August Landmesser’s refusal to salute perhaps lasted for a second or two, but the courage of his nonconformity has eternal echoes.
Following Jesus against the crowd
Rev. Daniel Headrick
October 23, 2019
The Apostle Paul knew a great deal about the pressures of conformity. He had many opportunities in his imprisonments and beatings to pretend he was someone other than an apostle of Jesus Christ. He was often surrounded by crowds which demanded conformity to their way of thinking and belief. No doubt his own experience shaped these well-known words from Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
We live in a cultural and religious moment where there is tremendous pressure to be “conformed to this world.” Political tension and division have reached a fever pitch. Social and political groups across the spectrum seek conformity to their ideologies. The intense pressure to conform and to belong characteristic of our age reminded me of a haunting photograph taken in 1936.
I came across this photograph in 2016 during a trip to Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum, built on the site of the former SS headquarters. It shows a crowd of workers all lifting their arms in the infamous Hitler salute at a Nazi rally after Hitler’s speech. All lift their arms high except for one lone man. This dissenter in the crowd has his arms crossed on his chest, and on his face is what I imagine to be a look of utter disdain.
It was not until decades after the war that the photograph was published and the truth behind it emerged. The man, August Landmesser, had been expelled from the Nazi Party for his marriage to a Jewish woman named Irma Eckler.[i] Eckler would later be murdered in a Nazi concentration camp, and Landmesser died in Croatia after being drafted into a penal battalion of the Wehrmacht.[ii]
We can only speculate as to his reasons for refusing to salute, but the most obvious reason is that he had come to oppose his former political party because the Nazis did not recognize his marriage to a Jew. Landmesser’s refusal to salute perhaps lasted for a second or two, but the courage of his nonconformity has eternal echoes.
It’s easy to imagine the scorn of those surrounding him for being the one who dissented. Perhaps they weren’t all true believers in attendance. Perhaps there were some practical citizens who didn’t wish to risk their lives for a symbolic act. It’s not worth endangering your life, they’d say. Just do it and we can get back to work.
Think about how powerful the social pressure of a crowd is. The crowd can overwhelm a lifetime of conviction and beliefs. The crowd can overcome a person’s moral compass. The crowd can destroy a person’s integrity. There are many people of faith these days who seem willing to trade their professed convictions for a few years of political dominance and influence. This is not unique to any particular political program or ideology; it is just especially evident today.
Four observations about the crowd
I have been thinking about crowds and this photograph of August Landmesser lately in the context of Christian faith in America because America seems to be in the grip of a rather pernicious crowd psychology. Here are some general conclusions I’ve drawn about the state of crowd thinking today:
First, the crowd is consumed by a daily outrage but has a short attention span. Our national discourse is dominated by a daily controversy and a politics of incandescent rage which transcends political party. This week we will be all be talking about “The Thing that Matters Most,” but next week that will be a distant memory, replaced by the latest outrage du jour.
It is my belief that the cycle of controversy is a deliberate strategy to distract us from principled reflection on reality. There is much to be angry about, rightly so, but my point is that nobody can keep up with the pace of those setting the anger agenda. There is insufficient time to even process the facts, much less know what can or cannot be done about those facts. This generates a sense of helplessness and despair that works against spiritual formation.
Second, the crowd uses dehumanizing language to attack the image of God residing in anyone in its path. The demonization and dehumanization of the other is now considered a mark of belonging in your tribe. Many people are now defined by who and what they are against, rather than who and what they are for. There is a direct correlation between our language of dehumanization and our lack of principled stands.
Third, the crowd proliferates most when it has access to an echo chamber. The echo chamber is our self-selected social world in which we surround ourselves only by people who will agree with what we believe. Churches, if they are true to their calling, are communities of accountability where we can be sharpened by the word of God, not re-affirmed in whatever we believed and did before we came to saving faith in Christ. The echo chamber, by contrast, is a dull narcotic that affirms us always and prevents us from learning something new.
How can you identify the crowd in 21st century America? The crowd can always be found in those strident voices who are calling for the destruction, belittlement, and dehumanization of their latest political and cultural opponents. As such, it can appear under any guise, ideology, political party, or religious movement.
The crowd can be found wherever the locus of rage shifts every day to a new target, so that no one can keep track of who it is exactly we are angry at, and why we are angry at them mere days or hours later. Wherever the image of God is being erased, a crowd is not far behind. Anger is the dominant emotional register of the crowd.
Correspondingly, we Christians are often seduced by the agenda of the crowd. We spend all of our time talking about what they are talking about. That leaves little time for the words of Jesus, the Psalmist’s lament and joy, or the righteous corrective of a Jeremiah or Amos.
For each of these truths about the crowd, Christians have the freedom through the grace of God to move towards faithfulness. If the church is even slightly living up to its mission, it will be a community capable of living in far more redemptive ways than the crowd can ever envision.
Even if the crowd is always angry, dehumanizing, and stuck in its echo chamber, we are called to a different way. We can still control what we think and talk about, and indeed we must. As Paul wrote the church at Philippi, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8).
Following Jesus against the crowd: Wisdom from Kierkegaard
As we think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pleasing…” we may find ourselves suddenly repulsed by the crowd. Its alluring cycle of anger and shame will be revealed as destructive spiritual influences, and we will long for a deeper discipleship journey.
The essence of what I want to say is that Christians are not called to traffic in crowd-thinking. They are called to follow a lowly Galilean named Jesus, whom we claim as Lord in our baptismal vows. And following this Jesus requires faithfulness, which is antithetical to the ethos of crowds.
Christians are not called to traffic in crowd-thinking. They are called to follow a lowly Galilean named Jesus, whom we claim as Lord in our baptismal vows. And following this Jesus requires faithfulness, which is antithetical to the ethos of crowds.
This summer I re-read a favorite text of mine: Soren Kierkegaard’s “Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits.”[iii] He helps us think about crowds in a Christian theological framework. Kierkegaard was born in 19th century Denmark, a place where one was Christian simply by virtue of birth. The official state church had become the embodiment of the crowd mentality, and Kierkegaard wrote in opposition to the conformity of such a social world.
In these writings which leap off the page, Kierkegaard helps us think about crowds and individual faithfulness with sparkling clarity:
“The bigger the crowd, the more likely that what it praises is foolishness, the less likely that it is truth, and the least likely that it is any eternal truth, because eternally, of course, there simply is no crowd at all.”[iv]
When the crowd issues its verdict, we can be sure of one thing: it will not be based on wisdom or eternal truth. On the day Jesus was crucified, the crowds mocked him and cried out “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21). Were these the same crowds which were “astounded at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28) and seeking his healing touch? (Luke 6:19).
The crowds in the Gospels are fickle and mercurial in both their praise and rage. A “very large crowd” greeted Jesus with a shout of Hosanna! as he entered Jerusalem, spreading their “cloaks on the road.” (Matthew 21:8). Was it this same crowd who, when asked by Pontius Pilate whether they wanted Jesus or Barabbas released, demanded that Jesus be killed? (Matthew 27:15-23).
There is no wisdom in crowds because individual responsibility and accountability is annihilated in the group. People in such settings can be swept up in temporary displays of happiness and adulation, turning murderous in the blink of an eye.
When Kierkegaard says that there is “no crowd at all” in eternity, he means that we will not be able to rely on the crowd as an excuse for our sin when we stand before God. It will not do to say, when asked why we dehumanized our neighbor and mocked and belittled those who disagreed with us, that we were simply doing what the crowd was doing.
We will only be asked whether we individuals were faithful. To confess Jesus as Lord is to submit to his will and way for our lives. It requires us to renounce the lordship of Caesar, the crowds, or any other idol which we might worship in place of God.
As Kierkegaard writes, “Everyone who when before himself is not more ashamed than he is before all others will, if he is placed in a difficult position and is sorely tried in life, end up becoming a slave of people in one way or another.”[v]
My guess is that every human who has ever lived, with the exception of Jesus Christ, has engaged in private conduct which if held up to public examination would cause deep shame. Why is that? Simple human nature. We are more ashamed before the crowd than we are before ourselves. The presence of others brings ridicule, examination, and the disclosure of that which we’d prefer to keep hidden. When we are alone, nobody has to know who we are or what we’re up to.
We all know this is true, and we Christians pray for grace and forgiveness for the “masks” we wear. Those who follow Jesus are called to tread a path which narrows the gap between the image we project to others and who we truly are in our hearts. We won’t be able to hide the gap between our image and essence in eternity, “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” (Luke 8:17)
If we are whipped about by fidelity to the opinions and pleasures of the crowd, then we will end up being “a slave of people in one way or another.” If our moral conduct is driven entirely by the whims of the crowd—their approval and disapprobation as the polar incentives—we will lack the character and fortitude to take principled stands. We will be less likely to base our lives on conformity with God’s will. Instead, we will be moved by the crowd’s will.
The one who is “before himself” is never truly alone, in the sense Kierkegaard is talking about. God is always present. God’s presence is the “decisive element,” which leads us to our denouement.
“The presence of God is the decisive element that changes everything. As soon as God is present, everyone has the task before God of paying attention to himself…”[vi]
When we stand before God, every crowd we were a part of will be forever gone. It will just be our individual soul in the presence of the living God who created the Universe. The crowd will no longer be a refuge, a place to hide, or a source of our moral justification.
That the presence of God as “the decisive element” will be true in eternity has immediate value and urgency for this temporal moment. Just as God is present in eternity, God is present in time, too! When Kierkegaard calls us to pay attention to ourselves, that is to be contrasted with the lack of reflection which goes on in crowd dynamics.
“Paying attention” to yourself is not an excuse to indulge in narcissism, but rather an invitation to the hard work of repentance and self-examination. When we examine ourselves, our conduct, and our fidelity to God in light of eternity, God’s presence will be revealed as having always been there. And this God is One who loves and nourishes us in time and eternity.
Reading Kierkegaard is a bit like the process of repentance. The laser precision of his words, which are simply fresh reprisals of the gospel—reveal the deepest interior portions of our soul. We don’t always like what is revealed in the penetrating light of honest repentance.
But the truth is this: if Jesus is Lord, then the crowd and every other idol which demands our worship must be renounced. The good news is that with God’s grace, we can begin today to live and act in fidelity to Christ. This is true for as long we draw breath, no matter how many times we have sunk to the crowd’s level.
Landmesser’s act of defiance was an act done against the overwhelming pressure of conformity to the crowd. As a symbol, his action is inspiring for Christians of every political and social background to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” May the transformation begin with you.
The Rev. Daniel Headrick is associate pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to joining Northside Drive, he practiced civil litigation with a law firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is a former fellow of both the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
[iii] Kierkegaard’s Writings, XV, Volume 15, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), hereinafter “UVDS.”
[iv] UVDS, 133.
[v] UVDS, 53.
[vi] UVDS, 125.