The film “Taken” starring Liam Neeson , a 6’4” hunk of a man, ought to be compulsory viewing for all parents of young daughters. Briefly the film is about how two young American girls on holiday in Europe were duped and subsequently kidnapped by a nice boy that they met at the airport. The boy looked friendly, helpful, clean cut and decent. It seems that sometimes evil does come dressed in coat and tie. Therefore parents be warned!
How do good people turn evil? How do nice boys turn evil? Calvinists will point to their understanding of the total depravity of man and say that all mankind have sinned and there is no such thing as an intrinsically good man. Granted that this is true, we still need to ask, why do born again Christians, generally regarded as good people still commit moral lapses, still sin and do evil? Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University asked a fundamental question: “ How well do we really know ourselves, how confident can we be in predicting what we would or would not do in situations we have never encountered. Could we, like God’s favourite angel, Lucifer, ever be led into the temptation to do the unthinkable to others?”
As Christians we ask the question: “Can born again Christians be swept up with an evil regime like Nazi Germany and cooperate with them to kill innocent Jews?” Zimbardo, did a pioneering study examining the ways good people can turn evil. In his famous Stanford Prison Experiment he got students( arbitrarily chosen) to play the role of guards or prisoners. The reason for the experiment is to “ better understand the mentality of prisoners and correctional staff, as well as to explore what were the critical features in the psychological nature of any prison experience.” In his experiment, he discovered that ‘situations matter’.
Writing about the Stanford experiment In his book, The Lucifer Effect, he noted that ‘within certain powerful social settings, human nature can be transformed ....(for e.g. ) good people suddenly becoming perpetrators of evil as guards or pathologically passive victims as prisoners in response to situational forces acting upon them’. Zimbardo argues that the situations and the systems within which people operate are as much responsible for the evil perpetuated (say, guards in a prison environment) as the individual guards themselves. Zimbardo emphasizes that ‘systems provide the institutional support, authority, and resources that allow Situations to operate as they do.”
This understanding is not new. Much research had been done in the past and a large body of evidence in social psychology supports the concept that situational power triumphs over individual power in given contexts. Zimbardo points out however that “ most psychologists have been insensitive to the deeper sources of power that inhere in the political, economic, religious, historic, and cultural matrix that defines situations and gives them legitimate or illegitimate existence.
A full understanding of the dynamics of human behaviour requires that we recognise the extent and limits of personal power, situation power, and systemic power.” Not allowing for such an understanding, whenever abuses occur in any given situations, the blame is then placed solely on the individuals perpetrating the evil, be they prison guards, or corrupt officials. The reason put forward for the abuse is the existence of a few individual “bad apples”. The system itself or the situation plays no part. Zimbardo argues strongly that while individuals must accept responsibility and personal culpability, a dysfunctional and corrupt system produces situations or environments in which corrupt and evil acts perpetuated by individuals are bound to occur.
This is what happened in his Stanford University Experiment. Given a lot of leeway and little direct supervision by the system, ( Zimbardo himself) ordinary students in a situation where they get to exercise enormous powers playing their role as guards inevitably abused their power over their fellow students playing their roles as prisoners. In the same way we can see how politically a corrupt national system of governance allows situations to degenerate to such an extent that corruption or abuse of power and authority by individuals within the system will occur as a matter of course. This is documented in Africa with Somalia and Zimbabwe as the best known example of failed states. Zimbardo puts it simply, “ Bad systems, create bad situations create bad apples create bad behaviours, even in good people.
Using Zimbardo’s insights may help us better understand why pastors of mega churches fall morally so often and so spectacularly. The system in which these pastors operate in values success (interpreted in terms of size of congregation, how large the budget is, how big and impressive the building and on how often they appear on national radio, TV and magazines) and rewards success exceeding well. At the same time the system encourages CEO type aggressive independent leadership where entrepreneurship and not accountability or team leadership is emphasised. This creates situations in which the pastors are almost a law to themselves. As long as they deliver, in terms of mesmerising messages and the numbers of members keep on increasing, they are free to do what they are “led by the Holy Spirit” to do.
Inevitably within such settings, the pastors are influenced negatively and moral lapses occur! When these pastors fall ( and mega pastors are not the only ones who fall!) we tend put the blame squarely on the pastors themselves. Granted, the pastors are individually accountable and personally responsible for their moral lapses. But not enough attention has been put on the system and the situations that the system produces. This remains a blind spot and that is why pastors of mega churches continue to fall with depressing regularity. We can take these basic tools of systems, situations and individuals to diagnose why certain churches fall out with their pastors regularly too. Or why certain churches seemed always to be heading for spilt every so often.
However potent as these combined forces of system and situation are, Zimbardo in his research discovered that there are some individuals who did not conform to the system. Who stood against the system and who did not allow the situations they were in to dictate what they do. Often at great cost to themselves they disobeyed and went against organisational authority when they felt that what they were asked to do were unethical and evil. Zimbardo called these people heroes who succeeded in resisting situational influences. We recall the anonymous man who stood up against the might of the Chinese tanks during the Democracy Movement at Tiananmen Square in Beijing , in 1989. The whistle blower that blew the cover of Enron also deserves an honourable mention. I wonder in Malaysia whether Lim Guan Eng, who went to prison defending a young Malay woman can also be regarded as a hero.
If there is such a thing as the “banality of evil”, is there also such a thing as the banality of heroism? There will be if each Christian were to live out his or her calling to be a disciple of Christ. And if each local church is faithful to its witness to Christ. It is helpful and encouraging for us to know that we in the church have the theology and the pastoral wisdom to deal with sin and evil. As Christians we acknowledge our own personal fallenness. We also recognise the existence of a personal malevolent devil who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom it can devour.
Our fight is also against principalities and powers, not just human sin and weaknesses. Therefore we have a realistic view of sin and evil. On the positive side we thank the Lord for the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives making us a new creation. Under the power and enabling of the Spirit, we can not sin. However and this is where Zimbardo is most helpful, the fight against sin and evil is not strictly limited to personal spiritual warfare. It is also a war against institutionalised systems and situations mired in sin, and against worldviews and value systems.
It is a spiritual warfare that we cannot wage alone, but in the context of accountable relationships, rooted in meaningful relationships in a community deeply committed to the Lordship of Christ. A community of God’s people that is committed to create an alternative system. One that seeks seriously to reflect the holiness, the righteousness, the love and mercy of God. A people who are daily renewed by the Word of God. And weekly by corporate worship which spills over into daily costly obedience in personal, family, work and society. A community that is not afraid to evaluate and critique its own system and to examine the system’s effect on situations and individual behaviour. If these were to take place, heroic persons and heroic living will indeed be banal!