Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: The Lucifer Effect

Third Sunday of Epiphany
26 January 2020
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

This coming week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

The camp was liberated by the Red Army on the 27th January 1945 and a memorial service was held, this week, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem- you may have heard about it on the media

To my shame, I could have missed this anniversary were it not for the fact that I heard an interview on Radio 4 last Saturday

It was a Slovakian women called Editha Friedman who was transported to Auschwitz in 1942

Incredibly, her Government paid 500 marks each to deport over 900 Jews

She was sent with her sister Leah, who later died of pneumonia at the camp

Editha said in her interview that she saw rats running over her dead sister’s body

As she remarked “How could one human being do this to another?”

“Even animals don’t behave like this”

She put her survival down to God wanting to her to stay alive to tell people what had happened 

At Auschwitz it is estimated that over 1 million Jews were killed.

Of the 800 staff at the camp, only 15 stood trial, including the Commandant, Rudolf Hoss

Some of those higher up the Chain of Command were also brought to justice and this included Adolf Eichmann

He was captured by Mossad in South America in 1960 and brought back to Israel

His role in the Holocaust was to manage the logistics in Eastern Europe and he was hanged for his crimes in 1962

There was a journalist at his trial called Hannah Arendt who wrote a book called “Eichman in Jerusalem”

What struck her, more than anything else, was Eichman’s normality

He neither hated the Jews nor his captors and said he was simply obeying orders (Fuhrerprinzip)

The journalist coined the phrase “the banality of evil”

And posed the question, “how can ordinary people commit horrendous crimes?”

 It’s a good question………….

This question went on to inspire a psychologist called Stanley Milgram

He designed an experiment to examine the question of obedience to authority

Which became known as the Milgram experiment 

Participants were told that they were taking part in “a scientific study of memory and learning”,

And the main intent of the experiment was to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another when told to do so

The experiment was very simple

If the subject gave a wrong answer to a question then an electric shock was administered

Amazingly, even when the subjects were screaming, obedience to authority prevailed

65 percent of participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock

100% administered shocks of at least 300 volts.

Both are enough to kill a man or woman

The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of authority was the chief finding of the study 

It is probably safe to assume that most of us would have administered the electric shock too

More recently a psychologist called Philip Zimbardo also conducted an experiment on similar lines

He was a psychologist and professor at Stanford University in the United States

And conducted what is now the famous “Stanford prison experiment”

Twenty four applicants were selected to take part and came from white middle-class backgrounds

They were split 50/50 into guards and prisoners and the guards were instructed not to harm anyone  

However, they were split into two distinct groups

The guards were given wooden batons as well as mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact

The prisoners, by contrast, were given uncomfortable smocks and had to wear a chain around one ankle.

The guards were not allowed to call them by name

The prisoners were deliberately dehumanised and, as a result, conditions in the prison quickly deteriorated

And, very soon the guards struggled to keep control

In an attempt to reassert control, the guards started to use increasingly extreme techniques

Prisoners were first told to repeat their numbers during roll call

Badly behaved prisoners were then denied access to the latrines and forced to use a bucket

As an additional punishment, the bucket was then left full 

Mattresses were then removed from the prisoners who were forced to sleep on the floor

Some prisoners were stripped naked

The experiment reported that approximately one third of the guards exhibited sadistic tendencies

This experiment has been used to illustrate what is called the “cognitive dissonance theory” 

Cognitive dissonance is when an individual has two or more conflicting values

These conflicting values cause stress and are resolved by dropping one of the values

The value ditched in this experiment was human decency in favour of authority

This experiment resulted in Zimbardo’s famous book “The Lucifer Effect”

The title takes its name from the biblical story of the favoured angel of God, Lucifer

Lucifer fell from grace and his assumed the role of Satan, the embodiment of evil. 

If you had not already made the connection, the reason why I have mentioned these experiments is because of the Old Testament Reading this morning.

The Old Testament is, not surprisingly, full of unpleasant examples of prisoner abuse

In the Book of Samuel, it records that King David slaughtered all his prisoners both male and female (27:11) and stole their property

When fighting the Ammonites, prisoners were put to work as slaves (12:31)

When King Zedekiah was captured, he had his eyes put out and was transported to Babylon

Even the prophet Hosea predicted that the people of Samaria would be put to the sword,

As he said, “The women and children ripped up” (Hosea 13:16)

Transportation, murder, theft and mutilation all befall prisoners in the Old Testament

And these examples resonate with the anniversary of Auschwitz which we will remember this week

But it is not just Israel

Every kingdom and every principality is capable of barbarity to its fellow men and women

Evidenced from the beginning of time

Even though we said “never again” in 1945 there have been fifty genocides since –

Do we never learn?

But the Old Testament reading this morning stand in stark contrast to the above

I love this reading because of the compassion shown to the prisoners

Having been taken captive, they have their sight restored

The King then asks Elisha whether he should kill them however, the prophet gives him very different instructions

No! he says “Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then let them go”

It is utterly humane and the last thing we expect

Furthermore, by extending kindness to the prisoners they “raid no more”

There is an obvious resonance with my own experiences

Coalition cruelty in Iraq simply fuelled the insurgency

How different it might have been if we had treated our prisoners with the humanity shown by Elisha?

But as well as this lovely and unexpected story, our New Testament reading tells of the centurion

A man who, as Jesus says, exercises authority over others

We don’t know whether he abused that authority or not

But when the centurion defers to the ultimate authority he believes as a result

There was no cognitive dissonance

And human decency, rather than barbarity, prevails

And so returning to Auschwitz and its 75th anniversary

This week in particular we remember those who were so brutally killed in the Holocaust

As Editha Friedman said, “How could one human being do this to another?”

The answer is “very easily” and could have been one of us

Above all however, may we remember the deferrals to our Lord Jesus Christ in the readings this morning

The ultimate authority in heaven and earth

And, if we unfailingly submit to His authority, then, unlike Lucifer, we should never fall