In his book The Crowd, Gustave le Bon notes that “[t]he masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
It’s interesting to me that two people in the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler and Edward Bernays, were particularly influenced by le Bon’s book. Hitler would use the tools discussed by le Bon to develop one of the most powerful propaganda machines the world has ever seen to help establish a totalitarian state, and Bernays would use those same tools to invent consumerism and a world in which enough is never enough. They were both, in effect, people who supplied the crowd with the illusions they wanted.
However, today, being Good Friday, marks the remembrance of a strange historical event, when one man in particular, having refused to live his life giving people their illusions, proved the chilling correctness of the second part of le Bon’s pronouncement. He became the victim of the mob. He was crucified by the first century equivalent of the Church and State — the religious and political orders of his day. His death still stands, I think, as the most astonishing critique of power ever, because, despite the fact that by all accounts he knew what was coming, he still elected to side with truth over illusion. In his case, the truth was that love should outlive the law and that mercy should triumph over judgment — ideas that many religious and political establishments today still fail to grasp. He readily spoke out against meritocracy and patriarchy, and also especially against the way that the big shots were abusing the little guys. But although his critique of power and ideology continued throughout his life, it was nowhere more profoundly demonstrated than in this laying down of his life. There he showed, by walking into the trap rather than running from it, what power always does: it corrupts and kills.
Jesus died because of the violence in the hearts of many who couldn’t take having their illusions challenged; those who insisted that retribution is better than forgiveness, or who lived as if success and self-assertion are better than humility or that meritocracy is better than underserved, gratuitous love. When I look at the story of Jesus, even without the eyes of faith, I see something that’s difficult to completely ignore: he lived and then died in the firm conviction that forgiveness, humility and love were better than the alternatives that were promoted by religious fundamentalists and political powers. He therefore continuously responded in a way that would probably be regarded as miraculous even by the most hardened skeptic: he offered love and forgiveness to every single person who inflicted pain on him or, like his very own disciples, abandoned him: “Father, forgive them,” he said, “for they are unaware of what they’re doing.” He even proved that his encouragement for people to love their enemies wasn’t just an impossible ideal. He actually showed people what it looks like.
Christians still debate the meaning of Jesus’ death, and its safe to say that those debates will continue. So that’s a debate I’m not even going to begin to answer here. But at its simplest, the image of a holy man dying because of the mob’s attachment to their own illusions is one that still evokes empathy. And maybe this is the most significant thing about it. It is significant because we are most human when we are empathetic. We are most human when we care about the victims in this world. We are most human, that is, when we step away from the mob and look at those that we have belittled and shamed and turned away. I don’t think you need to be a Christian, really, to be able to see how profound that is. It tells us that any religious or political triumphalism is undoubtedly misplaced.
If Jesus was just a guy not some divinity, his death would still be of some importance for the world we live in. Actually, it was the thing that his disciples tended to focus on even more than his resurrection. Why? Well, I think it’s because Jesus claimed that looking at him and seeing the way he loved others was just about as good as looking at the face of God. And if that same love could still be tangible as he was being tortured to death, then there’s still this strange possibility that the Divine is not just some weird thing out there, far away and indifferent like a cosmic vending machine or, worse, a cosmic slot machine. The Divine, as Jesus modelled it, is something right in the midst of the human: something located not in temples or in throne rooms, but in the very mess of our existence; even in the worst of our life experiences. The Transcendent is possible, then, not just in our overcoming but in our not-overcoming. “Lucky are the spiritually bankrupt and the victimised,” Jesus effectively said in his famous Sermon on the Mount, “for the permeation of the perfectly good, true and beautiful is no less accessible to them.”