My daughter Belle and I just finished watching all four movies in the Lord of the Rings franchise—it’s what you do around here during a Polar Vortex—and found them disturbingly appropriate to our contemporary situation. On one side are the various alliances of elves and humans and hobbits, and on the other, the Orcs and their kind (Uruk-hai, Hobgoblins, trolls, etc.), monsters who are formed more than created, formed in the mines beneath Middle Earth, formed in the constant presence of the Dark Lord Sauron and his evil eye, whose only ambition is total domination and destruction. Orcs were, of course, around long before Tolkien breathed new life into them (if that’s what you call it), and as a student and scholar of English and Norse mythology and folklore, Tolkien knew of the orcneas in Beowulf, for example, who were part demon, part humanoid monsters who wreaked havoc wherever they happened to be.
One of two things you never see in Tolkien’s fantasy are little baby Orcs. You never get to meet little Orc families—husband, wife, two little Orcs scuttling around inside a black picket fenced yard in one of the suburbs of Mordor. And that’s because monsters are made, not born, and this fact has been impressed upon me living up here where my son goes to school with kids who come from families who fly Confederate flags in their front yards. Orcs, in other words. But Will's classmates are not yet sufficiently jaded to be xenophobes and racists, hate-mongers and trolls. They are still relatively new to such a dreadful world, though some, alas, will be formed soon enough, of course, but not yet… not quite yet.
What has impressed me most (as in, made the biggest impression) is the hatred that is pedaled on the Right, particularly among purported Evangelicals, on the air waves, in social media, from the pulpit. Hate is the very air they breathe, and though it is masked as “righteous indignation” so as to exonerate them from culpability, it isn’t lost on most of the rest of us that they have fallen under a spell of self-delusion. Such “Evangelicals” are no more interested in being Christ-like as an Orc is in being sweet. When you’re fed from the darkness, you feed the darkness.
Until, that is, you meet one of their little kids. Ron came up the other day, on what happened to be the most intense snow day of the season, to install internet service at our home (no such luck—we appear to be in an internet-free zone, which is probably a good thing), and what started as a run-of-the-mill installation became a sacramental moment. As I talked to Ron—a large, bearded Midwesterner driving an even larger black and jacked pickup with snow tires that could climb a telephone pole—I eventually heard about his little 4-month old son, Asher, who was born with a cleft palette and will need multiple surgeries before he turns 18 to correct the condition. As we stood there talking in the blizzard’s driving snow and Ron smoked his cigarette, what started as a conversation morphed into a confessional. He told me about his past abuse, his struggle with alcohol and drugs, the challenges he faces as a new and young father living in a new town with a wife who is struggling with postpartum depression and a son who is in and out of hospitals. Ron works 15 hours a day to keep his family under a roof, even though being gone for so long is not easy on his wife and kid. Ron’s plan is for him and his family to move back to the Midwest as soon as Asher can get his second, crucial surgery in August. Which accounts for Ron’s coming up in the middle of a blizzard to attempt a satellite dish install—the man needs a steady income to keep his family afloat, and he’s willing to put 50,000 miles on his truck in 6 months to do it.
The more we talked, the softer Ron became—and the more human. He had tears in his eyes as we talked about the challenges of raising special needs sons, and we shared a bond that fathers have who work long hours for the sake of their families. By the time he drove away, I’d had the chance to tell him that his son Asher would be a miracle in his life in the same way that he’d be a miracle in his son’s, that he was being a good father who was in the thick of it trying to do the right thing (which is the measure of a man) and that the battles he was fighting were precisely what redemption looks like. We shared a moment that I'm quite certain he wouldn’t have been caught dead in in a crowd. As for my part, Ron is someone I likely would’ve written off as an Orc had I seen him in his truck in the parking lot of the local hardware store. But what made him so human was his love for his son, because behind all the Rons of the world are Ashers of some form or another, and behind all the Ashers of the world is the face of Christ, who Dostoevsky saw in a beggar and Flannery O’Connor saw in a misfit; who I saw in Ron and who God sees in all of “the least of these” who remind us that we are all broken people in need of redemption.
The other thing you never see in Middle Earth is an Orc by himself, and that’s because what makes orcs out of most of us is the delusion of crowds. Turns out, a book by that title, The Delusion of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups, by William Bernstein, makes the very case that otherwise moral people tend to do and say insanely immoral things in the midst of trumped up crowds (pun intended; think Jan. 6th). In his review of this book, Edward Chancellor quotes from an earlier book, published in 1841, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay:
Is it a dull or uninstructive picture to see a whole crowd of people suddenly shaking off the trammels of reason, and running wild after a golden vision, refusing obstinately to believe that it is not real, till, like a deluded hind running after an ignus fatuus, they are plunged into a quagmire.
Any student of history knows that the phenomenon of the Republican party going rogue on the connected concoctions of a lost election caused by a lost culture is nothing new. On the contrary, The Delusion of Crowds reminds us is that this sort of mass delusion has been happening in crowds for millennia--crowds being different from communities which are, in turn, different from gangs, which are simply smaller crowds who tend to live together:
“The more a group interacts,” Bernstein writes, “the more it behaves like a real crowd, and the less accurate its assessments become…. As put most succinctly by Friedrich Nietzsche, “Madness is rare in the individual—but with groups, parties, people, and ages it is the rule.” Mackay also recognized this; perhaps the most famous line in Extraordinary Popular Delusions is “Men, it is said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses more slowly, and one by one.”
But what of a world that never allows you to leave the group, that encourages its inhabitants to always have one ear tuned to the mob mentality? What of folks who never leave the herd, thanks to the long and relentless tendrils of social media and fire-brand radio sermons, both of preach a particular brand of hatred and lies 24/7? What of such a world?
Which brings me back to Ron and his son, Asher. One on one, folks who might otherwise be whipped into a frenzy of conspiracies and mob violence are, in the right environment, people like you and me, people just wanting to be heard and understood and, perchance, loved. And when love is required of such a person, like the love required to raise a son with a cleft palette, the lights of normalcy and reason, the lights of tenderness and vulnerability, are given the chance to shine through. Which is the only way any of us, who find ourselves somewhere between the madness of the Right and the equally destructive madness on the Left, will have any hope of recovering a vibrant culture for all of us: by meeting the Rons of the world one on one and engaging them with the love of Christ and the reasonableness that comes with living in a community, which is not so much a proximity of like-minded people as it is a gathering of like-hearted souls, who though they may not all agree, nonetheless agree on this: to live in community means we must communicate, and to do that well means we must share in some kind of communion that is ordered, above all, by love.
Ron is looking for a community, but too often all he’s been offered is a crowd. Until, that is, a few days ago, when we met in a blizzard at the top of a hill to talk about love and fatherhood and the challenges of true masculinity. It was a sacramental moment, a true communion, and I found out why I had been called to that hill, as well. Turns out, no amount of darkness can completely put out the light, or as T.S. Eliot reminded us, “The darkness shows the glory of the light.” Or as Tolkien put it:
The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places;
but still there is much that is fair,
and though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief,
it grows perhaps the greater.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring