Last night on Dateline NBC they spent an hour on the topic of “Social Conformity.” The program made the point that humans beings are “hard wired” to obey their parents. They said that humans have a childlike impulse to follow a group. Doing so, they pointed out can lead to dangerous decisions. One example they gave was the deadly Arizona sweat lodge incident from last year, where people remained in a dangerous situation just because everyone else was.
So Dateline trotted out some of their own social experiments. They showed how people in an elevator will turn toward the back if everyone else in the elevator does so first. Then they showed how people undergoing a job interview stayed in a room filling with (harmless) smoke if everyone else did so. Finally, they made up a new “reality” TV show where contestants were supposed to press a button to deliver an electric shock to someone in another room, if they couldn’t answer a question correctly. Most of the contestants delivered far more severe “electric shocks” than they normally would have, because of the insistence of the “producer” who was sitting with them in the same room.
In the end, watching the episode made me say, “Duh.” Of course children are “hard wired” to obey their parents. That response is as ancient as children. St. Paul writes, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Romans 2:14-15). God has written his law upon human hearts. Children are born that way, because that’s the way God created them.
But the episode reminded me of something even deeper than that. In his book Simply Christian, N.T. Wright says that the human need for relationships, for “social conformity,” is a reflection of the One who created relationships in the first place. He argues that all people have a longing for human relationship because we hear in our minds and in our spirits the echo of a voice that desires relationship with us.
N.T. Wright: “We can already tell enough about that voice that we would know its owner if we met it. Its owner would be one who was totally committed to relationships of every sort — with other human beings, with the Creator, with the natural world. And yet that owner would share the pain of the brokenness of each of these relationships. One of the central elements of the Christian story is the claim that the paradox of laughter and tears, woven as it is deep into the heart of all human experience, is woven also deep into the heart of God.”
The point is that we desire relationship because we are creations of a relational God. Part of human relationship is the desire for conformity. And yet in order to restore relationship that had been destroyed by the sin of human beings, God sent His Son into the world to go against the norm, against “social conformity,” so much so that He would end up alone on a cross paying the price for the sins of the world.
Those who have been brought back into relationship with Him through forgiveness and faith, are also brought into “social conformity” with the Creator so that they desire more and more to obey not only their earthly parents, but even more so, their Heavenly Father.
What does “social conformity” look like to you?