One of the last things Jesus said while on the cross was, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Do you think the people who killed Jesus knew what they were doing? Absolutely not. Do you think they ever stopped to ask themselves why they hated this man so much? Why they tested Him over and over again, and never accepted that He passed all their tests? Why they felt so threatened by the power and influence He was gaining? Why they let a proven convicted serial killer go to hold Him captive, despite finding Him guiltless? Why they had to pay those closest to Him in order to capture Him? Why they compromised their own integrity and clearly disregarded the religious law they held so dearly just to see Him endure the ultimate punishment?
I would answer all those questions with a definite “No.” They never questioned what they were doing; they only questioned their next steps, what they were going to do and how- never why.
The same is true of major and minor events throughout history. I have already explored and discussed the pack mentality all people have and how that affects the ways we interact with everyone, how we sacrifice personal identity to fulfill a deep need to belong to identify with a group, and how people rarely transition between groups throughout their lifetime. There is another very real aspect of human behavior that is a constant influence we almost never question or think about. The influence of authority can make people do things they never even think about or question.
There are numerous real life examples of this phenomena, as well as several psychological studies. One of the most well-known experiment is called The Stanford Prison Experiment, you can read about it or watch the movie.
In this experiment, several Stanford students responded to an ad to earn $15.00 a day (a good amount in the 70’s) by participating in a psychological study. In the experiment, the psychology department set up a mock jail in one of the buildings, complete with three cells, three bunks in each cell, iron bars, and a small, dark hole room like in real prisons. They interviewed each participant and determined they were all just “normal” people with no mental or emotional issues. They were all white males in their early twenties, so they were all basically equal. In the interview, they were all asked if they would rather participate as guards or prisoners, and they all responded that they would rather be prisoners because it would be less work and less responsibility.
The roles they played were determined by a coin toss, so there was really no difference between the fake guards and the fake prisoners. The prisoners were to refer to themselves and each other only as their assigned numbers, which the guards used exclusively as well. All the prisoners were given the same outfit, which consisted of a dress-like smock and a stocking-like head covering. The guards were also required to wear uniforms consisting of pants, button up shirt, aviator glasses, and a baton.The guards were given almost no direction but only told to act like guards, facilitate three meals per day, and never physically harm the prisoners.
The experiment was supposed to last two whole weeks, but it had to be ended after six days because things got way too out of control. The psychology department was watching the experiment round the clock without intervening, and they were repeatedly shocked by the twists and turns the experiment took. The guards almost immediately lost control of themselves and exerted extreme authority over the prisoners. They made them do strange and humiliating exercises, threatening anyone who tried to speak up for themselves or others, and throwing them in the hole for long periods of time to discourage dissent. They withheld basic needs, like one prisoner’s glasses, and took away beds from one cell to use the punishment as an example to keep the other cells in line.
Over time, the prisoners lost their sense of identity. When asked to write a letter to their parents, half of the prisoners signed the letters with their real name, and the other half signed them with their assigned numbers, although no instruction was given either way. On a visiting day with their families, the prisoners were afraid to speak up about their negative experience and tell their parents what was really going on because the guards strolled very closely throughout the room, listening to everything and threatening them when they started expressing any unhappiness. The prisoners felt a need to actually express gratitude for the guards providing meals for them, which is a simple and basic human need.
There’s a lot more that I could talk about, but you should just read about it yourself or watch the movie. What brought the experiment to an end was when the guards started breaking the rules excessively and beating the prisoners for refusing to comply with their outrageous demands, such as performing anal sex on each other. The guards got that out of control after only six days. And the only thing that had separated the guards from the prisoners was a coin toss. The unchecked authority went to their heads, and they lost all sense of identity even more than the prisoners had.
When the experiment had concluded, the guards were not ashamed of what they had done, but could not explain why they had done it. They said no one ever spoke up to stop them or express discomfort, but the videos show that the prisoners clearly spoke up repeatedly. Their attempts fell on deaf ears because they were emasculated men in dresses, locked in cells, numbers instead of names, the subjects of a unified authority that was better than them simply because of the position they had been assigned.
This experiment proves just how powerful conceived authority is. It makes people lose their minds and do things they would never otherwise do. It makes reasonable, intelligent people lose all ability to question the orders they receive and to participate in activities even if they personally know they are wrong. The desire to comply with authority, to maintain authority and to gain authority is one of the strongest psychological drives any individual or group can have.
If the prison guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment received their authority from the flip of a coin, imagine the psychological mindset of people and groups who believe they have ultimate authority as God’s chosen people on earth? That kind of authority would go to your head, and you would never know it, and you would never dare question it. When you’re a member of the group that has figured out God’s love more than any other group, you will gladly do whatever is required or requested by your superiors within that group. When you’re a leader, paid staff member, board member, or president within one of those organizations, you are the epitome of divine authority. You can do whatever you want, because you’re doing what God wants. Any dissent or disagreement is a challenge to God’s authority and ultimately God Himself. If all good things come from God, anything outside that understanding is an attack from “the enemy,” and can be dehumanized, invalidated, and justifiably ignored without consideration. That’s a perfect way to set up your organization to be change-proof, which is actually the goal.
Do they know that that’s what they’re doing? Absolutely not. It’s a psychological phenomenon that is so powerful that those trapped most deeply within it would never even consider the idea that they’re within it at all.
If you look at my example with Young Life, you can see how this phenomenon played out in many ways.
From the initial meeting the Area Director told me that he would have to check with national HR to see how they would handle this situation.
The Mission Staff told me that she does not agree with the policy and the beliefs, but she also said there was nothing she could do because HR would enforce the policy and all staff and volunteers had to comply. She also said she was not allowed to publicly voice any opposition and could not even challenge her superiors without losing her job.
When two leaders did express disagreement with the policies and actions of terminating me, they were no longer able to continue in leadership. They cut out anyone who disagrees, and encourage them not to talk about, for the greater good of the organization (they say it’s for the greater good of the students, manipulating a commonly shared passion).
When I asked for a written record of my termination, they shut down, refusing to provide it, until I said I would get the media involved and expose their policies and actions.
When they realized they would have to provide a written record, they conspired together about how they could lie and avoid telling the truth, not only in an attempt to protect themselves but also in an attempt to slander my character. The Mission Staff I had known for eight years, the Area Director I had known about a year, and the Regional Director I had known for about ten years, all participated in developing these lies and never spoke up to challenge their higher authorities even though they knew what was happening was wrong.
When I began speaking up about what was happening, they attempted to discredit and invalidate anything I was saying by telling leaders that I just thought everyone was out to get me. They also raised questions about my motives directly to me and among themselves, implying that my motive in sharing the truth was anything but trying to share the truth.
They attacked my relationships, implying that the relationships I had developed were not “Kingdom relationships,” because they could never just accept that God can work through a gay person to build long-lasting, meaningful “Kingdom relationships” with students and families. If they believe that I did build those kind of relationships, they were only valid before I succumbed to the ultimate sin of being gay, which changed everything and made all my relationships invalid.
They attempted to silence me and employed classic manipulative techniques by trying to guilt and shame me, implying that speaking up was hurting kids, because they know that is the last thing I would want to do. They can never accept that my speaking up is actually an attempt to prevent kids from being harmed by their damaging and toxic discriminatory actions.
When they realized I would not stay silent and insisted on telling the truth, they shut down further and cut off all communication, abandoning their value of “One Relationship at a Time” to protect their group identity and maintain their perceived sense of divine authority. Rather the spend time, energy and resources to study and further understand the issue of homosexuality in The Bible, they only spent time, energy and resources to hire new staff in the HR and Communications departments so they could avoid situations like this in the future.
But do you think any of them saw it that way, or realized that that’s what they were doing? Absolutely not. When you’re in the midst of a challenging situation like this, you don’t recognize how deeply ingrained psychological influences take over. They were obeying their higher authority, they were protecting their group’s identity. They couldn’t even see at the time how they were compromising their personal identity, silencing their own voices, and disregarding other religious values, such as telling the truth, in order to maintain their authority. And like I said, those who are most deeply entrenched in the throes of this psychological phenomenon, made ever more powerful by the sense of divine authority, will read stuff like this and never even consider considering that that’s what was going on. When your authority comes from God, you can literally do no wrong. When you can do no wrong, you never have to apologize, you only have to be “saddened” that people don’t think you accurately represent God.
So that’s that with Young Life. It’s an interesting psychological experiment that some of the country’s leading experts are analyzing to share about in a larger national project.
So when Jesus cried out, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” He, of course, was right on many levels, as He always was. He indicated a deep psychological condition that has existed since the beginning of mankind but is still being developed in modern day experiments and real-life situations. What’s interesting is to think that we teach that sin is a choice. When we choose certain actions, we’re choosing our own will desires over God’s perfect will and desires. But if the people who killed the Son of God literally did not know what they were doing, and it was still sin, what does that mean for us?