For years I was puzzled about why a day in which so much horror happened would be called good. A day in which religious leaders completely distanced themselves from God through their actions. A day in which evil seemed to prevail over what is right. A day in which hatred appeared to consume love.
But it is through the blood shed on that day, the torment experienced, the suffering endured, that God said, “Enough. Enough of forgiveness being an open ended question. Enough of humankind thinking that God is about vengeance and wrath more than love. Enough of humanity believing that forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that can change lives is not possible. Enough of thinking that death is the ending instead of an astonishing beginning. Enough of people everywhere thinking the point of life is all about self.”
Yes, Good Friday was and remains good because Jesus’ death on the cross put an end to the question of forgiveness. We are forgiven. Period. Now it is our choice to make the decision to accept that forgiveness and spend our lives in response to it, or not. But we are forgiven and this is what Good Friday is all about.
I’d like now to briefly get into something that is uncomfortable. Something likely to make us each ask some deep questions. And to help us get into this, I turn to the world of psychology and a couple of experiments done decades ago that could never be repeated. Some of you may be familiar with them.
The first was the well-known Stanford University Prison study. In 1971 a pseudo prison was set up in Palo Alto. Students were recruited for the study. Participants were told they would be taking part in a 2 week long prison simulation. 24 males were selected from those who applied.
A prison was constructed in the psychology building at Stanford. Cells with cots were constructed. So was living space for guards. 12 students were assigned the role of prisoner. 12 that of a guard. When the study began, those who were to be prisoners were arrested, with the help of the police, booked, and put into the prison.
Within 36 hours of the start of the experiment, conditions went downhill. Sanitary conditions were awful. Guards became cruel. Some even acted sadistically. After six days, the experiment was called off.
The bottom line. Take 12 healthy, psychologically balanced people and put them into a situation, and the situation influences behavior and conduct more than any internal gauge. Said another way, situations have a massive impact on the actions we take.
Years earlier, at Yale, another experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram. Men from the community were recruited to participate in a study supposedly about memory. Each participant was theoretically assigned to one of three roles. An experimenter, a teacher, and a learner.
The role of the experimenter was to tell the teacher what to do. The role of the teacher was to do what the experimenter instructed. The role of the learner was to accurately complete memory tests as instructed by the teacher. What participants did not know, however, is that the learner was not a volunteer, but actually worked for the psychologists conducting the study.
In the study, the experimenter and teacher sat in one room. In an adjacent room sat the learner. Before going into separate rooms, however, the teacher and experimenter were shown the room where the learner would sit. There they saw the learner was to sit in what looked like an electric chair and would be strapped in. In the room where the teacher and experimenter sat, there was a desk with a shock box with wires that appeared to go into the adjacent room where the learner sat.
In the experiment, the teacher was given a list of word pairs and was to teach the learner the pairs. Then the teacher would read the first word of a pair and four possible answers to see if the learner could remember what words were associated in the pairs. I am leaving out some details of how this was all put together but what is interesting is how the memory test proceeded.
After the teacher quizzed the learner about which word was the right match, if the learner got it wrong, the teacher was told by the experimenter to administer an electric shock to the learner. Each time the learner was wrong, the shock was increased.
While the teacher and the experimenter did not know it, obviously no shock was delivered. That said, each time a shock was supposedly delivered, the learner moaned in pain. As the shocks increased, the learner would yell, scream, and pound on the wall faking pain.
While there are many other details to the experiment, the results stunned everyone. 65 percent of the study’s participants were willing to administer the highest level of shock to the learner. 450 volts. While I am not an engineer by any means and a standard electrical socket, I believe, is 120 volts, I can’t imagine a 450 volt shock would be a very good thing.
Here are some excerpts from what Milgram wrote about the study.
“I set up a simple experiment at Yale to test how much pain an ordinary citizen could inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to do so. Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and with the participants’ ears ringing with the screams of the learners, authority won more often than not. Ordinary people can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”
Neither the prison study or the MIlgram study could happen today because of the ethics involved. Such studies would never be approved by human subjects committees at universities. That said, I find the results of the study to be potent and they cause me to pause and reflect.
Would I be capable of being cruel to another person? Could I deliver a 450 volt shock to someone else? And what does it mean that the results of the studies I shared suggest that the answer to my questions is yes. They suggest in the right circumstance I could be cruel. I could shock another.
I raise this not to make us feel guilty, like terrible people, morally deficient, or bad. Rather I have shared these studies on Good Friday for some very specific reasons.
Jesus’ death on the cross means we are forgiven. And we are all forgiven because no one is perfect. And if there is no one who does everything right, then perhaps God invites us to live each day with humility, empathy toward others, a spirit of forgiveness, and to not put ourselves in the position of judge and jury when it comes to other people. It is why Jesus one day said, “Let the person who has never done anything wrong be the first person to cast a stone.” And by dying on the cross Jesus in essence said the days of stone throwing need to be over.
Imagine what our culture would be like if in general, people walked around in a spirit of humility, forgiving others, empathizing with the plight and circumstances of others, and avoiding engaging in hostile judgement. Imagine what it would be like if the daily crucifixions we all witness, not on a cross but with words, came to an end. Imagine if we understood that we along with others sometimes do what we do because of the circumstances we are in.
And imagine if we all understood and embraced the fact that through Jesus we are forgiven and acted like it. Things, I believe, would look quite different.
I think the two studies I shared are a good reminder of that old saying, “but there for the grace of God go I.” And again, the purpose is not to make us feel bad or terrible, but rather to help get us in touch with the fact that we all need God’s forgiveness, we have been given that forgiveness through the cross, and that despite our continued fallibility, God loves us anyway. Loves all of us anyway.
All of us here right now are cherished, loved, and adored by God beyond conception. And we are forgiven. Good Friday is an invitation for each of us to continue to live out each moment in response to God’s love and forgiveness.
And for me personally, Good Friday reminds me that I too may have simply stood by when Jesus was nailed to the cross and it was raised. Just as I may have been one of those participants in Stanley Milgram’s study that delivered a 450 volt shock.
But as I think about this, I sense Jesus saying to us all, “I forgave and forgive you. It is a done deal.” And it is this forgiveness, this no matter what forgiveness, that makes this Friday Good, very Good indeed.