Today we live in a blizzard of another sort. It swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war. It swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others. We all know stories of people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls, losing their moral bearings and even their mortal lives: they make headlines because they take so many innocents down with them. — A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer
This chapter begins with two horrific tragedies of recent history. They each happened over a period of just a few months (mostly). They are each examples of some of the most horrible crimes that people can commit against other people. They are not unique, but each time they happen we are shocked at the capacity of evil that some people seem to carry within them. What is most shocking about these two points in history is that the evil happens at the hands of good people.
In a short period of time a blizzard of violence and vengeance and punishment swept through Rwanda in 1994. That same blizzard blew through Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003. All of the characteristics quoted above, “fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others” were present in each case. Ordinary people wandered off into extraordinary madness and, in the end, hundreds of thousands of people were taken down with them. Much of the world was blind to this pain until it was far too late.
In the spring and summer of 1994 somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed in the African country of Rwanda. Some reports estimate that at least 200,000 women were raped (Loc. 477) Another 2 million people were chased from their homes into the surrounding countries searching for shelter in refugee camps. These months were just one episode of a longer civil war between two groups of people, Hutu and Tutsi, that had been going on for years. It was an explosion of violence and cruelty and punishment that is impossible to imagine.
You may be familiar with these tragedies, as I am, mainly from the Don Cheadle movie, Hotel Rwanda. I was 17 at the time of the actual genocide and have no recollection of news reports or discussions in my high school classroom. I was 27 when the movie came out and was shocked by the fear and frenzy of the killing. I was saddened by the indifference of the surrounding nations and of my own. In this case, there weren’t enough headlines announcing the fall of innocents and calling leaders to action. But, what is most alarming in all of this is the insanity that was carried out by previously sane people.
In his book, The Lucifer Effect, Dr. Philip Zimbardo chronicles many of the ways that good people can be made to do bad things, things they would never have imagined doing, things that they would certainly deny having the capacity to do. In Rwanda, ordinary people used ordinary machetes to commit horrible acts of violence. They did it to their neighbors. They did it to their colleagues. They did it to children. They did it as “farmers, active church goers, and a former teacher.” (Loc 512)
Dr. Zimbardo quotes one Tutsi woman, Berthe, who describes her shock at the brutal rapes and murders that ripped through her country, “Before, I knew that a man could kill another man, because it happens all the time. Now I know that even the person with whom you’ve shared food, or with whom you’ve slept, even he can kill you with no trouble. The closest neighbor can kill you with his teeth: that is what I have learned since the genocide, and my eyes no longer gaze the same on the face of the world.” (Loc 531–536).
From the side of the Hutu attackers, two chilling quotes illustrate the same sad truth. One man called to mind a single incident, “The worst thing about the massacre was killing my neighbor; we used to drink together, his cattle would graze on my land. He was like a relative.” (Loc 453). A Hutu mother who had beaten to death the children of her Tutsi neighbors, justified the murder as doing “a favor” to the children since their parents were already dead. The government had told her that they were part of the problem, so better that they die rather than grow up helpless orphans (Loc. 459)
Decades later and thousands of miles away, while typing in a quaint coffee shop in a comfortable Midwestern city, it’s easy for me to judge the perpetrators of this evil. It’s easy for me to say that I would never do such a thing, that I would sacrifice my own life before taking the life of another. But Dr. Zimbardo goes to great lengths to show that I am very likely giving myself too much credit. He quotes Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch,
“This behavior lies just under the surface of any of us. The simplified accounts of genocide allow distance between us and the perpetrators of genocide. They are so evil we couldn’t ever see ourselves doing the same thing. But if you consider the terrible pressure under which people were operating, then you automatically reassert their humanity — and that becomes alarming. You are forced to look at the situation and say, “What would I have done? Sometimes the answer is not encouraging.” (Loc. 507–512).
The pressure that exploded that summer had built up over centuries. It is well-documented that the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi is an arbitrary one. They were people who lived together and worshiped together and married one another. In other words, any difference between the two groups was made up. In this case, it was made up by Belgian and German colonialists who had come to central Africa to make money. Benefits were given to the Tutsis and denied to the Hutus by these foreigners bent on “greed and deceit.” The stage was set for “economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war.” I would like to think that I would handle this pressure differently, but the only differences I can point to are that I am white and American. That answer is weak and not very encouraging.
After all, it was white Americans who oversaw the prison of Abu Ghraib in Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. You may remember the names Charles Graner and Lynndie England. If you don’t remember the names, you likely remember the pictures. You might still be able to picture of a pile of men, naked, stacked on top of one another, hoods over their heads. Standing over the top of them were two American soldiers with smiles on their faces, proud of their handiwork. Or, you remember the photo of another naked man, lying on the floor with a dog collar around his neck and a leash attached. At the other end is a female soldier looking down at him with disdain.
Most infamous of all, though, is the photo of another Iraqi prisoner standing on a box with a black hood over his face and a black sheet over his body. He is perched on a box. Attached to his hands are two electrodes that run off toward the wall. It was later discovered that this man was told that if he fell from the box or stepped down he would be electrocuted. It was torture plain and simple, “physical and spiritual violence.” Photos like these, once leaked, revealed the systematic abuse of prisoners, guilty and innocent alike. Dogs were used to threaten. Simulated sex was used to shame. There was lying, rape and murder.
Again, it’s easy for me to look at people like Charles Graner, Lynndie England, and the others involved and say that I would act differently. But, that answer is too easy. They were caught in a blizzard of deprivation and destruction that I have never known and no one should be expected to endure. Again, Dr. Zimbardo goes to great lengths to illustrate how the system had failed and how the circumstances shaped individual behavior.
The Abu Ghraib prison was referred to as “Saddam’s Torture Central” with twice weekly executions under his rule (Loc 7862). It is a gigantic complex surrounded by neighborhoods, casting a shadow of fear over the residents. Even though the prison changed hands when Saddam was overthrown, the torture and the fear continued as the prison became a target for snipers and mortars. There was destruction and death all around. Soldiers who were assigned there not only had to manage prisoners, but also outside threats. They lived in a constant state of fear with no outlet for relief.
Dr. Zimbardo illustrates the conditions, “Compounding the woes of the soldiers, the war torn Abu Ghraib Prison had no sewage system — only holes in the ground and porta-potties. Even so, there were not enough outside porta-potties to accommodate all the prisoners and soldiers. Because they were not regularly emptied, they overflowed, and in the extreme summer temperatures, the stench was horrible for everyone all the time. There was also no adequate shower system; water was rationed; there was no soap; electricity went down regularly because there were no reliably operating generators. The prisoners stank, as did the whole facility that enclosed them. Under the heavy rains of summer, when temperatures soared well above 110 degrees F., the prison became a baking oven, or sauna. During the windstorm, find dust particles got into everyone’s lungs, causing congestion and viral infections.” (Loc 7914–7922) One of the officers in charge of military investigations said that it “resembled hell on earth.”
What made all of this especially difficult to endure was that calls for help and change went unheeded by the commanding officers. To make matters worse, the torture and abuse was encouraged, if not commanded by those who wanted the prisoners “softened up” so that they could gain “actionable intelligence.” All of this is to say, that individuals were acting in very difficult circumstances and a failed system. This is important to note because records show that many of those people who did evil things in the prison seemed to be good when they were not. They were good employees, good spouses, good parents who had “wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls.”
These stories are hard to revisit, but they are essential if we are going to understand God and the death of Jesus. A word like sin is too often perceived as a stuffy morality that conservative people use to keep kids quiet and make the rest of us feel guilty for having fun. A word like salvation is too often understood as a secret password, a “get out of jail free card.” When the devil comes up we imagine medieval superstition and a little, red man with a pitch fork and horns. Or, if you’re a movie buff, a possessive spirit that makes little girl’s heads spin around and vomit. These are sad representations of the truth and distract us from the heart of the matter.
The superstitions of religion are up for debate, but the blizzard described by Parker Palmer at the opening of this chapter is not. People of all faiths or no faith at all recognize injustice and greed and deceit as immoral. Participants in every religion or none at all feel a tug to address the suffering of their fellow human beings. The problem for many people is that they no longer see a connection between the language of religion and the cruelty and tragedy of the world. In fact, it seems to too many people that the church’s condemnation of sin only adds to the cruelty. It seems to too many people that any promise of salvation is irrelevant to the tragedy from which people truly need saving.
As you’ve already read, Dr. Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect, shows how good people can be lead to do bad things if they are put in certain circumstances and systems. The book gets its title from a name given to the devil. It is said the devil was once a good angel whose name was Lucifer, an angel of light who did God’s will. But, then came a serious fall from grace as Lucifer was cast out of heaven. Satan became the evil one.
You find references to Satan throughout the Bible. The name means “adversary,” one who opposes or stands in the way. In the later books of the Bible you find more mention of the Devil. In this case, the name refers to someone who “accuses falsely.” In a couple of places you find reference to the “evil one.” In one place, you find a threatening “ruler of the power of the air.” Basically, there is a figure in the Bible who stands in the way of God’s plans, falsely accuses God’s people and is bent on doing evil.
The Bible describes the devil as an enemy of God, a villainous oppressor who, in his cunning, sets traps for us. Like a lion, he prowls around looking for people to devour. Satan uses disguises in order to bind and torment and hinder our plans. The evil one uses flaming arrows to lord his power over the whole world. Words like “cunning” and “prowl” and “disguise” are sinister words. To “murder” and to “devour” and to “torment” are acts of spiritual and physical violence.
You can see them at play in the horrific stories told about Rwanda and Abu Ghraib. What the Bible reveals is that they also capture the essence of what the devil, God’s enemy, is trying to accomplish in the world. The soul of Satan is dark. The works of the devil are destructive. They oppose God’s plans for freedom and life without fear. The devil has plans to get us to join him. When good people do bad things, the question is often raised: did the devil make them do it? Yes, but not exactly.
In chapter 2, you were asked to “remember Egypt” and you were introduced to Pharaoh. He was the king of Egypt, but seemed to hold power over the whole world. You’ll remember that Pharaoh was someone who opposed God’s plans. He was an oppressor and a tormentor who made life miserable for the people whom he had enslaved. When God showed up on the scene, Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. While God wanted his people to be free, Pharaoh was determined to keep them captive.
Pharaoh became a controlling and cruel taskmaster who punished God’s people. They were in slavery and unable to free themselves. But, that is not all that was going on. God’s people were not simply passive actors without any ability to choose or act. We also saw how they had made a choice to turn away from God and “feast” on the gods of Egypt. In other words, they had given in to the “blizzard” of their slavery and “wandered off” away from their own souls. As far as the Bible is concerned, Satan is a kind of supernatural Pharaoh. The devil is one who wants to hold people captive and keep them enslaved with the goal of enticing us away from freedom and into slavery where we, too, will wander away from ourselves.
When it comes to the genocide of Rwanda or the torture of Abu Ghraib or any other violent tragedy at home or in the street, did the devil make them do it? The answer can’t be a simple “yes” or “no.” It’s not that the devil pulled strings like a puppeteer making people slaughter and torture. The actors were not helpless. Instead, we find that the devil stirs up a storm to try to get good people to do bad things. It leaves us feeling that we have no choice but to give in and to become what we see all around us. So, we choose the madness, lose our moral bearings, and often take innocents with us.
But, there’s hope! It’s in Part 2.