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The Group Influence on Sin

December 27, 2011

I looked over at the car beside me. This was so stupid. It was 8 am on a Sunday morning and we are both waiting at a stop light that would not turn green. We were traveling on a major road and we were stopped at a red light for a minor cross-street. I assume it normally does not get activated unless someone is waiting to use it. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t a car on the road besides me and the guy next to me. We must have waited for four minutes and nothing was changing. Yet, like good law-abiding citizens we both sat there idling our engines.

I wonder how long we would have stayed there if the motorcycle had not pulled up. On the lane to the right of the guy beside me, a motorcycle came up and started to wait with us. But after 5 seconds, he looked both ways and bolted across the intersection. I was flabbergasted by this –  and offended.  Apparently, the guy beside me did not react the way I did. A few seconds after the guy on the Harley took off, so did he. They were both gone and left me holding up the letter of the law. On top of that, ten seconds later, the light turned green and I made my way – legally –  forward to my destination.

I have to say I felt a lot better when I came to the next light and they were both waiting there. But this scene touched off a spark of insight for me.

Many of our law-keeping ways have more to do with who is also keeping the law than our ingrained sense of right and wrong. I wish it weren’t so, but society proves over and over I’m right about this: You are more inclined to break the law if others are also doing so. Our mothers did have the question right: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off also?” We all know the answer has three factors: 1. How many friends? 2. How high is the bridge? 3. Will I get caught?

In times of chaos (such as riots, blackouts and Justin Bieber concerts) people will still abide by the law as long as enough people around them are also keeping the law. But as soon as we notice “everyone” doing something wrong, our baser nature kicks in and we often do wrong with the rest. That is really the test of how strong our moral values are: Will we keep them if everyone else is not? I am thinking of the London riots from last summer. People were looting stores and burning cars who just a few weeks before were criticizing those who did those things. In a fascinating interview, one girl admitted she was standing there watching people take appliances from one store and was crying about the destruction of her society. But, as soon as she saw her friends go in and take some items, she thought to herself “I could use a new television”. It took about two minutes to go from outrage to outright sin.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem the week before he died, the crowds gustily voiced their approval of him. They shouted “Hosanna” and proclaimed him as the conquering Messiah. Did anyone imagine a week later they would be screaming for Pontius Pilate to “Crucify Him”? Mob mentality caused them to change their minds; nothing else makes sense. Jesus’ teaching was just as controversial and effective as it always had been (no more nor less), he did miracles that week,  and answered all their questions. Even up to the last minute, there were many vocal supporters. But as soon as the crowd began to turn on him, others followed suit. We don’t know how many people shouted for Jesus to be crucified, but it must have been a sizable majority for Pilate to go against his own desires out of fear for the crowd.

Last summer, when Casey Anthony was found not guilty in the drowning death of her daughter, people started a web page called “I hate Casey Anthony”. On that page, people were passing ideas around about how to kill her, lynch her or threaten her until she committed suicide. Here is one comment from that page: “Me either…I do not hate…it is wrong…but I do love this page.” Seriously, this person knew that participation in this page was wrong, but she valued being part of the crowd more than her own moral values.

What this really comes down to is a deep-seated need to belong. We will do almost anything in life to feel like we are a real part of a group of people. That includes sin. It would not be stretching it to say that most sin has some intrinsic element related to a desire to fit in, belong and have what others have.

Ask yourself this question? What would you consider doing if everyone you knew were also doing it? What would you do that is currently illegal if it was suddenly declared legal? Smoke pot? Commit adultery? Steal?

The answer to those questions is the real bedrock of our morality; or lack of it.

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