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Bandwagon Justice

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice.

Exodus 23:2 (ESV)

The 1957 film Twelve Angry Men is limited essentially to a single, hot and humid room, where a jury of twelve is gathered one summer’s day to decide whether a Puerto Rican man is a murderer deserving execution. The early consensus seems to favor quick conviction, so a hand vote is taken, with eleven ready to pass judgment immediately. But a single juror, # 8, refuses to assent, expressing some doubt over the man’s guilt. The other eleven are disgusted with him, but they ask for his reasons. Slowly, over the next hour and a half, the courageous fellow wins them over one by one, resulting in a 12-0 acquittal. The film teaches that the inclinations of the majority can be wrong and that a good person must stick with the cause of truth and justice, however lonely it might be.

The Lord’s covenant stipulations, preparing Israel for life in the Promised Land, included legal instructions. Because God was just, He demanded justice from His people. They were not to join with the wicked to offer false witness (v. 1), even when it meant defying the majority (v. 2b). Just because many people are performing an evil act, it does not follow that it is acceptable (v. 2a). Whether one perverts justice intentionally to harm an innocent or sides with the many for mere convenience, valuing a quiet life and caring little about the outcome of one’s actions, his indifference toward fairness is a sin, condemned by the Lord.

Understanding man’s dangerous tendency to go with the flow of emotion and public opinion, philosophers have branded certain forms of seductive but treacherous argumentation as “fallacies.” One such fallacy bears the Latin name argumentum ad populum, “appeal to the majority,” (more colloquially, the “bandwagon fallacy”). Ad populum may “work” in persuading people to go along, but it often fails to work God’s justice. Right is right, even if only one person in the crowd stands by it.

Of course, jurors can be just as wrong to acquit as to convict, and the 12-0 vote at the end of Twelve Angry Men was no guarantee the jurors finally got it right. The same would be true for legislation passed or defeated unanimously. Man is fallen and capable of mass confusion and evil. So the Church must constantly steel believers against the pull of popularity. Trends, acclaim, and unity are poor gauges of truth and justice. But the cause of righteousness is not lost, so long as Christians are willing to play the role of Juror # 8 when the circumstances so dictate.

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