Friday, June 16, 2017

Murmurations

Most of us have seen TV documentaries that feature flocks of starlings whirling through the sky as a single dynamic body. It’s called a ‘murmuration.’ There are other examples, like a ball of sardines swimming together in tight formations to escape ocean predators. Herds of migratory animals—buffalo and Wildebeests—also display complex group movements on land. It points to an underlying order in God’s creation.

So here’s a question. Do we, as humans, display our own murmurations? Do we live like a flock of starlings even though we view ourselves as distinct individuals?

Each starling, after all, is a distinct bird. Each flies separately with only a visual bond connecting it to the rest of the flock. Yet a complex flocking instinct guides the birds. They’ve never attended a workshop on formation flying—it just comes with being a starling.

So how about us?

We too have social patterns. Sociologists can identify, track, and then predict many of our choices. We share socioeconomic connections; racial and regional qualities; family and tribal bonds; and more. Astute politicians probe these connections and shape election campaigns around them. So, too, do marketing specialists as they harvest our personal information and apply predictive algorithms to capture us as consumers.

The Bible also offers us clues about social connectedness.

Jesus, in his conversation with Nicodemus, pointed to the Spirit’s presence in a soul as a defining quality of those who are born “from above.” The John 3 text also linked this to moral behaviors—so that those who aren’t “born again” resist God’s ways because “they loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Those who respond, by contrast, show that “his works have been carried out in God” (3:21).

The common thread is our status as spiritual beings. There are only two spiritual flocks. Jesus taught this in John 10 with his sheep-and-shepherd analogy. He spoke of certain sheep who “will listen to my voice”—over against the rest of the sheep who don’t follow him.

The picture presumes our creation as heart-based responders. Some have a heart that responds to God and others don’t. And we then display spiritual murmurations with predictable values and choices that shape our communal movements.

Is this what Paul had in mind in Galatians? “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21). So the particular choices of individuals are actually part of a swirling movement of godless behaviors.

Yet the Spirit in a community shapes a different movement: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (vs. 22-23). Jesus, too, promised this sort of group-identifier—“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The suggestion that we can trace human murmurations in society may seem silly but let’s think of some dramatic examples in history that help make the case. About a hundred years ago Germany was among the most morally and educationally advanced states in the world. Yet by the late 1930s Germany became incredibly barbaric—slaughtering Jews and other unwanted peoples—in the course of fomenting a hideous war. Sadly many, many Christians were swept up in the movements of Nazism.

So, too, in Rwanda the 1994 genocide—where 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days—we see a case of murmuration in which ordinary farmers, city workers, and church members became avid hunters—seeking to kill others. It was a demonic effort led by Satan who, as Jesus warns, “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

Is there an application here?

Yes, certainly more than one. We need to consider our heart desires. And, tangibly, what we follow on public media. Starlings have the bonding feature of sight—they somehow have visual cues of when to dip, climb, and turn. We humans rely on eyes and ears in our own movements.

In Germany and in Rwanda, for instance, we can track the major voices that guided the swirling collective evil that emerged in those settings. Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda chief, used German radio networks to create alternative versions of “truth.” And in Rwanda the radio station RTLM and Radio Rwanda fomented a hatred for the Tutsi natives, calling for their extermination as “cockroaches.”

The question in any age then becomes which spiritual “flock” of humans is greater? And among the swirling social movements that guide us, which spirit is at work? The Holy Spirit? Or, as in Ephesians 2:2, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience?

The Holy Spirit invites us to be conformed to God’s character by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Both individually and collectively. And if love, joy, and peace seem to be missing in your own flock, it’s probably time to look for another clan.

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