Groupthink and John 9

I had a chance a few weeks ago to hear a complete reading of John 9. In this story, Jesus heals a man who was born blind. The man is later thrown out of his faith community because he declares that his healing is a sign that Jesus is a prophet.

Its a story that I have read throughout my life, but there was a subtle angle to this story that I never quite picked up on until after my recent exposure.

At its heart of this story is an irony: the man who was blind can readily appreciate who Jesus is, yet the religious leaders, who should be the most likely to appreciate this reality, cannot. The concepts of sight and blindness are played off of the characters to expose “true” sight and “true” blindness.

I always thought that the religious leaders in this story were stuck on a theological problem. The problem goes something like this: “if he is blind, then it is as a result of someone’s sin, and his blindness was imposed by God; so it cannot possibly be that God has now healed him.” How, in other words, could Jesus be from God if it was God who imposed this “punishment” of blindness on him to begin with? The “problem” of the healing is that it requires a re-assessment of an accepted truth: that God punishes people by giving them physical maladies.

However, this view is too harsh and too simplistic. There were, in fact, people among the religious leaders who were prepared to accept that the healing signified Jesus’ status as a prophet. The text is very clear that the leaders were split (v. 16).

The “problem” of the blind man, then, is much more sophisticated and nuanced than I had previously assumed.  It is not simply that his healing has challenged an important (but erroneous) theological assumption ; it is that he has now become a political liability. His healing has sparked a potentially explosive debate. And as a living critique of an accepted theology , he finds himself in the unfortunate position of threatening the solidarity of the community’s leaders.

So what do the leaders do? The same thing every politicized body does when it encounters an issue that no one wants to tackle directly.

They start having meetings.

They meet with each other. They meet with the man who was blind. They meet with the man’s parents. They meet with the blind man yet again. On and on the process goes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against people having meetings to stay organized or to discuss an important issue. But sometimes having meeting after meeting on an issue is a sign that no one wants to deal directly with a critique that threatens the group’s core values. It is an unfortunate, but common side effect of groupthink.

The result, in John 9, is an increasingly irrational process which spirals inevitably toward the moment where the man is simply dismissed as an ignorant “sinner” who couldn’t possibly know how to identify a true prophet. Like the woman caught in adultery at the end of Chapter 8, his sin is used against him as a way of dehumanizing him.

One of the shrewdest strategies in the modern political arena is that of seeking over-exposure on the point where your opponent is weakest. Take that issue, and just get people talking about it. You don’t have to take a strong stand against it yourself. Just get it into the media. The media is not good, the old saying goes, about telling us what to think…but it is really good at telling us what to think about. And if you get people to focus on the right thing for long enough, it will eventually ruin your opponent, even if you aren’t directly critical.

A similar strategy is employed by Jesus’ opponents. Call meeting after meeting. Pose the same question again and again. Eventually, if you keep exposing the issue, you will get the “right” result. The “problem” will be removed from the community, and Jesus’ healing will be discredited.

A familiar story made all the more intriguing to me because of its commentary on communal sin.

What do you think, are church leaders vulnerable to sin in this way? Can church leaders, small groups, bible classes, even entire churches sometimes act irrationally, even irresponsibly, because they aren’t willing to deal with “elephants in the room”?

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