Calvary United Methodist Church | 131 West Second Street | Frederick, MD 21701 Church 301-662-1464 School 301-622-6783

While clearing out some space in my garage a while back, I came across a box of books that included a title I read back in seminary, Moral Man and Immoral Society, by Reinhold Niebuhr.

Although this book was written ninety years ago, it seems to speak of something that is still true today. He writes in the introduction that “a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic.”  What guides an individual’s words and actions can be quite different than what guides the word and actions of a crowd, a community, or a nation. Within every individual, there are certain checks on the mind and heart that keeps that person from acting in immoral and shameful ways. But when people get together, those restrictions and checks can disappear, and people can end up doing some rather terrible things.

I saw this in action one winter while snow tubing. I had paid, along with everyone else, for a ticket to ride up a rope tow and then come down the mountain on an inner tube. I paid the fee at 1 pm to do this for the afternoon and lots more kept streaming in behind me. By 3 pm, there were more people than there were inner tubes, and the lines were getting longer and longer. Something sparked and the crowd of people started to be angry. We were no longer individuals enjoying the snow; we became an ugly crowd that was pushing and yelling and knocking down the barriers that kept people in line. It got rather scary.

Laws and norms are in place to minimize the ways in which groups can turn ugly and destructive. Sometimes the laws and norms need to be changed, but mostly they check our worst impulses. We may feel that we don’t need all the laws and norms because we aren’t the problem. By yourself, that’s probably correct, but mixed together with others, we can participate in a social group that can act in ways that are destructive an immoral.

This is an interesting insight into the ways in which good people can be caught up in very bad and destructive behavior, even without intending to do so. The ideal society will need to find ways to minimize the immorality that can spring up when people are acting together. That can help the group to minimize its immoral impulses.

That’s something to think about.

Grace and peace,

Pastor Steve