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When Good People Do Bad Things

Each week the insurgent group known as ISIS or ISIL seems intent on outdoing the cruelty and brutality of the previous week by some new videotaped outrage. The group has beheaded dozens of people and recently placed a man in a cage and burned him alive.

Political, sociological and religious arguments fail to shed much light. For most of us, such behavior is simply incomprehensible and begs the question, “How can good people – following the theory that we all start out as good people – do such evil things?” How can we be seduced to cross the line between civilized behavior and barbarity?

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo says evil is about the attraction and exercise of power. That’s what is illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Adam and Eve, like millions of humans since, wanted God-like power, even though according to the story, they had experienced God first-hand.

Zimbardo, after being an expert witness during the Abu Ghraib trials, wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. A past president of the American Psychological Association and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, Zimbardo retired in 2008

His thesis is that any of us, men or women, as shown at Abu Ghraib, can be heroes or Lucifers, depending on the circumstances. For most, it happens gradually, moving from reluctant acceptance to an immersion in “the pornography of power.”

As a professor at Stanford, Zimbardo conducted a study into the psychology of prison life in which 24 people were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards in a mock dungeon in the basement of the psychology building. The planned two-week study ended after only six days due to the emotional trauma of participants. The “guards” became sadistic and “prisoners” showed extreme passivity and depression, according to a description in Wikipedia.

As for Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo says, the keys to what happened there include lack of oversight and placing subjects in new, unfamiliar circumstances in which the participants decided that normal ethical standards didn’t apply. He quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet-era novelist and historian who became a stinging critic of Soviet brutality: “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

So, does faith make a difference in how people react to the lure of power?

It didn’t in the case of Abu Ghraib, according to an issue of Christian Century magazine after the reports of the prison abuse there in 2004. The American soldier who was the ringleader of the abuse told investigators, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’” A classic case of separating “church” from life?

A Pew Research Center study conducted in 2009, the latest year for which such data are available, examined, by religion, Americans’ justification of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists. The response categories were “often,” “sometimes,” “rarely,” and “never.” This is what they found for the first two categories, by percentages:

Often             Sometimes

White, evangelical Protestants:         18                    44

White, non-Hispanic Catholics:        18                    32

White, mainline Protestants:             15                    31

Unaffiliated:                                          15                    25

Who could imagine that someone who follows Jesus would condone torture? Did Jesus teach that the end justifies the means?

The Nazi era in Europe is among the most bold and brutal example of how human beings can turn on one another. There are many examples of heroism and selflessness among Jews and Christians who were Nazi victims. But the majority of Christian believers, at least, appear to have been little influenced by their beliefs, collaborating with the Nazis for advantages or to save their own skins. Many joined the barbarity.

What lessons are to be learned from these disturbing facts?

For me, the first is that faith can be dangerous without humility, without renouncing power for its own sake and acknowledging that we’re thoroughly human and possess all humanity’s inherited weaknesses. I believe brutality is like a cold or flu – an exaggerated “immune” response to the evolutionary need to dominate and survive. This does not, of course, excuse brutality or cooperation with it by individuals. Humans, in my view, also have a God-given spirit that, if heeded, helps to overcome the temptation to violence.

The second lesson, for me, is the need to prepare for the worst. If I neglect the spirit that promotes goodness and kindness, what can I expect when put to the test? (This point reaffirms the points made in a recent post entitled, “The Care and Feeding of Your Soul.”) Faith may be a gift, but sustaining it and growing it requires attention. Conditions, including bizarre, new political realities, can change suddenly, as history has clearly shown.

The third is that people of faith have to rely on God, trusting him/her over fellow humans to show the way – especially in times of crises.

The ISIS brutality is not an isolated phenomenon in human history. Lots of people have justified horrible things by appealing to religion, though not nearly as many as those who profess no belief in God (the Nazi leaders and the communist regimes in Europe and Asia are examples). We know that when it comes to religion, it’s not so much about what you profess as what’s in your heart and how your actions reflect it.

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