An advertisement went out offering to pay people to participate in an experiment about how we learn. People could respond to the add by calling and scheduling a time to come in.
When people came in there was another participant and Dr. So and So of Yale University in a white lab coat who explained that this is an experiment about memorization and the role of punishment in it. One person will be the teacher and the other the learner. The two participants drew straws about who would be the teacher and who the learner. What the person who became the teacher didn’t know was that the learner was in on the experiment and the drawing straws was rigged. The person who became the teacher was actually the subject of the experiment.
The psychologist took them in to a room, the learner was seated behind a screen. The teacher was seated at a desk with a button to push and some memorization lessons. The instructions were that if the learner failed to get the memorization right the teacher would push the button which would give the learner a shock. Each time the learner got an answer wrong the voltage of the shock would increase. The teacher could see a meter with the voltage. The meter marked the higher voltages with orange and then red, which said dangerous and fatal.
Now remember the learner was in on the experiment, he was an actor. And he was behind the screen so the teacher couldn’t see him, but he could hear him. They could hear the learner’s answers and hear how they responded to the electric shock.
The learner, who was a plant, was not good and got a lot of answers wrong. So, whoever was the teacher then had to push the button and shock the learner and then heard them yelp. And the voltage meter increased.
This whole time the psychologist, the doctor, was there in a lab coat telling the teacher to administer the punishment.
You can see video of this. It’s famous: Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment. From the 1960s. Just search online if you want – it’s excruciating to watch, so don’t if don’t want. But you can see that most participants get really anguished about this, they don’t want to go through with what they believe is hurting somebody. As they voltage increases with each wrong answer the actor playing the learner starts to beg and plead for this to stop. But the doctor is firm in his commands.
And even though the participants become really anguished about it all, a huge percentage of them were willing to obey the orders to do what they believed to be dangerous or even lethal harm to another human being.
It’s very sobering.
But maybe not surprising if we look at history and at our own lived experience and see that it can be all too easy for regular ordinary decent people to get pushed by authorities into harming the most vulnerable among us or how easy it is to just pass by and ignore the cries of those who are harmed in our name.
Now, when we hear about an experiment like this, we, I think, may all imagine ourselves and being the ones who refuse and say, No, this is cruel, this is insane, I’m out of here.
And I should say that Stanley Milgram was criticized for leaving out the numbers of participants who refused to participate at the earliest stages, when they learned that it was an experiment that involved punishment.
It’s this strength of moral and religious integrity that I want to focus on.
I invite you to think of a time when you were able to do the right thing, do the just thing, do the compassionate thing, the Christian thing, despite social pressure on you to harm another person, or to be passive while harm is done.
Think about where that strength came from in you. What prepared you for that.
Think about the risk involved.
Now it’s important that we also are honest with ourselves about the times that we have been like the people in the experiment, the majority, who kept pushing that button, ignoring our conscience, ignoring the pain of a fellow child of God. Small ways, big way.
It’s also important to think about the ways that we have been treated like the least of these, when we have been ganged up on and have needed someone to defy the will of the authority or the will of the group and come to our side.
One of the reasons why I am a minister is because what we do here, rooted in the reality of the living God, can form us and prepare us into people with the courage to the right thing, despite the cost, to do the right thing, despite our own weakness,
to be people rooted in a greater power than the powers of princes, to be people sworn to a greater law than the law that is cynically wielded by human authorities, to be people who follow Jesus and serve our God by joining with those whose pain and beauty, whose humanity has been silence and ignored.
Jesus was rigorous in preparing his disciples to go to the end of the line, to the bottom of the heap, and serving those who have been pushed there.
But as the stories in the gospels show, Jesus had to be rigorous with his disciples in training them, schooling them, to focus on God alone and to let go of their ego and their fear as they let God’s love flow through them.
We see this in the passage from Mark for today.
“he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
This freaked them out. The Messiah was supposed to dominate, not to join with those who are dominated. So the disciples, as they walked along, decided to ignore what Jesus said and instead argue about
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
My friends, there is no greater reward for that.