The Lucifer Effect
I just finished a fascinating book by the social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. I highly recommend it. But I have to warn you: I feel like I plunged into the very heart of darkness while reading it. It examines the human heart's capacity for evil. It concludes by encouraging us to see that the human heart also has the capacity for good. But even my wife and daughter pleaded with me to hurry up and finish the book so I could finally drag myself out of my serious and morose mood. I don't know if any of you remember the Stanford Prison Experiment that Zimbardo conducted in the 70s... an experiment where 8 healthy, normal male students were selected to be the guards and 8 healthy, normal male students were selected to be the prisoners. What was supposed to last 2 weeks had to be shut down in 5 days due to the escalating cruelty of the guards and the increasingly disturbing dehumanization of the prisoners. Zimbardo himself accepts guilt for allowing the prison experiment to deteriorate into such deplorable conditions. In 2004, Zimbardo became a key witness for "Chip" Frederick, a guard at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where shocking incidents of sustained abuse, torture and even murder hit the news accompanied by photos and videos. Zimbardo's basic thrust is that:
ordinary people, even good ones, can be seduced, recruited, initiated into behaving in evil ways under the sway of powerful systemic and situational forces (p. 443)I like to read these kinds of books once in a while because they substantiate my theological position that we are all, given the right situation, capable of monstrous evil. All our feet are swift to shed blood. Books like these help me reach a wiser perspective on the human condition and hopefully lead me to a deeper compassion for people. It reminds me, as a person entrusted with the responsibility and care of a community of people, that I must continually hold myself up to severe scrutiny in order to be a good pastor. I also have to teach people how to resist any powers that would coerce, manipulate, humiliate, dehumanize or abuse them. After the SPE, Zimbardo made a commitment which allies with a commitment I made some years ago:
Then and there I vowed to use whatever power that I had for good and against evil, to promote what is best in people, to work to free people from their self-imposed prisons, and to work against systems that pervert the promise of human happiness and justice (p. 179).This is why I blog and pastor the way I do. I believe that the Church is one of the most powerful systems in this world that has the capacity, and often uses it, to dehumanize people. I've cooperated with this dehumanization in the past and have also been a victim of it. The last time I witnessed and experienced severe abuse at the hands of the Christian religion and its ministers in 2002, I vowed that if ever I would go back into ministry again, I would work to resist this power, teach others to do the same, and work to free people from the dehumanizing oppression of religion and the Church. I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, and that is why I am committed to demanding that it devote itself to its humble call: the communion of saints.