Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! – The Joker in The Dark Knight
Stanley Milgram was a Jewish psychologist born in 1933 in New York City. He became a social scientist that is famous for giving the world ideas like the 6 degrees of separation (also known as the Kevin Bacon movie game). But his most famous work came as Milgram was trying to wrap his mind around the evil of the Holocaust. He had grown up he watching the Jewish people get systemically murdered.
And Milgram didn’t just want to know who was responsible…He wanted to understand evil.
So Milgram asked the question, “Would I have obeyed Hitler?”
See he had watched the smoke clear from World War II, and these seemingly normal people were waking up to the reality of what they had allowed to happen.
While most of us were content to just carve up the world into categories of good and evil, Milgram knew the world was more complex than that and that most of us had both sin and saintliness running through our veins.
So Milgram performed an experiment.
It involved a “Learner” and a “teacher” and a Professional overseer.
The Learner was always played by an actor, but the teacher didn’t know that. The teacher was the mark, and so they would be instructed that they were going to try and teach the learner to learn things more quickly by administering electric shock. And as the experiment went along the amount of electricity would just get higher and higher. Until it would become dangerous. Or at least the “teacher” thought it was dangerous.
And the premise of the experiment was this: “If the teacher had someone in authority giving them commands, would they ignore the obvious suffering of the learner in order to follow the person in charge? In other words, “Would a normal person obey a ‘Hitler?’”
The “learner” on the other side of the wall would be yelling in (pretend) pain about how the shock was hurting them, sometimes they would say things about having a pace maker or a medical condition. But as long as the Professional kept saying push the button, the Teacher kept on, no matter how loud the other person shouted.
Christians and Communists
One of the most disturbing things about growing up is the recognition that life is so much more difficult to categorize than I had thought. I grew up playing a game that was basically like “Capture the Flag” it was fun, all the homeschoolers would get together to play it a few times a year. Except we didn’t call it Capture the Flag.
We called it Christians and Communist.
Think about that way of labeling the world, there are good guys and bad guys
I’ll bet you can guess which ones where which.
In Richard Beck’s book Unclean, he asks the reader to imagine that he shows you some of his grandfathers’ old possessions. He takes you to the closet and pulls out an old ratty sweater. It turns out that it’s from World War II, and that it belonged to and had been worn by Hitler himself.
When the Nazi’s finally realized that they had lost, many of them had stolen items from Hitler’s life for memories. And now there was a thriving black-market of Hitler’s things, including this sweater. It was unwashed and had been worn by Hitler. It must be extremely valuable. And then Beck asks, “Would you like to wear it?”
And the research has shown that consistently people say “no.” But what is fascinating is why they say no. Here’s Beck’s own words:
“People report discomfort being near or in the same room with the sweater. A wicked fog surrounds the object and we want to avoid contact with it. What studies like this reveal is that people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on. Evil is sticky and contagious. So we stay away.”
As We Forgive Our Debtors
Augustine once said that we must not treat evil as something that exists outside of us. And he’s right.
We think we have corralled evil to somewhere else, somewhere where “they” live, but then we hear evidence that suggests that if someone just puts on a white coat and pretends to be in charge we will push whatever button they tell us to.
This is why I don’t think I’ll ever learn a better prayer than the one Jesus’ taught. Because in one sentence Jesus teaches us so much about the world. He teaches us to pray for the people who have wronged us, but he also teaches us to ask God to forgive our evil acts.
But did you notice, Jesus puts those two things together.
As if evil isn’t just “out there somewhere” floating around, attaching itself to sweaters. Evil is a reality of a broken world in which I am a part. And the answer to making the world better isn’t to gloss over the evil inside of me, or just pretend that I don’t have problems, or try to esteem myself higher.
It is to name the brokenness within me, confess it and open up my life to allow God to redeem it.
That’s why one of the first steps to a healthy relationship with other people is to be able to stop blaming and pointing fingers at the evil things other people do and think.
And the first step toward doing that is to just recognize that I have evil in me too.
It’s why Jesus taught people to pray the way he did.
So let’s forgive each other quickly, and by all means, put on the sweater.