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39 | An important spiritual lesson from a shocking study on fake torture

39 | An important spiritual lesson from a shocking study on fake torture

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and this podcast I ask the simple question: Would you have done it?

My dad was a World War II vet and as a young boy I loved listening to his stories about the war where my dad was part of a forward scouting team that went behind enemy lines in an armored vehicle looking for the location of enemy units.

He had lots of stories to tell.

But I particularly enjoyed it when he got together with an old army buddy who we called Uncle John but was not a relative. They would start talking about the darker side of the war.

I was enthralled by these stories and developed a keen interest in World War II and as I found out more, my disgust for the Nazis and all the evil they did grew.

Now, I wouldn’t become a believer until I was in my late teens and attending university in the early 70s.

A few years after I became a Christian, I met an older fellow about my dad’s age. He was a believer. He was a good man, a Godly man and regularly attended an evangelical church.

But he had a dark secret, he was also involved in World War II. But there was one big difference, having been born in Germany, he fought on the side of the Nazis. He started off as a teenager in the Hitler Youth movement, where they pledged blind allegiance to Adolf Hitler and learned all the basic skills needed as a young boy, such as how to knife a person with a bayonet, shoot a rifle and of course throw a grenade.

There is a possibility, he may have even been a Christian at that point, but I am not sure.

Fortunately, he survived the war and with no future in Germany, he eventually moved to North America.

Of course, once the war ended people started finding out about the full extent of the Nazi horrors under Adolf Hitler, from his genocidal attempt to exterminate the Jews to the sadistic experiments conducted on identical twins in concentration camps by a real medical doctor, Dr Josef Mengele.

People were quick to judge the Nazis. How could anyone support that megalomaniac Adolf Hitler? How could anyone stoop to such evil?

And this former German soldier carried the shame of his involvement with the Nazis when he moved to Canada. And though people were quick to judge him because of this, nobody judged him more than he judged himself.

How could he have supported this evil regime? And he is probably not alone, I suspect many Germans from this tumultuous time in German history have struggled with the same thoughts.

Of course, the rest of us, including myself, also wondered the same thing, as we carefully polished our halos. We judged the Germans because we would not have done such horrific acts.

But recently I have had this decade’s old opinion of myself challenged a bit.

It all started a few months back, as I was listening to a podcast by famed University of Toronto Psychology professor Jordan Peterson. He has gained international fame with the strong stand he has taken against political correctness that is being pushed on society primarily by those on the progressive left.

During the podcast, Peterson made a statement that really struck me. He said that if we had been living in Germany when Adolf Hitler rose to power we would have undoubtedly embraced the Nazi ideology.

Yes, we would have become Nazis.

To be honest, I was caught a bit off guard by this statement. I honestly believed, if I had been living in Germany at that time, there is no way I would have supported Hitler.

But Peterson’s blunt statement challenged me.

Then more recently, I read a story about a social experiment conducted in 1961, and now I am even less sure.

It involved an article written by Barbara Kay from the National Post entitled The Shocking ‘Obedience’ experiment that shook the world.

In her article, Kay talked about the recent passing of a friend, Herb Winer, a fellow Jew who died at the age of 98.

Winer, who Kay described as a gentle man, was involved in a bizarre study conducted at an American university in 1961 where he actually ended up torturing people. But I need to qualify this a bit, by saying, he only thought he was torturing people.

Kay wrote:

“He was the last person, I’d have imagined willingly torturing a helpless stranger.”

Barbara Kay, National Post

Winer was part of a social experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram, a social psychology professor at Yale. For the record, Winer was also a professional and worked as a forestry professor at Yale as well.

In the set up for this study, Milgram advertised for male volunteers between the ages of 20 to 50 who would be paid $4, plus 50 cents for gas, to participate in this study.

People were told that Milgram was studying the quote on quote “effects of punishment on learning.”

The reality was Milgram was secretly trying to find out how far people would go in inflicting pain on others.

Now it is important to note that most of this study was fake. This included the person who was considered a slow learner and strapped to a chair with electrical wires attached to his body.

Winer was part of the real study group and their job was to sit in another room, and ask this tied up man a series questions. As part of the study, this group was told they needed to get this restrained man to answer the their questions correctly. If he didn’t answer the question right, they were told to punish him by releasing an electrical shock administered through a dial in their room.

Each time he got the answer wrong, they were told to turn up the dial, increasing the electrical shock, until he answered correctly.

As they were torturing this poor man, one of Milgram’s associates was in the room telling them they were doing the right thing and encouraging them to raise the voltage when the man invariably answered the question wrong.

Winer and his fellow torturers were also told that a 100-volt charge was extremely painful and aside from the voltage numbers on the dial, there were even words ominously warning of the dire effects of a higher electrical shock, words such as “severe shock” and at the highest level the ominous word “Danger.”

Of course, there were no electrical shocks being administered and the person in the other room was faking being hurt as his screams got louder and more panicked as the voltage increased with each wrong answer that he purposefully gave.

As the imprisoned man continued to answer incorrectly, the study group dutifully increased the voltage.

Some people actually pushed their dials up to the maximum 450 volts in their effort to force the man to give the right answer. When the voltage hit the higher levels, the screams would suddenly stop in the other room as the man being tortured, pretended he had either passed out or even died.

One of the participants even asked his supervisor if the man had died, as he repeatedly jolted the man strapped in the chair with 450 volts.

After they were done torturing this man, Milgram had a few questions for the group inflicting the pain. Milgram discovered that a handful had figured out that this was all a hoax, but the majority had not and believed they were genuinely torturing this poor person.

When asked why they continued increasing the voltage even though they believed they were inflicting unimaginable pain, they said that they did it to be obedient.

In a paper released the next year on his study, Milgram said it showed that people could be coerced into performing horrific acts of evil through simple orders. Perhaps, not surprisingly, these same words, “I was just following orders” was one of the main defenses used by the Nazis being tried for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials following World War II.

In her article, Kay wrote:

“Milgram seemed to be saying that any American could have done what the Nazis did.”

Barbara Kay, National Post

 In other words, this ugly experiment suggests that all of us are capable of horrific evil in the right situation.

So at this point, you are probably wondering so what spiritual lesson can we learn from a story on fake torture.

Well there might be one.

To discover it we have to turn to the gospel of Matthew and these words spoken by Jesus:

7 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 NIV

Is this passage, Jesus talks about not judging others because you will be judged by the same standard. He then says why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye when you have a plank or a some translations read log in your own.

What was Jesus referring to?

Is it possible that the Lord was simply saying that though we are judging a small flaw in our brother, we not only have the capacity to do that, but to do much more, as illustrated by the larger log in our eye?

If we have the capacity to perform Nazi-level evil, what right do we have to judge anyone, for anything.

Look, for evidence we only have to look at the life of King David. He is easily one of the top five men of God in the Bible and who the Bible describes as a man after God’s own heart. But he was also a man who committed adultery with another man’s wife and then basically had Bathsheba’s husband executed to cover up David’s sin.

The truth is we all have a sinful nature and under the right circumstances we are capable of some horrendous acts.

So why are we, and I include myself in this, so susceptible to judging because I have been guilty of doing this for years?

Well the answer to that question is not fun.

Because, it is due to our sense of self-righteousness or superiority as we fundamentally believe that we are better than the person we are judging.

Jesus told a parable recorded in Luke 18 that exposes the ugly root of a judging heart:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all that I get.’

Luke 18: 9-12

Notice how the Pharisee looked down at the robbers, the evildoers and tax collectors. He felt superior and he judged them. But in the end, the Pharisees were no different as they were responsible for murder as they helped sent an innocent man to the cross.

This sensedof superiority is a temptation for all humans and even all Christians. Yet as believers we have no excuse, we are not better because of anything we have done, but solely because of what Christ did for us.

In Galatians 6:1, the Apostle Paul gives a final clear warning against judging. There are times when we may need to take a stand. There are times when we may need to correct a brother, but Paul warns that we need to do it with a spirit of gentleness, and not with a judging spirit.

Then he gives the reason why. He says if we judge harshly, we make ourselves susceptible to the same temptation and sin.

Harsh judgments not only expose our sense of superiority, but they act like a lightening rod attracting satanic beings because they know we are now especially vulnerable to their spiritual attack.


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