There is a myth about a farmer who became so frustrated at a stubborn flock of sheep that he used a bulldozer to try to push them up the ramp into his shearing shed. For the sake of the sheep, I hope the story isn’t true. But having worked for a few months on an outback station, I know that feeling of absolute frustration at the stubborn stupidity of the species.
On several occasions the sheep seemed determined to kill themselves. Once, during a drought, we tried for three days to move a large mob of ewes and lambs to a reliable water source. The wind was against us and again and again, they would turn and walk with the wind, away from the water troughs. Even with well-trained dogs and several farmhands on dirt bikes, we couldn’t force our will upon such a large group of unwilling animals.
As I sat for long, sore hours on a motorbike, in the blowing red dust, it occurred to me why Jesus compared humankind to a flock of sheep. Of course, God will never, like that desperate farmer, force us with a bulldozer. We must be willing to follow him even when, like the sheep, we cannot understand.
Rebellion as an end in itself
Obedience and humility are very much out of fashion. Rebellion, on the other hand, is in. It seems every new movie and book features people who overcome the constraints of their society, disobey the advice of their friends or parents, are “true to themselves,” and succeed in following their dreams. It makes a great storyline and is undeniably a popular one.
Doubtless, rebellion can be noble. There are rebels that I admire, renegades who have done much to expose hypocrisy and overcome injustice through their stubborn – or courageous – nonconformity. Jesus himself was in many ways a rebel, who clashed with the mighty power structures of his day.
But is rebellion always good? Is rugged individualism an end in itself? Why are we more enamored with the spiked hair of the punk than the shaved head of the monk? Surely there is a place for obedience, too; a time for being true to God instead of “true to myself.”
The Wisdom of Fairy Tales
Unlike modern entertainment – in which arrogance is all but idolized – many of the legends and fairy tales of past centuries promote the virtues of humility and obedience. The Knights of the Round Table gained honor not by “being true to themselves ” but through loyal service to their king. Icarus flew too high, both physically and metaphorically, and fell to into the sea. Sir Roland subverted his desire for personal glory and stayed faithfully at his post, thus saving the castle. In nearly every case, pride leads to misfortune and humility is rewarded. Such tales contain deep truths that are being lost in our age of enlightened individuality.
Walls and Foundations
“The times they are a changin’,” sang Bob Dylan in the 1960s. But few of the Woodstock Generation could have foreseen how much times would change within their own lifespan. Since the social upheavals of the sixties, the spirit of revolution has been blowing in the wind. Around the world, walls have crumbled: segregation, apartheid, the Iron Curtain, and to a certain extent the glass ceiling.
But if our parents toppled man-made walls of ignorance and oppression, are we smashing the very foundations of our society – God-given moral foundations that have stood for millennia? In their place, we are trying to build our own moral framework, a monument to our own vanity – a new Tower of Babel, this time philosophical rather than bricks and mortar.
Permissiveness in the name of tolerance has seeped into every corner of society. Governments promote the myth of a “neutral” or “valueless” society, in which no ideology is promoted above any other. But who can claim that they are truly neutral? Who can stand objectively at a distance, freed of all beliefs, and coolly observe all ideologies from the outside?
Of course, it is easier to disregard eternal truths when we call God’s very existence into question. Although there have always been non-believers, census data in recent years indicates that a growing number of us claim to have no religion. The secular academic world is abuzz with excitement. “We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise,” proclaims atheist philosopher Alain de Botton. “Humans… have a hardwired moral sense…not needing revelations from ancient texts,” writes Polly Toynbee in The Guardian.
The Conscience and the Crowd
True, we do each have a “hardwired moral sense” – a conscience. But this still, small voice can too often be drowned out by the shouting of the crowd. And crowds have been known, on occasion, to be wrong. Take, for example, the London riots in 2011, when “normal” people looted and burned the city, or the 1994 Rwanda genocide when family members killed each other with machetes, or the German public that supported the Nazis, or Pilate’s court in 33 AD. Søren Kierkegaard made this observation:
A crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.
Paradoxically, although technology has isolated us in some ways, it has also made us all into a massive crowd. We may each believe that we are thinking and acting independently, yet in reality we are – like sheep without a shepherd – obeying the consciousness of the mob. We have seen how rumors of every kind can circumnavigate the globe in an instant, creating panic and confusion. Will we build our sense of right and wrong on these shifting sands of public opinion; believing that “Might makes right.”?
What is left for the young to rebel against, I occasionally wonder, in a world where anything goes? Nevertheless, our generation still feels the need to somehow rebel. A new breed of sullen youths, clad in black, seem angry at the world in general. Many young women dress as if cloth itself is somehow oppressive. Racists deny the axiom that all people are created equal. There are many manifestations of such hollow rebellion, many provocative subcultures, but they are united in one thing – they all bow down at the altar of individualism.
A True Alternative
“A tree is recognized by its fruit,” said Jesus. The fruits of this era are anything but good: erosion of the family, ecological destruction, widespread violence and death. Our “hardwired moral sense” is clearly not enough to save us. Sheep need a shepherd, and we need God. How different our world would be if we truly loved our enemies, were faithful in marriage, forgave those who hurt us, and honored our parents? These “revelations from ancient texts” are needed more than ever before. As Ignazio Silone wrote:
You cannot conceive what it would mean to a country like ours if there were only a hundred youths ready to renounce all safety, defy all corruption, free themselves from obsession with private property, sex, and their careers, and unite on the basis of absolute sincerity and brotherliness: a hundred youths…who would speak the truth on every question, on every occasion…and live according to the truth.
This vision may seem idealistic and naïve, but it would truly be countercultural. Imagine for a moment an uprising of voluntary poverty, a revolution of modesty, an insurgency of self-sacrificing service to others. Wouldn’t these be more revolutionary than spiked hair, rainbow flags, swastikas, or any of the myriad ”alternatives” that are really just facets of today’s self-centered culture; as conformist as a soldier’s uniform or businessman’s tie?
If we have more freedom than our forebears, we must use it for God, not ourselves. If we are to revolt, it must be for God’s kingdom, not against it: a rebellion of obedience. As Paul the Apostle wrote, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”