Each night, my three year old son wants to learn a new “God song” at bedtime. Last week we sang They Will Know we are Christians By our Love. As we sang, my heart ached with the hope that it will take many years before he learns how hateful people can be in the name of religion.
Our media reports on Christians working to deny basic human rights to undocumented immigrants and Christians who would scrap federal programs that protect our most vulnerable citizens. Clergy have been in the news urging the Boy Scouts of America to continue its ban on gay members and leaders. Meanwhile, many good people of faith place their trust in churches that preach hate and exclusion, then faithfully carry that dark message into a world that desperately needs light.
This reminded me of an article detailing obedience studies conducted by Professor Stanley Milgram at Yale in 1963. Milgram hired an actor to pose as a student “subject” with a fake shock device attached to him. The real, unsuspecting research subjects were instructed to shock the student for wrong answers. They asked academic questions to the actor/student, and for each wrong answer flipped a switch to deliver increasing levels of shock. Eventually the actor/student began to whimper, then scream and fall silent.
Dr. Milgram discovered how far people would go to cause suffering because they felt obliged to obey authority; two out of three delivered the maximum shock, despite the student’s pleas. Milgram later wrote, "with numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe….a substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do…without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority."
Hermann Goering, second to Hitler in the Nazi chain of command, said: “It is always a simple matter to drag the people along.... tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
Despite the temptation to obey, it is possible for humans to seek and choose paths of nonviolence and love. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. both lead non-violent social movements informed by the teachings of Jesus and both believed an informed conscience empowers one’s decisions. Milgram, whose research was motivated by the horrors of the Holocaust, wrote, “It may be that we are puppets... controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation."
Signs of hope abound: Two young members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church recently renounced its teachings of hate and left its fold. The United Church of Christ and ecumenical partners have encouraged the Boy Scouts to move toward inclusion of gay members. People of many faith traditions are continually working together for social justice and world peace. When I remember this my heart leaps. May our children know a world that is increasingly loving and just.
May they know we are Christians by our love.
The United Church of Christ has 5,194 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.