.

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