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.