Monday, September 01, 2008

Sermon: "Are We All Bad Apples?" (Delivered 8-31-08)

Last March, immediately following the Academy Awards, I went to the Tivoli Theater in Westport to see the film that had won the Oscar for best documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. From the moment the closing credits came on the screen, I knew there was a sermon I needed to preach. Directed and produced by Alex Gibney, the documentary examines the connections between the practices of torture and prisoner abuse at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and at Guantanamo Bay. When the media first broke stories of torture and prisoner mistreatment, high-ranking officials in the US Government and military were quick to blame the abuses on, quote, “A few bad apples.” But Gibney’s documentary follows the ladder of command upward, assigning blame to the prison guards’ commanding officers, and then to their commanding officers, and then to the top brass of the United States military, and then to the members of the Bush administration: Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. But, just when you think Gibney is about to drive the nail home, he abruptly pulls back. He asks a larger theological question: “Are we all bad apples?”

This sermon has been five months in the making and I knew I wanted to show a clip from Taxi to the Dark Side, however, I learned this past week that the DVD won’t be released for another month. Fortunately, Alex Gibney had explored a similar theme in an earlier documentary he directed, an adaptation of the book, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. In Enron, Gibney spends a tremendous amount of time looking at Enron’s executives, Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. But in the most memorable scene in the film, Gibney plays tapes from the Enron trading floor as rolling blackouts swept the state of California in the late 90s. At this point, Enron controlled the much of the California power grid. They could selectively order power plants to close, skewing the balance of supply and demand and raising prices to astronomical levels. During a heat wave that prompted a public health crisis, Enron ordered power plants to cut production in order to gouge the pocket books of the state of California and its citizens.

[Here I played a clip from the film in which the recorded voices of traders are juxtaposed against the effects their actions affected the state. The tapes include traders calling power plants and asking them to “get creative” and find a way to shut down. The tapes also include Enron traders commenting on California wildfires by cheering, “Burn, baby, burn!” and “That’s a beautiful thing.”]

If I hadn’t hit stop, if I had kept the film rolling, you would see images of emergency personnel rescuing people stuck in elevators. You would see pictures from violent car accidents caused when traffic lights went out. These images would be juxtaposed with audio tapes of traders cracking jokes about grandmothers sweating without any air-conditioning. Of course, frail senior citizens did die when their air-conditioning went out. This segment of the documentary concludes with Jeffrey Skilling joking at a corporate meeting, “What’s the difference between California and the Titanic? When the Titanic went down, it still had its lights on.”

In these two documentaries, Gibney asks this same question, a deeply theological question: “Are we all bad apples?” In each film, the players are different. At Enron, the traders were seduced by greed, by a highly competitive culture that led them to want to out-do each other as well as by a culture that led them to relativize their actions. If the guy in the cubicle next to mine is doing it, it must be alright. They were also acting within the context of a corporate ethos that groomed the traders to show no mercy and to go straight for the jugular.

As for the soldiers who directly participated in the abuse of prisoners, these soldiers lived under constant fear of death. This intense stress disarmed moral questioning. A culture of conformity led servicemen and women to do as others do and the competition to gain confessions led the soldiers to improvise and exacerbate their torture methods. Finally, the encouragement of superiors led these interrogators to avoid a sense of responsibility.

So, are we all bad apples? Are all of us only a certain situation away from being prone to abuse or taking advantage of our fellow human beings?

Since World War II, psychologists such as Stanley Milgram have conducted experiments that have repeatedly shown that a stressful environment and a strong authoritative figure can lead regular people to perpetrate shocking acts of cruelty.

The cases of Enron and Abu Ghraib and the psychological experiments by psychologists such as Milgram challenge more than two centuries of Unitarian teachings about human nature. The interview with a sub-prime mortgage lender that I included in last week’s sermon is just one more example that challenges our thinking about good and evil. Allow me to lead you through a whirlwind tour of Unitarian ideas of human nature.

There is an old joke that the Universalists believed that God was too good to send anyone to Hell and the Unitarians believed that they were too good for God to send them to Hell. There is some truth to this joke. The original Unitarians differed with their more orthodox brothers and sisters not over the mathematics of the trinity, but rather over fundamentally incompatible understandings of human nature. The orthodox Puritans adhered to the doctrine of the total depravity of human beings. Thanks to Adam and/or Eve (I’ll let you decide where to assign the blame) we are born into original sin and we are predestined to live as sinful, miserable beings prone to acts of unspeakable evil. The Unitarians broke with their Puritan brothers and sisters first and most powerfully on this issue.

In his tour de force 1819 sermon “Unitarian Christianity,” William Ellery Channing argued,
“We object strongly to the contemptuous manner in which human reason is often spoken of by our adversaries, because it leads, we believe, to universal skepticism. If reason be so dreadfully darkened by the fall, that its most decisive judgments on religion are unworthy of trust, then Christianity, and even natural theology, must be abandoned; for the existence and veracity of God, and the divine original of Christianity, are conclusions of reason, and must stand or fall with it. If revelation be at war with this faculty, it subverts itself, for the great question of its truth is left by God to be decided at the bar of reason. It is worthy of remark, how nearly the bigot and the skeptic approach. Both would annihilate our confidence in our faculties, and both throw doubt and confusion over every truth. We honor revelation too highly to make it the antagonist of reason, or to believe that it calls us to renounce our highest powers.”
I find Channing’s language beautiful, but if you find it tedious or confusing, what he is saying is simply this: We have the capacity to reason about religion. The rhetoric of this statement is biting. If you disagree and argue that human beings are incapable of reason, you’ve lost the debate before it’s even started.

Indeed, this insistence on the capacity of human beings to reason was the key to our early faith. The rise of democracy, which paralleled the rise of liberal religion, was predicated on the belief that human beings were capable of self-government and did not require a monarch or cleric or dictator to protect us from ourselves. Channing self-identified as a Christian but his elevation of the human capacity to reason allowed the Transcendentalists to trust their own explorations into the realm of the spirit. By elevating reason, Channing also prefigured the rise of humanism about a century later. Humanism is based on faith in the capacity of human beings to reason. Therefore it is no wonder that early Unitarians like Horace Mann were leaders in education. Education was linked to moral character. Unitarians supported education not merely for its practical applications, but for moral reason and theological reasons.

I could rattle on and on about this history all morning long, but I want to ask whether it still holds true. After all, the full title of the documentary is Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Say whatever you will about them, but the one thing you can’t take away from them is the fact that they were smart. In her recent book, The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby links education to moral character, citing 19th Century Unitarianism ten times. And yet, counter examples of smart people who do heinous things abound.

A slightly related argument runs that human beings are essentially good, but that groups are what bring out the worst in human nature. This was the argument of liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society. However, a feminist critique of this theory points out that sins like domestic violence, sexual abuse, and incest problematize the idea of the individual as an inherently moral agent.

Twentieth Century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams offered one of the most important theologies of groups, writing about what he called voluntary associations and rephrasing the words of Jesus to say, “By your groups, ye shall know them.” A group of Klansmen can come together for the purposes of lynching and cross-burning. A group can also come together as the Montgomery Improvement Association and organize the Montgomery bus boycott. A group can laugh on the trading floor as an entire state suffers. Or, a group can organize a candlelight vigil for the purposes of sharing grief and finding strength amidst loss.

So, what about human nature? Are we basically good or are we all bad apples? Insofar as Unitarian Universalism goes no deeper than offering a tired, knee-jerk rejection of the Puritan doctrines of human depravity and original sin, it will have no ability whatsoever to speak to the realities of evil. A worthy theology of human nature must provide for a way of understanding the reality of evil and sin in our world and not just offer a simplistic accounting for it. However, it must also be a strong enough theory to account for the equal reality of human goodness, and the capacity of human beings to work tirelessly, heroically, and at times sacrificially for what is good and right, regardless of the cost.

While the construction of a theology of human nature for liberal religion in the 21st Century is a project that is far bigger than a Sunday sermon, I do want to offer a few guideposts:

The first guidepost is to embrace our traditionʼs legacy of liberty and the willingness to question. That questioning needs not only to be directed outwardly, to the creeds and teachings of other faiths as well as to messages given to us by our culture, our media, and our government. Our questioning needs also to be directed inwardly, reflexively. The human capacity to rationalize is as great as its capacity to reason. We need to be willing to be our own fiercest critics without being cruel to ourselves.

As far as the balance between developing the good side of human nature in groups as opposed to doing it alone, I lean towards the group model. In my own vocation, among colleagues, I submit myself to networks of accountability, others against whom I can check myself. We recognize that it is a tremendous warning sign whenever someone pulls away from networks of accountability. (I even serve on the Executive Committee of the UU Ministers Association because I believe that the strength of our collegiality is what best holds us accountable to the better angels of our nature.)

Finally, thinking back to the dark subject matter Alex Gibney treats in his documentaries, I find myself thinking of those who did not go along, who blew whistles, who disobeyed direct orders. A doctrine of the inherent goodness of humankind is impotent to make sense out of Enron or Abu Ghraib. But, a doctrine that insists on inherent human depravity is just as impotent to make sense of those who somehow find moral clarity and willingly pay the price for that discovery.

Psychologists point out ways in which men and women, boy and girls, can be trained to resist participation inhuman and inhumane acts. That education involves exposure to situations (even replicated situations) where students are prepared to act heroically when the time comes. Education should also involve powerful encounters with others. If you learn to see the humanity in others, it becomes more difficult for you to accept their dehumanization.

What I have put forward here is somewhat of a middle-path. We are not quite as good as we think we are. Nor are we as bad as we fear we are. I categorically reject the notion that human nature is fixed. If it were so, all these words would be for naught. To paraphrase one psychologist who has worked on the question, “We may not all be bad apples, but we are all apples.”

Let us go forth this day both humbled by our capacity to do ill and emboldened by our capacity to resist the doing of ill.