How good are you at good?

I am in the middle of Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect.  This is a fascinating read.  I’m even more excited because I am reading the book at the invitation of a young man for whom I am a mentor with the Perkins Youth School of Theology.

The overarching theme of the book is that people are not good and bad in isolation of their surroundings. Situation and the systems that influence or control the situation have sometimes unbelievably strong affects on human participants.

One of the points Zimbardo keeps coming back to is reminding the reader of the human tendency to assume that oneself is “better than average.”  In social psychology this is referred to as the Fundamental Attribution Error. In this context, we read about how the Stanford Prison Experiment turned normal, well-balanced young men into ruthless, hate-filled or power-hungry young men.  Similarly, the (older) question of how could Germany fall in line with Hitler’s “Final Solution,” ad so many people willingly participate in such evil?

Zimbardo lays out a clear and convincing case (convincing to me, at least), that none of dare deny that we could be drawn into doing evil.

At this point some of us who follow Jesus are likely to say that having received Jesus as Savior is some sort of trump card to giving in to evil.

I would urge us all, rather, to accept that within us remains the possibility of becoming performers of, or at least condoning, evil.

We need to redeem the cliché “there but for the grace of God go I” from this status.  Truly it is but for the grace of God.  It is also up to us to become as alert as possible to situations and Systems which increase the propensity for evil.

5 thoughts on “How good are you at good?

  1. Steve, I just finished that book a bit ago. Talk about fantastic! I am not sure where you are but the middle of the book (I thought) was the best part.

    If you have not heard of Rene Girard, his theology connects deeply with this research. Walter Wink’s “Powers” or Rob Bell’s “The God’s Aren’t Angry” or James Alison’s “Faith Beyond Resentment” are some takes on Girardian thought.

    If you ever want to share your thoughts on this book, I would love to listen!

  2. Lots of food for thought here… So this is what you have me thinking about…

    ~How one would define evil is whether or not they are capable of it.

    ~Can we draw distinctions between commiting evil (or condoning it) and ignoring evil? Maybe yes. Unles you are, say, the victim of torture, and then there is likely no distinction.

    ~People can do a tremendous amount of damage from an enraged state – but is that evil? If someone kicked my dog, I think I’d lose my mind. Would that make me evil?

    ~People are capable of cold-blooded indifference – how easily we can disregard the suffering of people abroad – is that evil… or just a defense mechanism so that we can go about our day without crying…

    ~I’m 100% against state sanctioned killing in the form of the death penalty – but I tell you I’m glad when someone like Jeffrey Dahmer is killed. If that’s evil – then I guess I’m capable of it.

    Now my brain hurts…

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