Feast Day of The Righteous Gentiles
“Grant that, in the power of your Spirit, we may protect the innocent of every race and creed in the Name of Jesus Christ, strong Deliverer of us all.” – Collect for the feast day of “The Righteous Gentiles”
When I was first studying psychology back in the 1970s, I learned about an experiment done even earlier, in the 1950s, before there were ethical guidelines for research. I don’t remember all the particulars, except that the study was trying to understand how the people in Hitler’s regime allowed themselves to become complicit in the torture and genocide of their Jewish countrymen.
In the experiment subjects were asked to administer painful shocks to other subjects who were in reality paid actors. They were told a fictional story about the purpose of the experiment, and were assured that it was to be of great scientific benefit.
The shocks started out mild and then seemed to become increasingly strong. A dial was turned to higher and higher numbers and after each turn the subjects had to push a button to administer the shock. The actors reacted to the button push with expressions of pain that increased in intensity as the dial was cranked higher. The final level was one in which the actors seemed to be experiencing a seizure in response to the “shock”.
The idea was to discover how far the subjects would go before they refused to comply with the experiment any more. And to the experimenters’ dismay, their subjects were for the most part willing to administer shocks up to and even beyond the point where the actor faked a seizure. Sure, the subjects evidenced greater and greater signs of distress, and they did protest. But, by and large, the only thing necessary to keep them going was the experimenter, in his white lab coat, mildly asking them to.
Rest assured that no experiments like this are allowed any more. It’s way too traumatic for the subjects, and it’s duplicitous, which is unethical. But the results were chilling. The subjects were happy, well-adjusted, sheltered, middle class U.S. citizens. And all it took to make them into torturers was a man in a white coat asking them to “please continue.”
We can try to wiggle out of the implications of this experiment by telling ourselves that we are not as compliant as people of the 1950s – or telling ourselves that surely the subjects came from a region of the country where questioning authority was just not done (but I think it was at Stanford) – or allowing ourselves to believe that WE would be among the very small number of subjects who refused to shock our peers. In the long run, however, it would probably be a lot more helpful to admit that we could be those subjects. For if we do that we can begin to train ourselves to think outside the boxes that keep us complicit in the systems that cause harm to the marginalized and oppressed. When do we believe what we are told by experts? When do we see injustice but throw up our hands, telling ourselves it is too big a problem for us to address all by ourselves? When do we duck out, or look away?
The stories of the men and women we honor today are uplifting and challenging. They invite us to look again at all those situations where we say to ourselves, “I think this is wrong but maybe the authorities know best. And besides, what can I do about it?” Like each of these people and the hundreds of others who helped Jewish people escape Nazi horrors, we each have daily opportunities to make a real difference to those who are in need of help and protection.
Who will you see today who needs you to stand by them and protect them? A young black man? An undocumented immigrant? A woman wearing a hijab? A man who is experiencing chronic homelessness?
Let’s take to heart the tales of the Righteous Gentiles, who put themselves in harm’s way to find refuge for those in need. And let’s be vigilant for our own opportunities to question oppressive systems on behalf of those who suffer.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.
Image: from Sautucket.com