As pop culture moved from carefree rock ‘n roll tunes to the self-serious and dark counterculture, the entertainment industry struggled to keep pace. When a group of psychedelic hippy musicians appeared on the iconic American Bandstand television show in the 1960s, host Dick Clark introduced them as “non-conformists.” Maybe. They all dressed alike: long hair, tie-dye shirts, jeans, and sandals. The House of Gucci soon cashed in with chic designer jeans. We may reject a conventional dress code, but nobody is a “non-conformist.” We all are sheep of some flock.
The desire to conform and hang out with certain groups begins in grade school and extends throughout life. The associations are usually benign, recognizing common interests among friends, professional organizations, or community associations with various purposes. Initiation ceremonies range from a friendly smile and a warm handshake to formal contracts and elaborate rituals. The Freemason ceremonies are secret and spooky. The Knights of Columbus ceremonies challenge men to holiness.
We have many motives for joining groups. We want to fit in, be accepted and loved, make a living, and accomplish a meaningful mission in life. Some organizations allow us to move from one group to another without penalty. Other groups are intolerant of departures. It’s not easy or safe for a mobster, motorcycle gangster, or drug-cartel operative to go straight—or politically safe for a US Senator to change parties.
Uniforms and religious attire help us maintain our official identities. Haircuts allow us to blend in. Today, the most popular men’s haircut is the undercut, a short hairstyle. A variety of looks on top, including pompadours, quiffs—and styles with fringe—accompany the cut. Now you know. Other fashions scream out for attention: “Look at me! I shaved the left side of my head! I’m unique! Kind of.”
The Mafia has strict criteria to admit a gangster into its ranks as a “made man.” An East Coast motorcycle gang happily describes themselves as elitist “one-percenters” because only one percent of all cyclists are criminals. Without violent gangs to depict in movies, Hollywood would go broke. A code of conduct guides every non-conformist.
Tattoos that permanently mutilate the epidermis disclose the need to bond with groups or make “important” statements. Soldiers tattoo their arms with military insignia. Urban gangs use tattoos to identify membership. Recently a celebrity Midwestern priest made news when he tattooed his arm with a religious symbol to impress the youngsters. (I guess he didn’t trust his baptismal seal.) In fifty years, tattoos will amuse or shock many nursing home attendants.
Tattoos play a humorous part in a Flannery O’Connor short story, “Parker’s Back.” A Christian fundamentalist lady disapproves of tattoos on the torso of Parker, a hard-working shirtless road worker. Old-time religion Protestants view tattoos as violations of the Old Testament law against graven images. They have a point. Nevertheless, the pious lady furtively admires an American eagle tattoo on his arm, mistaking it for a chicken. When Parker attempts to win her affection by tattooing the image of the crucified Jesus on his back, the pious woman is horrified by the idolatry. As she beats his back with a broomstick, bruised welts deform the tattooed Byzantine image of Jesus. (A broomstick beating of the tattooed priest would be excessive.)
Jesus elevates the desire to belong. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn. 10:11-18). When we accept the Catholic faith and enter the Church in Baptism, we become members of His flock. The seal of Baptism on our souls is like an indelible tattoo. During Confirmation, we become “made men”—soldiers for Christ. Like those assorted haircuts, our virtues and vices reveal our membership practices.
The Gospel provides the pithiest of organizational mission statements: “Go forth and baptize all nations.” (Mt. 28:19) Jesus protects His sheep from the wolves of error (cf. Jn. 10:12). He knows us, and we know him. Jesus reveals the Father to us. “The Father and I are one.” (Jn. 10:30) Jesus loves us. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn. 15:13)
Truth, not the threat of violence, holds His sheepfold together. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (Jn. 14:6) Living His truth does not enslave, it liberates: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn. 8:32) The freedom of love does not come with mere compliance. It comes with the realization that truth, liberty, and God’s commandments are inseparable: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) When we live the commandments of Jesus, we win eternal happiness in Him: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (Jn. 15:11)
The Church provides the external structures for shepherds and sheep alike. The City of God is St. Augustine’s metaphor for the sheepfold of the Church. Membership in the City goes beyond externals. Augustine writes, “There are wolves within, and there are sheep without.”
Sanctifying grace provides the hidden credentials of our good standing. We can never revoke our baptismal seal, but mortal sin severs us from our interior union with the Shepherd and His flock. When we lose sanctifying grace by committing a mortal sin, the Good Shepherd seeks us and provokes our conscience to bring us to our senses. He keeps the narrow gates of the City of God open to receive a repentant sinner with joy. But His grace requires our free response.
The Catholic faith is the only institution that is truly non-conformist, because grace transforms us: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)
Jesus is unique, always ancient and always new, the Alpha and Omega. Changing fashions do not alter His truth, and “we are his people, the sheep of his flock.” (Ps. 100:3)
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