by Teresa Donati
The news these days seems filled with secrets revealed. We are witnessing the truth of Luke’s Gospel (8:17), where he says so beautifully that everything hidden will become known. What we try to hide from each other, from ourselves, even from God, will be revealed.
After they had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve realized they were naked, and tried to hide their nakedness from God. God asked them, ‘Who told you that you were naked?”
This story is a perfect metaphor for our day. The secrets revealed, have exploded into sensational headlines lately, leaving the wrongdoers naked. Some are sexual predators, some use bribery for admission to prestigious colleges, some are elected officials violating the law for their personal gain. These individuals cannot claim Adam and Eve’s original innocence. Humanity has long since eaten of the fruit which gives us knowledge of good and evil.
History shows the truth of scripture, that what was hidden will be revealed. Yet those who do wrong still imagine that their wrongs can be kept secret. And they think it even in this cyber age where no secret can seem to endure. Public figures, incredibly, seem to live in self-delusion that they will get away with whatever they do, thanks to powerful friends and a lot of money.
Their wrongs are revealed anyway, their self-delusion becoming a mass of denials and legal maneuvering against the consequences of their actions.
But is it only the public figures who do wrong when they think they can get away with it? Do many of us wish we could do a wrong thing, and benefit from it, and keep it a secret? Are we who read these public scandals, ourselves so moral? Don’t many of us dream of wrongdoing-without-punishment?
I used this question as a basis for a class exercise in teaching basic sociological methods, in which one topic is the reliability of studies. Reliability means that the same questions, for similar populations, will produce the same results. Note this does NOT mean that a study is good, or valid. The IQ test is highly ‘reliable,’ but its validity is the subject of endless debate.
When we got to this topic, I first told the class the story of The Ring of Gyges, as related in Plato’s Republic. Gyges found a ring which, when turned around on a finger, would make the wearer invisible. He went on to do wicked things with that power.
After telling the story, I asked the class if they would answer one question, in total confidence, on small slips of paper that I would distribute, and then would collect and read.
The question was: What would you do, if you possessed the ring of Gyges?
Students were told that any answer was acceptable, that their names should not be on the slips of paper, and that the slips would be collected and shuffled randomly..
Every class agreed to this, often with glee. Note that each class had thirty-odd students, and was taught every term. I gave the class this Ring exercise every term for over a dozen years.
When the students had written their secret answers and folded the slips, I collected them randomly, shuffled them about on my desk, and before reading the slips, I told them:
“I’ve given this question to many classes. Every time I’ve done this, two major categories of answers emerge. About a half of the students say they would spy on boyfriends or girlfriends or family or business meetings; and about half say they would take money, from banks or cash registers. So I have two groups of answers: Spies, and Thieves. Let’s see your class’s answers.”
When I said this, there were many giggles and groans in the class, and I would begin opening the slips at random, and read out the answers. Sure enough, about half would do spying, about half would steal money, though some had overlap, saying they would spy on friends and commit a theft.
As I read the answers out, I would say, “Okay, we have a spy.” Or, “Okay, here’s a thief.” Or, “Okay, here’s a spy and a thief,” with the class laughing as I progressed through the answers.
There were always one or two idealists among my students, who would bury the ring, or throw it in the ocean, because it could be the source of immorality. With such an answer I would say, “Ah, a philosopher!” But there were never three or more students who wrote such an answer.
At that point I told them that their answers, consistent with answers I had received in other classes, and showed that this was a reliable question.
That did not stop the giggling, and many students later told me that they would tell their friends the story and ask them what they would do if they had the Ring of Gyges, and their friends would admit they might spy or steal.
This little question about the ring of Gyges, shows how powerful opportunity can be, the temptation to do wrong when we think we can get away with it. Thus when we pray The Lord’s Prayer, saying, ‘lead us not into temptation,’ or, ‘save us from the time of trial,’ we recognize our susceptibility to wrongdoing.
I think it is something we should remember when we shake our heads at the headlines. In great ways or small, we will all encounter temptation of some sort. Our anger at public figures who betray their oaths, or celebrities who use money to buy privilege, is of course understandable. The courts and ballot box deal with them, and they endure public shame.
With us, however, we should remember that temptation is all about us – that to live in justice and goodness is no easy thing. Just as large-scale sins can disrupt a financial structure or a government, small-scale sins can disrupt friendships and family. Gossip, envy, neglect, verbal and physical abuse, are just as harmful to our personal world, which is built on love and trust within family and friendship networks.
‘Save us from the time of trial.’ We should perhaps say The Lord’s Prayer more often in the course of the day, maybe the three times a day recommended in the Didache, the teachings of the Apostles. The Psalms ask that of God also: “be my armor against the enemy.” The enemy is the disruption and heartbreak we can cause.
May we resist the temptations that might make us feel good for a little while. May God be our great shield, at home, at work, at play, each day of our lives.
Teresa Donati is Professor of Sociology (Emeritus) at Fairleigh Dickinson University, now engaged in full-time writing, including church issues, and Christian fiction.