The awareness of sin used to be our shadow. Christians hated sin, feared it, fled from it, grieved over it. Some of our grandparents agonized over their sins; a man who lost his temper might wonder whether he could still go to Holy Communion. A woman who for years envied her more attractive and intelligent sister might worry that this sin threatened her very salvation.
But now the shadow has faded. Nowadays, the accusation you have sinned is often said with a grin and a tone that signals an inside joke. At one time, this accusation still had the power to jolt people. Catholics lined up to confess their sins; Protestant preachers rose up to confess our sins. And they did it regularly. Their view was that confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough. As a child growing up in the fifties among Western Michigan Calvinists, I think I heard as many sermons about sin as I did about grace. The assumption in those days seemed to be that you could not understand either without understanding both.
Many American Christians recall sermons in which preachers got visibly angry over a congregation's sin. When these preachers were in full cry, they would make red-faced, finger-pointing, second-person plural accusations: "You are sinners-filthy, miserable, greasy sinners!" Occasionally, these homiletical indictments veered awfully close to the second-person singular.
Of course, the old preachers sometimes appeared to forget that their audience included sincere and mature believers. (You wondered what language they would have saved for Himmler or Stalin!) Such preachers were also capable of sounding self-righteous: their own hearts were pure, they wanted you to believe, and even when they were adolescent they yearned much less for sex than for Sunday school.
Still, you were never in doubt what these preachers were talking about. They were talking about sin. In today's group confessionals it is harder to tell. The newer language of Zion fudges: "Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics, and especially our feebleness in networking." Or, "I'd just like to share that we just need to target holiness as a growth area." Where sin is concerned, people mumble now.
Why should we speak up? The reason is that although traditional Christianity is true, its truth saws against the grain of much in contemporary culture and therefore needs constant sharpening. Christianity's major doctrines need regular restatement so that people may believe them, or believe them anew.
But anyone who tries to recover the knowledge of sin these days must overcome long odds. To put it mildly, modern consciousness does not encourage moral reproach; in particular, it does not encourage self-reproach. Preachers mumble about sin. The other traditional custodians of moral awareness often ignore, trivialize, or evade it. Some of these evasions take time and training. As sociologist James Davison Hunter has observed, schoolteachers no longer say anything as pointed as "Stop it, please! You're disturbing the class!" for these are judgmental words. Instead, to a strong-armed youth who is rattling classroom windows with his tennis ball, educationally correct teachers put a sequence of caring questions: "What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How does doing this make you feel?"
The word sin, Hunter adds, now finds its home mostly on dessert menus. "Peanut Butter Binge" and "Chocolate Decadence" are sinful; lying is not. The measure for sin is caloric.
Recently, however, a few of the older breezes have begun to blow again. In 1990, a mainline syndicated columnist wondered "Why Nothing Is 'Wrong' Anymore." In 1992 the vice-president of the United States drew guffaws from talk-show types when he complained that TV's Murphy Brown made voluntary single parenthood look like merely another lifestyle option-and a glamorous one at that-but he also drew widespread support from people (including "Newsweek" and "Atlantic Monthly" cover-story writers) who were otherwise barely tolerant of his quixoticisms.
In the summer of 1993, the "New York Times Book Review" ran a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, and MTV produced a special video on the same topic. Though, as John Leo commented in "U.S. News & World Report," the "Times" pieces were often artsy and arcane, and the MTV production so fragmented and trivial as to suggest that its spokespersons really lacked a vocabulary and frame of reference sturdy enough for the topic, the fact that these sources addressed the topic at all was surprising and newsworthy.
The same summer (July 1993) "Theology Today" devoted a whole issue to serious discussion of sin, including essays on contrition, civil sin, and preaching on sin. Mindful of decades of trivializing where sin is concerned, Thomas G. Long titled his editorial introduction "God Be Merciful to Me, A Miscalculator."
In one of the best known and most widely reproduced editorials on morality in the nineties ("The Joy of What?" Dec. 12, 1991), the "Wall Street Journal" counted the beads on a string of public sex scandals-Anita Hill's abuse charges against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Magic Johnson's confession that his HIV infection was a by-product of promiscuous sexual athleticism, William Kennedy Smith's grimy testimony in his Palm Beach rape trial. The Journal then said this: "The United States has a drug problem and a high school sex problem and a welfare problem and an AIDS problem and a rape problem. None of this will go away until more people in positions of responsibility are willing to come forward and explain, in frankly moral terms, that some of the things people do nowadays are wrong." Remarkably, the Journal strongly implied that it was high time we got the word sin out of mothballs and began to use it again and to mean it.
Samuel Johnson said that we need to be reminded much more often than instructed. Sin is no exception. Indeed, for most of us a healthy reminder of our sin and guilt is clarifying and even assuring. For, unlike some other identifications of human trouble, a diagnosis of sin and guilt allows hope. Something can be done for this malady. Something has been done for it.
But reminders must be timely. Books on sin today must meet concerns and untie knots that did not worry Augustine and Calvin. They were not worried about the flattening of human majesty in modern naturalism or of human corruption in Enlightenment humanism. They did not wonder at the Californian tendency to conflate salvation and self-esteem. Nor did they meet a widespread cultural assumption that the proper place to inquire about the root causes of human evil is a department of psychology or of sociology.
How must the doctrine of sin be taught in settings where pride is no longer viewed with alarm-where, in fact, it is sometimes praised and cultivated? Or where the apostle Paul's intimidatingly detailed lists of virtues and vices have shrunk to tolerance and intolerance, respectively? Or where democratic impulses have heightened our sensitivity to sins against inequality but have also invaded spaces formerly reserved for the transcendently holy? What can the Christian church say about sin in settings where it has itself contributed much to such tendencies, including the tendency to democratize God?
My goal, as suggested, is to renew the knowledge of a persistent reality that used to evoke in us fear, hatred, and grief. Many of us have lost this knowledge, and we ought to regret the loss. For slippage in our consciousness of sin, like most fashionable follies, is both pleasant and devastating. Self-deception about our sin is a narcotic, a tranquilizing and disorienting suppression of our spiritual central nervous system. What is devastating about it is that when we lack an ear for wrong notes in our lives, we cannot play right ones or even recognize them in the performances of others. Eventually, we make ourselves religiously so tone deaf that we miss both the exposition and the recapitulation of the main themes God plays in human life. The music of creation and the still greater music of grace whistle right through our skulls, causing no catch of the breath and leaving no residue. Moral beauty begins to bore us. The idea that the human race needs a Savior sounds quaint.
To renew our memory of the integrity of creation and to sharpen our eye for the beauty of grace, we have to know our sin. In the space that remains, let us remind ourselves of one particular category of sin-the sins of evasion, the moves we make to avoid God-given responsibilities.
"The West has finally achieved the rights of man … but man's sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer."
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
At Yale University in the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a controversial set of psychological experiments to test human willingness to act harshly on command. He gives us a report in his book "Obedience to Authority." What Milgram discovered tells us much-much more than is comfortable to know-about our readiness to evade responsibility.
Through ads in the local paper soliciting volunteers at a generous hourly rate for "a scientific study of memory and learning," supplemented by a later random mailing, Milgram gathered a diverse pool of subjects. By appointment, these people appeared singly at Yale's Interaction Laboratory where they met the experimenter, a youngish man in a gray laboratory coat, and also a portly, middle-aged man they supposed to be another subject like themselves, but who was actually an actor trained by Milgram.
By casting rigged lots, the experimenter arranged in each case for the genuinely naive subject to be the "teacher" in the study and for the actor to be the "learner." The subject was told that the idea of the experiment was to test the effect of punishment on learning and that, as teacher, his task would be to administer penalty shocks to the learner each time the learner returned an incorrect answer to one of the test questions.
The actor-learner was then strapped into a kind of electric chair and assured in the subject's presence that though the shocks could be "extremely painful," they would cause "no permanent tissue damage." The subject, in turn, was placed before an imposing shock generator said to be connected to the learner. This generator featured a long horizontal row of switches labeled in voltages ranging from "15 volts" to "450 volts," with groups of the switches additionally designated as "slight shock," "moderate shock," "strong shock," "intense shock," up to "danger-severe shock," and, finally, to a simple, ominous "XXX."
During the tests, the actor (who, of course, was actually receiving no shocks at all) proved to be a most unpromising student. Out of every four questions, he got about three wrong. After each miss, the experimenter instructed the subject to shock the learner with the next highest jolt-beginning at 15 volts and moving up through 30 levels to the maximum 450 volts-and to announce before each shock the present level of voltage.
The actor-learner responded convincingly to this steadily intensifying punishment: he grunted at 75 volts, protested at 120 volts, and demanded at 150 volts to be released from the experiment. At 180 volts the learner cried out "I can't stand the pain," and, at 270 volts, he emitted what "can only be described as an agonizing scream." At 300 volts the learner shouted desperately that he would no longer cooperate by trying to answer questions, and after 330 volts he lapsed into dead silence.
Naturally, many subjects found their role in this drama progressively upsetting. Thus, when they turned questioningly to the experimenter, he prodded them, as necessary, with a sequence of increasingly authoritative commands: "Please continue," then "The experiment requires that you continue," then "It is absolutely essential that you continue," and finally, "You have no other choice, you must go on."
Under such pressure, most subjects began to show signs of strain. Some merely blipped the victim for a millisecond instead of really zapping him. Some tried to reduce the strain by such subterfuges as signaling the answer to the victim. Many also dissented verbally from the unexpectedly painful course the experiment was taking-while still continuing to press the switches. At every stage, a number of disobedient subjects quit. But obedient subjects reduced their distress by some ploy, maintained loyalty to the experimenter, and kept on buzzing the learner right through his protests.
How many obeyed? Much depended on the proximity of subject and victim. When the learner was in another room and could not be heard except for his urgent pounding on the wall late in the test, 65 percent of the subjects inflicted the harshest punishment. When subjects could hear the victim's cries, but not see him very well, their compliance dipped slightly to 62 percent. When the victim moved into the same room with the subject-who now had to hear the victim's protests and see his looks of panic and reproach-compliance dropped to a still substantial 40 percent. (Some of the compliant subjects reduced their strain by trying to twist their heads around so that they would not have to see the victim.) Even when subjects were ordered to force their dull student's hand down onto the shock plate in order to stimulate him to do better, an alarming 30 percent still shocked their victim clear up to 450 volts.
Why? Why would any ordinary person punish an innocent, protesting, screaming, and finally silent stranger in this way? None of the obedient shockers looked like scrofulous monsters. Most gave little outward indication that they were even particularly aggressive, let alone hostile. A number identified themselves as members in good standing of Christian churches. Virtually all of them, when interviewed, stated their opposition, in principle, to hurting innocent people. Yet, what they rejected in principle they did in practice, however distressed they felt about it. They did it because somebody in a laboratory coat told them that they had no choice.
What the Milgram experiments show is that the same pattern of obedience to authority that binds children to parents, pupils to teachers, citizens to police officers, even airline passengers to flight attendants—the same pattern on which society depends for order and stability—can also transform us into tools of evil. The sobering truth is that given their readiness to obey, given enough pressure to reinforce this readiness, decent people will assault innocent strangers on demand and thus evade one of their most basic moral and spiritual responsibilities.
What is this responsibility? In its interpretation of the sixth commandment ("You shall not kill"), the Heidelberg Catechism states not only what the commandment prohibits, but also what it requires:
Q. Is it enough … that we do not kill our neighbor?
A. No. … God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can. …
Of course, the subjects in the Milgram experiments were caught in a bind. They knew as well as anybody that we ought to be friendly to others and protect them from harm as much as we can. In interviews they said they knew this. But they were also in the habit of obeying authority. Moreover, by signing up for the experiment and accepting payment for their role in it, they had implicitly promised to comply with its provisions. And, initially at least, what reason did they have for distrusting these provisions? Weren't the subjects entitled to assume that a social scientist within the walls of a prestigious university knew what he was doing?
They were. But as their auditory space began to fill with the learner's protests, pleas, and agonizing screams, the subjects also had to face the realization-almost unthinkable-that they had blundered into the laboratory of a madman and had made themselves his agents. Some quit. Others resolved the conflict by obediently electrifying their neighbor-a number of them continuing to defend their compliance even in the postexperiment dehoaxing sessions.
Again, why? In his analysis, Milgram describes what he calls "the agentic state." A person is likely to shift into the agentic state, says Milgram, every time he enters a hierarchical structure held together by various levels of authority. Once inside the structure, he no longer thinks of himself as a responsible moral subject, but only as an agent of others. He comes to see himself not as a person, but as an instrument; not as a center of moral responsibility, but as a tool.
Moreover, once shifted into an agentic state, he finds it remarkably hard to shift back. He is in too deep. He has too much momentum built up. Shifting into disobedience is at that point like trying to shift a car into reverse at 30 miles per hour. He finds himself bound to a morally deteriorating situation that he wants to abandon, but he cannot find a good, clean place to break off. It seems so bumptious to say to a person with a laboratory smock, a clipboard, and the aura of science about him that his experiment is obviously out of control and that it is time to quit. Who can say that? Who dares to disrupt a well-defined social situation in this way?
Not enough of us. The record of wrongful subservience to authority-from Nazi Germany to My Lai to Watergate to everyday life in business and industry-is notorious and discouraging. Somebody commands a soldier to shoot civilians through the back of the neck, or a plant foreman to fire a whistleblower, or an attorney to suborn perjury, or a secretary to destroy evidence, and people obey. They may not like to do it, or want to do it, but they do it. They then defend themselves with the standard rationalization: "I was only following orders." "If it were up to me, I wouldn't do it, but I have to do as I'm told."
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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