Immediately after the end of World War Two, after hundreds of concentration camps were liberated and their atrocities revealed to the world, most Germans insisted they had no idea about the killing of over six million Jews, communists, homosexuals and persons with physical or mental challenges. Germans said they had been fooled by Nazi propaganda and that the level of inhumanity was kept secret from them.
Furthermore, German soldiers who had been concentration camp guards, workers who ran the railroads which delivered millions of Jews to the camps, and the owners of factories who used camp inmates as workers – all of them said they had been forced by Nazi officials to do such things or risk their own imprisonment. In other words, these people did know about the Holocaust but they insist they were only following orders.
Many historians, however, have conclusively shown that the German population was aware of the Holocaust while it was happening. As early as 1933, news reports in German media detailed how many people were being imprisoned. Anti-Semitic laws were passed, Jews were fired from their jobs, they lost their homes and most simply and suddenly disappeared. The average German knew something very bad was happening to Jews and others. Indeed, by the start of the war, camps were so numerous that citizens of cities located near them could not help but know what was happening within them.
The fact that millions of Germans knew about the Holocaust, and many participated in it, is a subject psychologists and sociologists have studied ever since. How could a nation primarily comprised of Christians go along with such inhumanity? Why were there no protests or mass opposition to the Nazi political party and to Adolf Hitler once their murderous intentions became clear? How could so many Germans participate in the killings?
The answers to those questions are complex. Many people cite reasons such as Nazi propaganda and historical European anti-semitism. But those reasons fail to address the abandonment of fundamental standards of morality. It’s as if Germany lost its moral compass. It’s national character failed them.
And that leads to a question that is even more chilling. What would you or I have done had we lived in 1930’s and 1940’s Germany? Would we have looked the other way regarding the Holocaust? If we had been ordered to work in concentration camps, would we have gone along simply because we were following orders? Or, would our standards of morality cause us to protest, not participate and thus risk our own lives?
There are two landmark studies that attempted to address the question of how character and morality influence behavior. Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, ran a study in 1962 where volunteers were recruited to serve as test givers. Others were assigned to be test takers. Each test giver was told to deliver an electric shock to a test taker if he or she responded incorrectly to questions. What the test giver did not know is that the test takers were paid actors. No electric shocks were actually administered even though the test givers did not know this detail.
Results from this experiment showed that a huge majority of the test givers followed orders to increasingly shock the test takers for each wrong answer. Despite horrific screams, cries of pain and pleas to stop the experiment by the paid actors – each time they were supposedly shocked – the test givers continued to follow orders. Most expressed concern about the harm they thought they were inflicting. Some considered stopping. Most exhibited some level of stress. But when they asked to quit, they were told that for the purposes of the experiment and in order to achieve reliable results, they had to continue. A few test givers continued to protest and they were then ordered to continue administering electric shocks. Nearly 70% of the test givers proceeded to the point of administering what they thought were near lethal electric shocks.
Results from the experiment shocked experts and the general public. Many believed the results were unique to that group of volunteers and that the results could not be duplicated with test givers from other cultures or with all female volunteers. In every follow-up experiment, results were statistically the same. Test givers, no matter age, race, religion or gender increasingly shocked the test takers and very few quit the experiment – despite the fact they believed they were causing extreme pain.
Dr. Milgram, the lead scientist, concluded that, “Ordinary people, even when the destructive effects of their work becomes patently clear and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few have the resources needed to resist.”
The other landmark study involved using Seminary student volunteers. They were asked to prepare a sermon for a select group of VIP church attenders. When driving each Seminary student to the location where they would speak, some were told they were very late. Others were told they were early and had plenty of time.
On arrival at church, every Seminary student came across someone who had supposedly just fallen, hit their head and was in need of immediate assistance. In almost every case, the Seminary students who had been told they were running late did not stop and assist the injured person. Those who were told they were early, almost all stopped and helped.
This experiment, along with the Milgram electric shock experiment, indicated that human character and morality are often situational and not ingrained. They are not a natural part of who we are but rather they depend on a number of variables. Otherwise good people can and do act in ways that are contrary to standard morality.
In both of these examples, people were attuned to the morality of following orders. Many of the test givers in the Milgram experiment reported that when they were told to continue shocking the test takers, they did not think about what was normal good behavior. Their moral inclinations toward the test takers were superseded by their moral inclination to obey orders. The same morality was true of the Seminary students. They were focused on the importance of doing the right thing for those waiting to hear their sermon. Their morality was not blind but was, instead, refocused.
The ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato both believed that morality is a function of choice. Humans have the free will to choose to do good or do bad. We have control over our character. That fact, they said, separates people from animals which are controlled by instinct.
The Milgram study and the Seminary student study proved, however, that we do not have complete control in choosing our character and morality. How we behave is subject to a number of external influences we cannot control – like the life situations we face, our level of education, how we were raised, our environment, our genes, the chemical mix of hormones within us, and our mental and physical health. In other words, humans are just like fellow animals. We are unable to fully choose, by ourselves, our character.
And that concept shocks most people. It contradicts the foundations of society which seeks to judge human character by punishing the bad and rewarding the good. What we’ve learned, however, is that our character and morality are not absolute. They are subject to change and they evolve. They are open to different circumstances. Ultimately, the character found in any one of us is not perfect.
If all of this is true, how do we plug into the power of character to improve the world? If our character is not always a matter of our choice, if we are prone to influences we cannot control that affect how we act, what can we do to become better people? What is a standard of good character to work towards?
I believe we can look to the human Jesus as a role model in this regard. We see from his actions a form of situational morality. Despite the standard belief that he was peace loving and gentle, Jesus instead shouted at and name-called his opponents. He often flew into a rage when confronting hypocrites – as he did when he saw supposedly moral people selling items for their own profit within the religious Temple.
When he faced imminent arrest and execution, Jesus was not calm or at peace. He struggled with a desire to run away. When he was invited to raucous parties with wine and single women, he eagerly attended. Jesus regularly sought out people and events that supposedly moral Christians of today would categorically reject.
Interestingly, Jesus understood the nuances of human character. He challenged the hypocrites of his day to stop judging others. He noted that only those who have done no wrong in their lives should judge others. Implicitly, he pointed out that nobody can meet that standard of perfection and so nobody has a right to morally judge another. He taught that we must stop condemning the misdeeds of others when we have major flaws of our own to correct. He echoed what Confucius said, “When we see people of worth, we should think of equaling them; when we see people of bad character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.”
Most of all, Jesus was deeply empathetic about human behavior. He reached out to supposedly immoral people with compassion and understanding. To the woman caught in adultery, he was tender and kind. To a woman married and divorced many times, he gently counseled her to find meaning not in the arms of multiple men, but by caring for others. He was similarly understanding toward thieves, prostitutes and the greedy. He did not condone bad behavior as much as he sought to understand it and encourage change for the better through positive reinforcement.
For Jesus, character evolves. Good character acknowledges past mistakes and learns from them. Good character is not legalistic and judgmental. It is open, flexible and generously empathetic. Character is not defined by perfection. Instead, character is life enriching and ever understanding of imperfections in oneself and in others.
Character, for me, involves just what Jesus offered to people he encountered – understanding and the benefit of grace. I find that by seeing the good in people and praising for them for that is a way to encourage better behavior. I’m also aware of my own failures and so I try my best to avoid hypocrisy. I’m all too aware that what I might consider less than good character might be perfectly OK for others. As a victim of people who condemn my homosexuality as immoral, how could I possibly judge others engaged in behaviors that cause no harm?
Plugging into the power of character is about loving, encouraging and serving others so they can be their very best. Character is about doing for others what we want done for ourselves – living out the one universally accepted moral standard: the Golden Rule. Personally, I want to be forgiven my misdeeds even as I’m asked to learn from them. I don’t want someone to impose their standard of morality on me – just as I don’t seek to impose mine on them. If one is following the Golden Rule, he or she will do no harm to others and exhibit, in my opinion, good character.
What Jesus could not tolerate were the hypocrites of his day who pretended to be pious and moral people but who were secretly arrogant, greedy, lustful, and hateful. For Jesus, hypocrisy is the greatest of sins. The power of character, therefore, lies in understanding our own foibles and those of others, placing them in their proper context and, if they are harmful to others, encouraging positive change in the offender.
All of this is to say that what occurred in Germany during the Holocaust can never be condoned. It was evil taken to a horrific extreme. But the sobering reality is that most humans are capable of acting in similar ways. In that regard, we must be aware of negative influences on us and undertake ways to counteract them. Demagogues, discrimination and hate must be immediately rejected whenever they occur. People must be on guard against false propaganda that appeals to our worst instincts.
While I purposely avoid expressing political views in my role as a minister, I believe this nation faces a serious threat in its choice for the next President. Character demands that we confront bigotry from any candidate. It demands that we confront violent, discriminatory or misogynistic speech. It demands that we speak against hate in any form. As spiritual people who do not claim to be perfect, we should nevertheless do all in our power to prevent the election of someone who expresses values totally inconsistent with universal standards of goodness. I will not mention a candidate name who should be opposed, but I trust in our wisdom to identify him or her – and then do all in our power to defeat that candidate.
What I’ve hopefully outlined is a way to plug into the power of true character. In doing so, we will understand our imperfections, we’ll empathize with flaws in others, we will practice the Golden Rule by doing to others what we seek for ourselves, and we will avoid, as much as possible, hypocritical judgements. The power of character, therefore, lies in genuine humility, gentleness, love, understanding and compassion for ourselves……..and for each other.
I wish you all peace and joy.
To conclude my message, I asked Michael Tacy if he would learn and perform a powerful song that relates to my topic. The song he will sing would be be highly controversial in many churches – but I trust that here it will be understood in the context of my message. The song, “Take Me to Church” by the artist Irish Andrew Hozier, was nominated for a song of the year Grammy in 2015. It was one of that year’s most popular tunes. Hozier said he wrote it in protest against Catholic Church judgement of gays, lesbians and other supposed sinners.
I relate to the song because it speaks of what happened to me when I came out eleven years ago to my previous church congregation. It speaks of how religion in general has judged and excluded millions of otherwise good people for behavior that harms nobody. Even today, I will invite gay friends and others to visit here, or other spiritual places, and most decline. They have been so wounded by organized religion that many want no part of anything remotely similar.
Let us listen to this song, the lyrics will be displayed for you, and let us reflect not in order to condemn religion, but rather in sorrow at the human propensity to judge, hate and scorn people who may be different. Let us reflect on what it means to show grace to others, to praise people instead of tearing them down, to love instead of demean. Ponder, if you will, what truly good character means to you and how you can plug into its power. May we listen now and reflect on the song “Take Me to Church” – with humility, with honest self examination and with a continued willingness to stand against those who hate.