“God will send you the Holy Spirit in my name, and in the Spirit you will be taught all things, bringing to memory all that I have taught you. My peace I leave with you, so let not your hearts be troubled.”
Just when I was starting to write my dissertation on totalitarianism and freedom, one of my professors suggested that I watch Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries for the Nazi party covering the Rally at Nuremberg in 1934. It is just very sobering to watch hundreds of thousands of people from the most sophisticated heart of Europe marching in military fashion, wave after wave by torch light, to listen to listen to the madman Hitler. Here we are in the land of the best Universities of the world and they begin the evening with a bonfire of Jewish books.
What was equally astonishing was how good they were on deploying effective techniques. The Nazi’s chose night rallies because they knew that at night people were more likely to allow their emotions to hold sway over their intellect. They know how to structure the group so that they could maximize crowd influence over the individual. They figured out that focusing a single spotlight on Hitler when he was speaking would allow the individual to meld into the anonymous mass that was formed around them. They knew how to expose teenagers in just the right way that they would become the vanguard of the movement.
Years later we would validate the utility of these techniques at American Universities but in 1934, the Nazi’s were just damn good guessers. If you ever wondered how it was that the most learned heart of Europe came to follow the bigoted ravings of a fanatical lunatic, the answer in no small part, is the effectiveness with which the Nazi’s were able to organize and indoctrinate the masses.
It is true that the weed of fascism only grows on certain social soils, like pine cones that only release their seeds after fire has scorched over the landscape. But the Nazi’s were able galvanize the frustrations and discontents of a defeated nation so that people willingly handed over their individuality to join a mass movement of history with truly frightening consequences.
You probably know that the psychology department at Yale became quite interested in studying this phenomenon. In the 60’s Professor Stanley Millgram ran s series of experiments. He had ordinary people sit in a room with a lab instructor wearing a white coat and glasses, the symbol of scientific authority.
The volunteers were told they were administering a test to a person in another room that they couldn’t see but only hear. If the person in the other room answered the test question correctly, they were instructed to tell them ‘good job’. But if they answered the question incorrectly, they were instructed to shock the people they could not see. With each wrong answer, they were instructed to increase the voltage.
After a short amount of time, they would hear the people being shocked scream, then really scream. Meanwhile the lab instructor would say something like ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And encourage them to deliver a shock with more voltage.
An alarming percentage of people continued to shock people even though they could hear them screaming loudly, simply because an authority figure in a white coat told them that it was permissible. What we learned is that all humans are much more amenable to suggestion by their peers than we realized. We are not simply autonomous rational individuals in the way that John Locke or Thomas Jefferson presumed. And our actual actions are far more influenced by our surroundings than we generally admit.
This is true for small actions as well as ones writ large. Professor John Bargh at Yale did a simple experiment early on where he introduced volunteers to a research assistant. The assistant would ask the volunteers to hold a cup of coffee while the assistant would write something down. Other volunteers were handed a glass of ice water. Sure enough, when they surveyed the two groups afterwards, the ones that held a hot drink in their hand rated their encounter with the research assistant warmer than the people that held the ice water in their hand.
We are much easier to manipulate on the subconscious level than you might imagine. So the marketing professor Brian Wansink at Cornell University has designed a series of external cues that influence us subconsciously. He has shown that we will eat more or less food depending on the lighting, your company, the portion sizes that are served, and the way that the food is arranged on the plate. Researchers refer to it as being primed, using external cues to get you to consume more.
And here is what is interesting, people universally will rationalize their actions after the fact and find some other reason to justify why they ate more than usual. The point of these studies is to show that we are largely controlled by our wider environment, far more than we realize. We respond to these subconscious cues that trigger in us predictable responses. Later on, we tend to rationalize our actions to make us think that we are more autonomous and in control of our decision making process than we really are. [i]
The French philosopher Montaigne was more right that he knew when he said that “Most of my actions are done by example, not by choice.” Shortly we will all be paying much more attention to the environments that we create for ourselves because we now know that they stimulate behaviors and form us considerably.
And it is one thing when you are talking about simple marketing techniques, but something similar is also true for the moral and spiritual climate that we set. We have done a number of studies that have shown that if you tolerate a climate of incivility- say where you interrupt one another or belittle each other- that you get an increase in incivility. Likewise, we’ve been able to contrast people’s behavior after they’ve been primed by hearing workplace stories of sabotage of fellow employees versus hearing stories where people go to extraordinary circumstances to help another person out. Not surprisingly, people who are surrounded by altruistic swing thoughts respond to a set of problems that are posed very differently and much more constructively than people that are primed with revenge scenarios.
Most of us are aware intuitively that catty environments we have to work, or the background ethos of gossip and cynicism, undermine the constructive cohesiveness of the group.
We’ve also can demonstrate the truth of the converse. In Holland, researchers interviewed people in a room and exposed them to the smell of cleaning products. Afterwards, they were all invited to have lunch. Following lunch, a markedly increased percentage of them picked up after themselves and cleaned up.
But here’s what we haven’t really done yet, not nearly enough of. We haven’t really tried to create a positive and productive culture that fosters abundant living. Jesus has this beguiling reflection on what God hopes for us in the church. “God will send you the Holy Spirit in my name, and in the Spirit you will be taught all things, bringing to memory all that I have taught you. My peace I leave with you, so let not your hearts be troubled.”
The beloved community that follows after Jesus will be so infused that we live through each other, learning and growing in all things, in a way that produces peace. What a positive vision of harmony- and remembering Jesus teaching- a life together that practices inclusiveness the way that Jesus accepted women, lepers, compromised tax collectors and the marginal like prostitute;
a life that extends compassion like the men that cut a hole in a roof and brought their sick friend to be healed by Jesus;
a life that begins with gratitude, like when he taught us to be as the Lilies of the field that reflect grace and beauty;
a life that incorporates understanding and forgiveness like when Jesus spoke nearly his last words, reflecting on those that betrayed him, the Masses that called for his execution, the religious and political authorities that did him in, and he said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’
It is a life that inspires each other, reminding each of us that we are children of God, no matter how much we may doubt ourselves, no matter how much the world conspires around us to make us feel ‘less than’ or ‘not enough’, that our calling is to live out of our freedom.
It is a life lived out of love that understands service unto others as our central calling in life and lifts up those courageous enough to lay down their lives for one another.
It is a life filled with meaning and purpose substantive enough we have something we are willing to die for if need be and we hope it won’t be needed.
This is the direction of a community that will come to know all Truth. What an inspiring vision and I suspect that most of us are gathered here today because we still want to be part of that someway, somehow, difficult as it is in our world.
And I’m sorry that we don’t get much direction about practical matters like how many parsonages should the church own or what is the right ratio of property to debt or what should the configuration of the staff be.
I am surmising that the Holy Spirit is saying to us, “you will figure it out.” But don’t forget that the point is that you become this community infused with the Spirit. This is your lifeblood and your life long quest. So whatever problems you encounter and whatever good fortune happens to bless you, live out of this center. Or as St. Paul once put it, ‘be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds’. Keep open to the transformative power of God in your life to develop harmony, understanding and good will. For this is the spiritual point of our lives.
I’m glad that we share our lives together in this common hope for our community. It helps enormously to counter the petty negativity that swirls around us at work, in the partisan political world, in our school board meetings, the list is long. And may the positive swing thoughts from our worship life begin to permeate our families, healing and transforming how we relate to each other so that we become more grace filled and gracious. And may our families permeate our wider community, releasing the positive force of the Holy Spirit in all the lives we touch.
We can be a blessing to each other and that is our hope. It is why we gather each week as many of us making it as we can, to be uplifted and reminded of where we are heading. This week, I dropped something off at my daughter’s house right as she was putting my grandchildren to sleep. There was a lot of whining and mewling that attends the bewitching hour after dinner, homework as we move towards bed.
So she asked me if I would sing to the 2 year old and put her to sleep.
I walked in the room and she was crying in her crib, so I picked her up and started to rock her. And I was thinking that this is my time. I was remembering my grandmother holding me when I was little and how much she blessed me. I just had one of those moments when I realized that I can bless the next generation and wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could incorporate the positive direction in life in that process. But what would that look like? And what should I do right now?
And I remembered a song that we sing at Christ Church, a really good swing thought, given to me by the community. And I started to sing,
God who began a good work in you,
God who began a good work in you…
Will be faithful to complete it
Oh so faithful to complete it.
Faithful to complete, faithful to complete it in you.
God’s peace I leave with you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.. Amen.
[i] The ideas all come from chapter 13 of Daniel Akst’s book We Have Met the Enemy. See p. 167 for his summary judgment. His book does a nice job of summarizing the literature and making it accessible.