Monday, August 20, 2012

When good people do bad things

Psalm 34: 9-18; 1 Kings 2: 10-12, 3: 3-14
First Church of Christ, UCC, Woodbridge, CT
August 19, 2012

In the spring of 1967, in suburban southern California, a high school history teacher by the name of Ron Jones conducted a weeklong experiment with his sophomore Contemporary World history class.  The current subject was Nazi Germany and fascist regimes.  Most of Jones’ students could not believe the claims that the majority of the German population was unaware of the concentration camps; neither could they comprehend such a thing could ever happen again, that humanity was now more enlightened.  To prove his point, Ron Jones organized his class with rigid discipline, rules about behavior, armbands and membership cards, even a hand salute, and a name for their movement—the Third Wave.
 Ron Jones, 1967.

Even though his class was now organized around an authoritarian structure, he found his students more alert, more responsive to questions and eager to participate, and more compassionate to those around them.  Many students outside the class asked if they could join.  In three days more than 200 students were members of the Third Wave and enforcing members to comply with the rules the experiment or suffer consequences.  One student even went so far as to volunteer as Mr. Jones’ bodyguard.

By Thursday Jones was exhausted and wanted to conclude the experiment.  Things were getting out of hand.  The Third Wave was become the center of students’ lives.  Jones found himself slipping into his role of dictator even when it was not necessary.  He couldn’t let the experiment continue but neither could he just end it abruptly.  Students who normally were bullied were now enjoying an equality that gave meaning and purpose to their lives.  All the participants were vulnerable to the potential for extreme self-doubt and humiliation.  Something had to be done.

Jones assembled his class, which had now swelled to 80—students were cutting other classes to join his.  He told them that the Third Wave was not just an experiment but a national movement to discover young people who would be willing to work for political change, a national youth movement.  He announced that there would be a rally the next day, on Friday, for Third Wave members only.  A national candidate for president of the Third Wave would be making an announcement about the formation of a national Third Wave youth program.  1000 other youth groups would be receiving the same message and would be asked for their support.

From the 1981 TV movie "The Wave".

At noon on Friday, over 200 students assembled in the school auditorium.  On the stage was a television set to air the supposed national press conference.  Jones gave the hand salute and led the members through their recitation of the Third Wave motto:  Strength through discipline.  Strength through community.  Strength through action.  Strength through pride.  Jones then turned on the TV set and everyone waited with expectation.  After a few minutes, nothing appeared on the screen.  Students began to realize that there wasn’t any leader, there wasn’t going to be a national movement.

Jones then turned on a rear projector and scenes from one of the massive Nuremburg rallies played on a white drop cloth behind the TV set, illustrating just how far the students might have gone had the Third Wave continued and gained momentum.  Jones apologized for his manipulation, and for, to an extent, abandoning his role as teacher.  After a protracted and stunned silence, students began asking questions and breaking down into tears.  Among his comments to his students were these words:  We have seen that fascism is not just something those other people did. No, it's right here, in this room.  It’s in our own personal habits and way of life. Scratch the surface and it appears.  It’s something in all of us.  We carry it like a disease: the belief that human beings are basically evil and therefore unable to act well toward each other; a belief that demands a strong leader and discipline to preserve social order.”
Nuremburg Rally, 1936. 

We endow our leaders with all sorts of expectations, that they be good, righteous, honest, forthright, humble, kind, compassionate, knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, and to possess a certain amount of wisdom, besides many other qualities and abilities.  King Solomon, in this morning’s lectionary passage, has long been regarded as one of Israel’s most beloved leaders, a philosopher king whose wisdom is world renown.  When God essentially offers to grant any wish he desires, Solomon asks not for riches or fame or victory over his enemies.  Instead he asks for an understanding mind, translated another way, a listening heart so he may govern God’s people and be able to discern between good and evil.

Being able to discern between good and evil is the essence of biblical wisdom.  In many of the verses in the book of Proverbs we hear that the righteous do one thing but the wicked do another.  One action comes with blessings, the other with consequences.  One brings us closer to God, the other creates a rift.  One brings God’s good favor, the other God’s anger.  Since we human beings are basically pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant creatures, one would think we would be able to discern the difference between good and evil by now.
The Dream of Solomon, Luca Giordano, 1693.

One would also think that Solomon, being gifted with a listening heart and an understanding mind, would also be able to grasp that crucial difference, since he did say this is what he wanted.  Yet not two verses before we hear that Solomon loved the Lord, it reads that he took a foreign wife in the form of a marriage alliance with Egypt, which was forbidden under the laws of Moses.  Before he ascended to the throne, Solomon had killed those who would challenge his right to rule.  Later in his reign as Israel’s king, Solomon married more foreign wives and worshiped their gods and imposed heavy taxes and forced labor upon his people.  Like his father David before him, Solomon earned the narrator’s line “he did evil in the sight of the Lord”.  And from this came the split of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms, and eventually the victory of the Assyrians and the Babylonian exile.

But Solomon also had built the great temple in Jerusalem.  His wisdom was known in other lands by kings and queens.  It was said that the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind, bringing gifts such as gold, silver, weaponry, spices, and horses (1 Kings 10: 24-25).  His reign was reasonably the last of a golden age.  Solomon was not a bad man; at times he just wasn’t a very good king.
 Solomon's Temple, David Sharir, 1988.

Of the forty kings and one queen to rule Israel, from King David to the Babylonian exile, in 400 years only two of those rulers—Hezekiah and Josiah—did what was right in the sight of the Lord.  The prophet Samuel warned Israel what having a king would mean—tribute, taxes, a trickle-down economy, with all the best going to the king and his courtiers—but Israel wanted to be like other nations.  God wanted to be their king yet somehow this wasn’t enough.  God made a covenant with God’s people and continued to renew that covenant yet it wasn’t enough.

In order for God to be king, to be the rightful ruler of our lives, we must first acknowledge that we need God.  And there’s really nothing better for that than the first four steps of the twelve:  We admitted that we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable.  Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.  Made a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves.  We have relegated these spiritual steps to those who are addicted to substances and behaviors, yet we all can become addicted to our own point of view.  We all have the ability to become the fascist dictator, the fervent follower, the zealot run amok, requiring that others see the world as we do.

A Facebook friend named David Hayward put it this way:  “We can only see things through our own eyes. We can't help it. But the first step in wisdom is acknowledging this.”   Others have their own eyes, their own wisdom, their own way of seeing things.  The second move toward wisdom is admitting we could be wrong.  The third is acknowledging that wisdom is found not solely on one’s own but in community, with our brothers and sisters, and not just with those who are like-minded. 

His holiness the Dalai Lama has said that “developing concern for others, thinking of them as part of us, brings self-confidence, reduces our sense of suspicion and mistrust, and enables us to develop a calm mind.”   It also brings a sense that we are all in this together, with our strengths and our limits, our gifts and our flaws.  The gift of community is to be absolved of the burden to be complete.

We are wise when we know that we need each other and we need God.  We are wise when we know we need the balance of freedom and restrictions because there is good and evil in all of us.  In truth, we can’t always trust ourselves to do the right thing. The psalmist reminds us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that we be humble and respect that there is a greater wisdom than our own, and that wisdom is a gift from God as much as from our individual and collective experience.

Solomon did have it right, that we ask God for an understanding mind and a listening heart, especially when we are confronted with juxtaposing views of reality and of our life together as a community.  In what ways can you take a step back and see the wider picture in this church, at work or home, in our society?  Are there any unrealistic expectations of leaders, colleagues, friends and of yourself that may be causing resentment?  Unity could be described as sharing the responsibility for both the good and the bad in community life—how does this church measure according to this form of unity?

The humblest prayer we can offer is this:  “Forgive them.  Change me.”  May we all have the understanding mind and the listening heart to pray this prayer each day.  Amen.


Andy said...

I had never heard of Ron Jones experiment before. How fascinating.

Sadly I think that it would be even easier to repeat these reults today (see: Tea Party).

Cynthia said...

That's just what is so scary.

The story of this experiment was made into a TV movie in 1981 called "The Wave", starring Bruce Davison. In 2008 a new version was made in Germany, called "Die Welle"--even more realistic.