On Saturday afternoon, I was gloriously lost in the crowd. The scene was the Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany, where I was watching the match between the home team, Eintracht Frankfurt, and German and European powerhouse FC Bayern München. I was there with a group of lifelong friends who had convened in Europe to reconnect and watch a few soccer games.
The previous weekend we had been at a game in Madrid, which was fantastic, but the atmosphere in Frankfurt was electric. At times, the entire stadium seemed to be shaking and roaring in lusty approval as Eintracht demolished the hated rivals from Bavaria 5-1 (for non-soccer fans, Bayern would be kind of like the New York Yankees of German football—the phenomenally wealthy team that poaches everyone else’s best players and who everyone loves to hate). Even though we were ostensibly there to see Bayern (they are our German friend’s team and they have a kid from Alberta with a fascinating and inspiring story playing for them), it was a riotously good time and an experience to remember.
I’ve been thinking since about the experience of being lost in the crowd. Why did I enjoy it so much? Why did it feel like it did? Why am I drawn to the experience of being a part of fifty thousand people I’ve never met collectively singing and drinking and yelling and jumping and waving flags and holding up scarves as one? I’m not from Germany. I don’t share a history with most of those in attendance who have undoubtedly seen their team on the wrong end of most scores when Bayern comes to town. I don’t feel the provincial rivalry in my bones like they do. And, of course, there are far more significant things in this world to rally around then a football match. And yet, there I was, exultant on a drizzly Frankfurt afternoon, grinning along to songs I didn’t understand, cheering and yelling and generally enjoying being part of the spectacle. It’s intoxicating to be part of a crowd.
Of course, this hunger we have to be part of the crowd can be, well, toxic. Crowds can produce a kind of collective madness, a willingness to scapegoat and do violence to outsiders, to ratchet up the righteousness of our team and vilify all who do not support it. I was advised by my German friend to leave my Bayern München shirt at home because who knows what might happen after the match? You might not want to be associated with the wrong team. And these tendencies are, in many ways, the story of human history. It is often the baying mob that is the impetus and accelerant for injustice. A few days before attending the match in Frankfurt, I had been reminded of one of the most extreme examples of this in human history when I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp just outside Munich. A crowd convinced of the righteousness of its team/race/ideology/history/cause can do unspeakable evil. And it has done great evil, around the world and throughout history. Christians remember this every Easter, of course. The climactic moments of our story involve a crowd screaming for blood. And getting it.
I spent some time in the gospel of John this morning, and paused on 2:23-25:
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Not for the first time in the gospels, we see that Jesus retains a healthy suspicion of the crowd. He doesn’t entrust himself to them. He doesn’t need them to boost his ego or to validate his identity or legitimate his cause. He knows that the crowd is eminently manipulable, that they will turn on them as quickly as they embraced him. He knows human beings too well—knows that we are fickle and self-interested, that we love to be part of something grand and important, that we love to attach ourselves to the sensational and the righteous in the hopes that we might be seen as sensational and righteous, too. Yes, Jesus knows what is in us and he knows that it isn’t always very admirable.
In this case, the crowd believes in Jesus because they had seen the signs he was doing. Thus far in the story, the people had witnessed the sign of Jesus miraculously turning water into wine, and his cleansing the temple of its commercial contaminants and repurposing it for prayer. Some, perhaps, were drawn to the miraculous, others to the socio-political critique of power and injustice. Not much has changed since then. Some crowds come to Jesus looking for a supernatural show that points to an unrealized future, others come because they sense a new political arrangement that will transform the present. Some gather around Jesus the miracle-worker, others around Jesus the revolutionary. To borrow from our wearisome categories of the present, some gather around the “conservative” Jesus, others around the “progressive” Jesus. Thus it has always been and ever will be.
And yet wherever crowds gather and for whatever reasons, I suspect that Jesus retains his suspicions. He doesn’t entrust himself to us as easily as we might imagine. He knows that more often than not the Jesus we are crowding around has more to do with us than him. He has compassion on us, and he prays for we who so often don’t know what we’re doing, but he is not keen on being a prop for our preferred agendas. He knows who he is, he knows who we are, and he knows the distance in between. He knows how much we love to be a part of the crowd. I suspect that he wishes that this would worry us more than it does.