(Disclaimer: I’m not really attempting in this post to give a plausible read of Genesis 22, as I realize that my speculations about Abraham have little basis in the scriptural text. Rather, I’m hoping to use the story as a way of raising general questions about the potential consequences of obedience vs. integrity situations. And, of course, what’s the fun of blogging if not to engage in a bit of wild speculation?)
In the 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram did a study on obedience that has since become legendary. Participants were told to administer electric shocks to people, ostensibly as part of an experiment on learning. What was fascinating–and disturbing–was how willing participants were to continue inflicting higher and higher levels of shocks, despite cries of acute distress from those apparently receiving them (though this was of course faked; the “learners” were confederates in the study). The participants expressed discomfort, but ordered by the experimenter to continue, the majority of them did so–65 percent went up to the highest setting of 450 volts.
This study, and others like it, have led to much discussion about the human tendency to obey authority figures, even when their orders override the demands of personal conscience. What I am particularly interested in here, though, is the question of what it might do to you to discover this about yourself–that you would inflict pain on a fellow human being under pressure from an authority. I am intruiged by the fact that in a follow-up survey, the vast majority of the participants in Milgram’s original study reported that they were happy to have participated, that they thought they learned something valuable.
This brings me to Abraham. In wrestling with the story of Abraham and Isaac, I have sometimes wondered–how might have it affected Abraham to realize that he was willing to kill his own child? I’ve heard it said that the point of this story is that Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham. But what might you learn from such an experience? Would it be a positive thing to realize that you would commit horrific acts in the name of obedience–even obedience to God?
One of my sisters worked as a TA for an undergrad psychology class at BYU. At one point in the course they were asked what they would have done in the Milgram study. Almost all of them, she told me, reported that they personally would not go through with it, that they would not listen to the authority figure and instead would follow their conscience.
A constant temptation, I think, is to see evil as “out there.” It’s those other, weaker people who end up ensnared in it–who abuse or abandon their families; get addicted to gambling or drugs or pornography; lie, cheat, and steal; write rude comments on the bloggernacle; and, of course, cave in when authorities pressure them in psychological studies. I can read about people who are engaged in various forms of behavior I find reprehensible, and think to myself, well, at least I’m not one of them. At least I’ve never done that. It’s those “other people” who do those awful things. But then I have those disconcerting moments in which I am painfully reminded that I too can be cruel and callous, selfish and lazy, quick to anger and slow to forgive, racist and sexist, you name it–that I too have great potential for evil, that it is not something foreign to me.
And perhaps one possibly valuable outcome of an experience like Abraham’s, or involvement in the Milgram study, is that it could force you to confront the radically darker aspects of your own humanity, making it much more difficult to neatly split the world into the “evil” people and the “good” ones. Of course, it might simply make you more dogmatic, especially if you felt a continuing need to justify your actions. But it might also make you more compassionate. Can you condemn others as monsters, demonize them and dismiss them, when you are acutely aware of the monstrous and demonic elements of your own life? Can you think of the actions of the “bad guys” as other and completely incomprehensible, when an image of yourself holding a knife over your own child is seared into your brain?