Vertical People

It’s been a complicated year in an increasingly complicated world. It’s hard to know what is true, hard to believe that our thoughts even matter. We follow the crowd because, month by month, the crowd grows stronger and, month by month, we have less power and less confidence to do anything else.

Complexity does that to us. It builds crowds because people long to be sure, and crowds can be sure of things that individuals aren’t. Crowds create their own momentum, rewarding their followers with simplicity and safety and approval. Crowds are horizontal. You don’t have to look up, you only have to look around. You only have to follow.

Just this morning I stumbled upon an old story about this. The Governor gave an order that everyone – except for one man – obeyed. Day after day, his neighbors challenged the man, but he had his reasons and “refused to comply”, even though obeying the order would do him no real harm and refusing it would put his community in danger.

Perhaps he was a nut, but he represents the alternative to crowds – what we might call the vertical option. He did not look at what other people were doing. He stood tall and very much alone, believing he was not really alone.

We don’t have much appreciation for that kind of person today, which is a funny thing considering our nation was made for such people. Vertical people stand alone, even when they stand together. They believe they have a personal connection to ultimate reality; an ability to know what is right and a responsibility to do it.

That our nation was made for vertical people and not horizontal people is the reason for the war in our culture today. We (who close churches) would never write a Constitution that – before all else – guarantees the free exercise of religion. We (who censor opinions the crowd rejects) would not guarantee freedom of speech. We (who applaud the power of the crowd) would not create an Electoral College to reduce the power of the crowd, and we (who disbelieve in a Creator) would certainly not declare citizens to be “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”.

The America we are is at war with the America we were. We who once said, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, do not ourselves breathe free. Our freedom is increasingly measured and meted by its compliance with the crowd, revoked by rulers who claim power our Constitution forbids. We are, in an irony that will ring through history, a nation of free men and women who no longer yearn to be free.

Mordecai, the guy in the Bible who would not comply, will never be loved by the crowd, but he is an example for those who still believe we were created to stand tall and, when necessary, stand alone, though we are never truly alone.

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All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” Day after day they spoke to him, but he refused to comply…When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai.

Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

-Esther 3

Six Tips for Navigating Moral Revolutions…

1. Beware of truths that demand your immediate reaction.

Time and process are the natural enemies of emotion.  When we’re told we don’t have time to stop and think, it’s a good time to stop and think.  Due process was created to protect justice from strong emotions, and we need it most when we want it least.

2. Beware of truths that require you to forget other truths.

There is no conflict between moral principles, and they are all summed up in the instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself”.  If we are asked to elevate one moral principle by suppressing another, we can be sure we are being misled.

3. Beware of truths discovered within the last few days. 

A wise old king once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  If a principle is true today, it was true last year, and it will be true next year.  It is our reaction that changes – not the truth we are reacting to – and it is our reaction that should be examined, in the light of all we know to be true.

4. Beware of truths that inspire people to steal, kill and destroy.

As a rule, good trees produce good fruit – peace, humility, reconciliation.  A tree that routinely produces anger and violence is probably a diseased tree.

5. Beware of revolutions based on condemnation.

We are advised not to judge – even people we know – because it’s hard to be fair and we are often guilty of the same faults we condemn in others.  It feels righteous to rise in judgement, but it is wrong, and all the more wrong when we judge people we don’t know – especially so when our judgement is based on broad generalizations.

6. Beware of revolutions based on conformity.

God may accept a humble and broken heart, but men are not so easily satisfied.  They want displays of conformity and their joiners want signs of acceptance.  If conformity (which everyone can see) is more important than having the right heart (which only God can see), the revolution is moving in the wrong direction.