I was looking at John 4:44 recently. After performing the initial miracle of turning water into wine in Cana in Galilee, Jesus goes to Jerusalem for a Passover celebration. While there, he performed some undescribed miraculous “signs” (John 2:23). After the Passover, Jesus takes some of his disciples out along the Jordan river where they baptize people, making them disciples of Jesus. Then, after Jesus has accomplished his purposes there, he returns to Galilee for the first time since he left for the Passover. John tells us that “the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they themselves also went to the feast” (John 4:45, NASV). As a preface to that, John tells us that “Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country.” Presumably, John is implying this: when Jesus returned to Galilee, the Galileans eagerly received him—not because they had already been exposed to his teaching and had recognized the wisdom contained in it (a prophet has no honor in his own homeland) but because they knew of the miracles Jesus performed in Jerusalem at the Passover.
Here is the question: Why does a prophet not have honor in his own country? It is tempting to answer, “because the people who know you best know your flaws and your shortcomings.” It is difficult to have a high level of esteem for someone you know to be deeply flawed. But does that explain John’s comment about Jesus? Did the Galileans know Jesus’ flaws and shortcomings? I think not. Not if Jesus was sinless (as I believe he was). So why would Jesus not have honor among his own countrymen?
Two thinkers have, in their own way, explored the dynamic within human nature that underlies this phenomenon: Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville.
One of Nietzsche’s most trenchant analyses is his exploration of the dynamic by which the “herd” seeks to protect itself from anyone who would rise above it in strength, excellence, or stature. The “herd” collaborates to shame (or guilt) the would-be superior into conforming to the norms of the herd.
De Tocqueville, in his insightful examination of young America’s democracy, speaks of some dangers inherent within democracy. Given a natural impulse within human beings, people will be very reluctant to allow anyone of their own to excel in any way. A significant danger of democracy, therefore, is the breeding of mediocrity. Everyone will be expected to hover around average. If anyone starts to excel, he will be subjected to the ire of the masses. Popular opinion will seek to bring him down, to diminish him.
I think it likely that the dynamic being described by both of these thinkers is fundamentally what Jesus had in mind and affirmed. The Galileans were not going to listen to a fellow countryman from Nazareth (or Capernaum). Who did he think he was? Did he think he was some kind of prophet or something? Where does he get off thinking he has more wisdom than the rest of us? Etc., etc.
One can grant superior status to an esoteric figure in the distance. But one will grant superior status to one’s own countryman with great reluctance. Therefore it was essential for God to perform signs and miracles among the Galileans. Otherwise, their envy and jealousy would have prevented them from giving Jesus any heed at all.
But what is the means by which the “herd” exercises control and keeps people from rising above and being distinctive? How does the herd force conformity to its own values, perceptions, and beliefs? Its greatest weapon is derision and mockery. The “herd,” with one voice, attaches to the non-conformist some name of contempt: “nut,” “fanatic,” “hate-monger,” “freak”—the list goes on. But everyone learns the special code words that indicate when the “herd” is against you.
This is the most powerful weapon that worldly culture turns against belief in Jesus. One cannot be a disciple of Jesus without having the “herd” call you names. Accordingly, you cannot be a disciple of Jesus without developing a thick skin and choosing to be fiercely independent of the herd. Jesus told us, “No one can be my disciple unless he hates [the various members of the herd]” (Luke 14:26). If I want to follow Jesus, it will be impossible to “fit in,” to conform to and be accepted by the herd. The herd hates Jesus—just like he told us they would.
In fact, the herd often hates the truth itself. Through life experience, I have learned that when the “herd” calls someone a “nut” because he holds a particular perspective or because he claims to know a certain set of inconvenient facts, then—in all probability—this so-called nut is probably in possession of something that is true. Virtually no one who is ready to call him a “nut” actually knows why he is a “nut.” He just is. All the rest of the herd has “taught” the herd member to view him so. That is all the herd member needs. Tell me whom I must hold in contempt, and I will obediently comply. He is a nut! Why? He just is.
This dynamic is at play in politics as well as religion. I remember reading a significant amount of material from the John Birch Society when I was in high school in the early 1960s. It sounded compelling to me (though perhaps a little paranoid). They seemed to know their facts. Their arguments seemed reasonable. But I was quickly brought into line. Everyone around me assured me that members of the Society were a bunch of right-wing nuts. I dared not listen to them. How contemptible would that be? I drifted in a vaguely leftward direction over my college years, but mostly (out of a sense of powerlessness) I became apolitical and apathetic.
Then, in the 1980s—after the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent opportunity for U.S. intelligence to examine some of the internal documents from the Soviet Union and the Communist Party—I began to see news reports about the nature and extent of the Communists’ efforts to infiltrate and influence the United States. It struck me quite dramatically. The news reports of the 1980s and 1990s were confirming the claims of the paranoid nuts in the John Birch Society of the 1960s. It was an important lesson in the dynamics of social manipulation. Never again (I hope) would I dismiss the ideas or perspectives of a “fringe,” aberrant person or group because everyone around me (the “herd”) calls them nuts. If I dismiss someone as a nut, he is going to have to earn it.
The modern American herd keeps multiplying its various labels of contempt: “birthers,” “truthers,” “homophobes,” “Islamaphobes,” etc. One thing is becoming quite clear today: you don’t want to stray from the “herd.” The “herd” will not play nice.
What is employed as a force against various social-political beliefs is brought all the more forcefully against belief in the gospel itself. Everyone knows that no intelligent human being actually takes belief in Jesus seriously. You really are a nut to believe in the straight-ahead biblical claims about Jesus. And sometimes politics overlaps with belief in Jesus. You are a mean, hateful, narrow-minded bigot if you think homosexuality is a sin. Why is that? You just are! EVERYBODY knows that.
There is no way to be an authentic follower of Jesus today without declaring independence from the herd. May God give me the strength and the dignity to stand outside the herd. May God give me the strength to be a nut by believing in his Son.