Transcribed from the sermon preached August 23, 2015
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: I Kings 8:22, 26-43, Ephesians 6:10-20
 Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
 For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
What are these “principalities,” “spiritual hosts” and “powers” of which Paul writes? Is that something we modern or postmodern people still believe in? The pre-scientific world was filled with spiritual forces. Rather than claiming a hurricane or a drought are punishment for some unrelated sin like gay marriage, we see the world with consequences, which we may call a form of punishment. As it has been said, we reap what we sow. Slaughter buffalo indiscriminately taking the hide and leave the meat, buffalo go extinct. Smoke a bunch of cigarettes, get cancer. Have random unprotected sex, get pregnant or a venereal disease. Consolidate power in the hands of a few rich, lose common people’s ability to contribute creatively and hold up the economy. Deforest and add CO2 to the atmosphere indefinitely and we heat the planet and get greater chance of drought and flood. We reap what we sow. We may not attribute the victory of our football team to God, but it doesn’t hurt to thank God that we have been blessed with athletic talent and the opportunity and drive to work hard with the team.
It is also clear there is a lot going on in our minds. It is our mind that enables us to perceive the pattern and relation of things, ideas and emotions.
But with all the implications extrapolated from Darwin and Freud, we know that there is a certain spiritual energy in groups and systems. Why for instance can an excellent football player or coach come to the Raiders and do horribly, then get traded to another team and break records? You may have been employed in a place where people kept secrets, or gossiped and back bit, or maybe they just seemed to be negative and selfish, and just out to get money. It is very hard to not get sucked into the mess, let alone change it. On the other hand, I was over at the annual party at the Model Garage car shop yesterday and had a conversation with one of Don Worth’s employees. He said, “I have never worked for anyone nicer and more honest than Don. There is really good energy here. It is contagious. If you get people to believe being nice and honest is good for business, that good spirit is contagious too.”
Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt made observations of the Nazi officer. Eichmann was on trial for executing the final solution, extermination of the Jews. Arendt noted that Eichmann displayed neither guilt nor hatred, and claimed no responsibility because he just did his job and obeyed orders. Society and culture ebbs and flows like a tide, and individuals can be carried away by the tide, by the positive energy and force or the negative.
Philip Zimbardo in his Ted Talk, the Psychology of Evil, (http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil/transcript?language=en) mentions the shock of the news that American soldiers abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. I actually hadn’t seen the pictures until I watched the Ted Talk, because most of the 1,000 or so pictures were too nasty to show on public news. The administration said, don’t blame us; there are just a few bad apples, but Zimbardo searches for the truth.
The bad apples idea is the personal, psychological perspective. These were morally twisted individuals and you have to look inside of them to discover why they went wrong and to change them. Certainly personal responsibility is one factor.
But Zimbardo says there are two other factors involved with people turning bad or good: the situational context and the systems of power around them. The New Yorker had a cartoon which summarized this perspective: I’m neither a good cop nor a bad cop, Jerome. Like yourself, I’m a complex amalgam of positive and negative personality traits that emerge or not, depending on the circumstances.”
Zimbardo, using other studies as models, did his own study on evil. He posted an ad and picked 24 of the most normal, most healthy people who applied. Half would be prison guards, half prisoners. They were taking good apples and putting them in a bad situation.
They gave the guards power, anonymity (they left them alone but with secret cameras) and gave the prisoners numbers, and the researchers told the guards they would take responsibility for whatever happened. It went bad quick, he says. Guards get prisoners to clean the toilet bowls out with their bare hands, to do other humiliating tasks. They strip them naked. They sexually taunt them. They begin to do degrading activities. You saw simulating fellatio in soldiers in Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo says, my guards did it in five days. The stress reaction was so extreme that normal kids we picked because they were healthy had breakdowns within 36 hours. The study ended after six days, because it was out of control. Five kids had emotional breakdowns.
We have begun again to discuss systemic racism and especially its contamination of the justice system and police officers. As Paul says we are not fighting flesh and blood, but spiritual forces and cosmic powers. These forces infect common people. Similar studies have shown the same breakdown of behavior across gender and race. We know from actions of the Israeli government that nobody is immune. Studies show that 90% of people put in the wrong situation will do mean and degrading things to others.
So Zimbardo says there are seven social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil: (1) Mindlessly taking the first small step (starting with some small gesture of humiliation or hurting another). (2) Dehumanization of others. (3) De-individuation of self (you are a part of a team, an employee for a company, a nation or race). (4) Diffusion of personal responsibility. (5) Blind obedience to authority. (6) Uncritical conformity to group norms. (7) Passive tolerance of evil through inaction, or indifference. The conclusion noted: If you give people power without oversight, it’s a prescription for abuse.
But Zimbardo notes the banality of heroism too. He says heroes are ordinary people whose social actions are extraordinary – or perhaps as Paul says, they put on the whole armor of God and understand they are battling the powers and principalities. We can set ourselves and our children up ahead of time to be heroes, to do spiritual battle for the good side. Take a moment and actually imagine putting this armor.
13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” So Paul notes an evil day will come and challenges us to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.” So right away he is talking about speaking truth, not staying silent, standing firm and courageous with the breastplate of righteousness. Be convinced that God will enable us to do the right thing. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” If you don’t have the right shoes, you won’t want to walk against the grain. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.
I was intrigued by the title the “Psychology of Evil,” not only because of the apparent police abuse of power, but also because I have been thinking of how many people have been caught up in the drug cartel violence in Mexico and Central America. Ordinary people get threatened and then join the gang, then before they know it, they can murder and rape without thought. A spiritual darkness has captured them and the whole region. What is to keep us for doing the same? Putting on the whole armor of God, by the grace of Christ, we join her together to pray, to set ourselves, our families and our nation and the world on the path of goodness. And we think love is contagious, heroic love is contagious, the tenacity and faith to climb and prosper through honest hard work and kindness is contagious. We caught this love disease from Jesus. And we are going to keep passing it around. We can be positive, kind, loving and truthful. We can be heroes. We can reverse those social processes as the church.