"The price of His love is sometimes high, but it must be paid." Aunt Lydia, in The Handmaid's Tale, Season 1, Episode 10, Hulu
July, 1961, a basement on the Yale University campus.
The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman is underway, and psychologist Stanley Milgram begins a series of social psychology experiments, designed to answer the burning question of the day:
Could Eichman and other Nazis simply have been following orders?
Would normal human beings really harm other human beings, just because an authority figure told them to do so?
In Milgram's experiment, test subjects were told that they were "teachers" helping a "student" learn a series of word pairs. When the "student" made a mistake, the "teacher" was ordered to administer an electric shock to the "student." The shocks would increase in voltage, up to 450 volts--potentially fatal.
The shocks were not actually administered in the experiment, but the test subjects believed that they were. The "students" being shocked were placed in another room, where the test subjects could hear them cry out in pain, bang on the wall, complain about their heart condition, and then fall ominously silent.
Milgram found that about 60% of test subjects would continue to administer shocks after the victims fell silent, to the full 450 volt limit of the test.
Milgram's results have been replicated over the years and around the world with similar results.
What the research tells us: the majority of human beings will do harm to another, if ordered by an authority figure to do so.
Pastor Stan Mitchell shared this story on his Facebook page this week:
Just spent a very stealth & quiet 5 minutes with a Southern Baptist pastor's wife whose husband happens to pastor a large church a few hundred miles from Nashville. Their son who is gay, now lives in our beloved City of Music and, lately, has been visiting GRACEPOINTE. She wept as she explained that of their four children, he was the most beautiful of spirit, the kindest, the most loving (she was obviously troubled by the reality that she simply could not capture his beauty with her hurried and pained words) and yet, and yet, they "destroyed him" with their faith. Destroyed him.
I will never forget and forever will be inspired by her request: "Love him for us. Love him the way he deserves. Love him the way we should have. Tell him what I wanted to and couldn't." My heart broke. I couldn't tell for whom it broke more - mom or son. I told her there was still time and opportunity for her to do this. She looked dubiously around the foyer of the hotel, teeming with her husband's ministerial peers, and said with the saddest of eyes, "Please love him." And she walked away. I have scarcely met a sadder human. Trapped. My chest physically hurt.
The Milgram experiment, in action, at a religious convention this week. Authority says, "Destroy your child," and a mother obeys.
About a year ago, the Target bathroom brouhaha broke out in social media land. And when that happened, I thought, "It's too bad that people are being hoodwinked into believing that trans people are a threat. I'll let people know how trans folk and other LGBTQ people are at risk for abuse and suicide, and I'm sure people won't want to say hurtful things on social media once they understand."
I mean, this is what changed my mind and heart about the LGBTQ community: understanding that the narrative I'd heard was wrong, and that people were being harmed by that wrong narrative.
So when someone posts something homophobic or transphobic, my strategy is to post up some helpful articles from medical, spiritual, and social perspectives that counter the narrative of fear, and show the realities from a respectful, peer-reviewed point of view.
My posts are most often met with, "the bible clearly says..."
Then I'll generally say, "LGBTQ youth raised in highly rejecting homes are 8 TIMES MORE LIKELY TO ATTEMPT SUICIDE. No matter what the bible says, we're doing something wrong if CHILDREN want to kill themselves over this."
You know the response I generally get at that point?
I have literally never had one single person say, "Oh, wow, I didn't realize that. I would never want to cause harm to someone who's already hurting."
Sometimes someone will repeat, "But the bible clearly says..."
And Stanley Milgram is proven right all over again: if authority tells us to harm someone, most of us will.
There's hope, though: because Milgram's experiment showed that NOT EVERYBODY WILL HARM ANOTHER.
Lots of people will.
But not EVERYONE.
And WE can choose to be the outliers, the ones who break the curve.
The Handmaid's Tale wrapped up this past week, its climactic scene one in which the handmaids were ordered to stone to death one of their own who was charged with endangering a child.
The handmaids, rocks in hand, surrounded by machine-gun-totting guards, stand in a blood-red circle around the sinner, while "Aunt Lydia" harangues them about "God's love" and how this "love" requires them to kill their sister.
"The price of His love is sometimes high, but it must be paid!" Aunt Lydia cries.
Completely defying the Milgram experiment, the handmaids drop their rocks and walk away, each saying the phrase that might become my first tatoo:
"I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia."
I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia, but I don't care if you want me to harm someone and call it love.
I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia, but I will not judge, condemn, reject, or in any way cause pain to the suffering.
I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia, but I don't care if your authority is six whole verses of the bible, 2,000 years of tradition, and the entire evangelical church in America.
Count me out for this one.