Easter 4 • 7 May 2017


Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10


Rev. Chris Udy



In 1971 a professor of Psychology
at Stanford University in the USA -
Philip Zimbardo -
set up an experiment
to see how ordinary people -
in this case healthy, male university students -
would behave in a simulated prison.
He used the rooms
in a basement of the psychology department
for his experiment;
he advertised for participants,
tested them to exclude any
who had psychological or social problems
and randomly assigned half to be guards,
and half to be prisoners in the gaol.

The experiment was intended to run for two weeks,
but by the second day it was obvious
that some real problems were emerging,
and after just six days
the experiment had to be shut down.
Those nice, ordinary, healthy young men
who had randomly been assigned to guard duty
had turned into sadistic bullies -
using humiliation, sexual degradation
and psychological torture
to make their “prisoners’” lives a misery.
Of the 12 ordinary people
who had been designated prisoners,
three showed significant psychological disturbance
and all were suffering symptoms of extreme stress.
What’s frightening
is that everyone involved with the experiment,
including Professor Zimbardo
and the people he called in
to play out roles in his simulated prison,
as well as the guards
and even the prisoners,
strongly resisted the suggestion
that the experiment should end.
Finally Professor Zimbardo’s girlfriend,
Christina Maslach,
also a psychologist at Stanford University,
visited and saw what was going on.
She was outraged at what she saw;
she said “It’s terrible,
what you are doing to these boys!”,
and for the first time
those involved began to understand
how much they had been drawn in
to what had become an inhuman and abusive situation.

A few years after that experiment
Professor Zimbardo published a new book,
called “The Lucifer Effect: how good people turn evil.”
In the book he studies situations
where what he saw in his simulated prison
were repeated in real life -
places like Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay,
and hundreds of other military
and police detention centres around the world
where ordinary people - nice, neighbourly people -
are given the power and permission
to abuse and degrade other ordinary people -
and do so - with tragic and sickening results.
Ordinary good people, Zimbardo says,
put into a place where the rules are inflexible,
where the system is insensitive,
and where those who work beside them
are bored or angry or greedy
will end up either doing evil things themselves,
or looking the other way while evil grows.
Ordinary good people - like me and like you,
have the potential for devastating evil:
and all it would take to turn us
is a little bit of power, and a little bit of pressure;
some poorly thought-out rules, and a sick system.

Today our gospel reading
was one of a seven “I am” statements
that Jesus makes in John’s gospel.
Most of them we know very well -
I am the bread of life;
I am the vine;
I am the light of the world;
I am the good shepherd;
I am the resurrection and the life;
I am the way, the truth, and the life -
but this one doesn’t get
the same attention as the others,
and it’s a little bit confusing
because it gets mixed up
with “I am the good shepherd”.
But today’s “I am” statement
is unique and important,
so it deserves some extra attention.

Today’s gospel passage
comes immediately after the big dispute
that happened when Jesus
healed the man blind from birth.
Some of the Pharisees -
ordinary, good people - were anxious
that Jesus had healed a man born blind at all;
they thought he was tampering
with God’s providence.
They believed that if God
had made this man blind for some reason
other people shouldn’t be changing his rules.
When they then found out
that Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath day,
they were absolutely sure
that what Jesus had done had broken the law
so it was obviously - in their eyes -
quite wrong.

The Law - the commandments and rules of the Bible -
were often described and understood
as a wall, or a fence, or a hedge.
The Law was intended
to protect and guide God’s people -
it was supposed to give them shelter,
safety and security
in a dangerous and uncertain world.
But the Law had been diverted
from its original intention;
it had become absolute and inflexible,
sacred and unyielding,
and those who made their living
out of interpreting and enforcing the Law
enjoyed the power and control
it gave them over others.
The fence, or the hedge, or the wall of the Law
was no longer protecting and guiding God’s people
it had now become their prison,
and ordinary, nice, neighbourly people
were losing their hearts and their souls
as they turned blind eyes
to the suffering and distress
they saw around them,
or even worse, found a way to make a profit
from a sick and broken system.
Jesus described them as predators -
thieves and bandits
who jumped the walls of the sheepfold
to get in and attack the sheep,
who couldn’t escape because the walls confined them.
But I, Jesus said, am not like them;
I am the gate for the sheep.
I can make an opening in the wall.
When they need to come in, I let them in;
when they need to get out, I open up
to find their way to freedom.
“I am the gate.
Whoever enters by me will be saved,
and will come in and go out
and find pasture.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life,
and have it abundantly.”

Most of us could probably describe
a situation where the rules don’t work
and the system is broken -
refugee detention in Manus and Nauru comes to mind;
the treatment of young aboriginal men in Darwin maybe,
and thinking more widely,
Centrelink, healthcare,
the gas and electricity systems,
modern media and politics,
banks and executive salaries,
the world’s response to climate change ...
I think that’s probably enough to be getting on with.
Most of us could probably identify
people who are making some gain
from those bad rules and broken systems -
and sometimes we indulge ourselves
in fits of complaint and moral outrage -
but when we’re finished we then move on
and leave those situations just as they were before.
We may not be thieves or bandits ourselves,
but most of us are reluctant
to challenge those who use the rules
to keep themselves in control.
But Jesus put himself at risk
to open up the walls
that had turned into prisons
for those he lived with.
He actively broke the rules
that had kept people -
like man who’d been born blind -
trapped in conditions of isolation and suffering.
He confronted people who criticised him
for rocking the boat and disturbing their routines;
people who didn’t want him asking awkward questions
or befriending people who’d become
the victims of the system.
Where most of us accept and assume
that nothing works perfectly
and someone simply has to wear
the weight of imperfection
and the cost of corruption …
as long as it’s not us or those we love -
Jesus began with people
everyone else overlooked -
like the man born blind,
and a woman who couldn’t stop bleeding,
and a debt collector for Roman taxes,
and a little girl with a mental illness,
and a woman who’d been accused of adultery.
For all those people
Jesus became a gate -
a way through the barrier
that bad rules and a broken system had created -
he opened up the wall
so they could come in, and go out,
and find their way to whole and abundant life.

Philip Zimbardo’s book,
describes how ordinary people -
people just like us -
can become so blind
to the people being hurt by broken systems
that we begin to blame them
for the suffering they’re put through -
because that’s easier, safer and more comfortable
than to ask why these things happen
and what we can do.
Aboriginal people, gay and lesbian
and transgender people,
refugees and immigrants
and people of other faiths,
young people, farmers and people on the land,
alcohol and drug addicted people,
angry and violent teenagers,
children who’ve been abused,
frail and confused old folk in nursing homes …
as a list like that reads through
we probably have reactions -
with different degrees of sympathy -
depending on who and what we know
about peoples’ circumstances
and how they came to be the way they are -
but for Jesus every one he met
was a person to be loved -
a person who deserved abundant life,
someone who needed sometimes to come in
and find a place of safety and protection -
and sometimes to go out,
and find peace and space
and nourishment and freedom.

Philip Zimbardo’s book
describes the way good, ordinary people -
people like us -
can be seduced by evil -
but his book also describes
the way that people like us
become ordinary heroes.
He begins with Christina Maslach -
the woman who was his girlfriend,
and later became his wife -
who refused to accept that what she had seen
was normal and OK.
She said “It’s terrible,
what you’re doing to these boys” -
and within a day the experiment was shut down.
Abu Ghraib was exposed
because one ordinary man - Private Joe Darby -
released some pictures and blew the whistle
on the evil happening there;
it was an ABC reporter, Caro Meldrum-Hanna -
one of those whose job might disappear
if some of our politicians get their way
who revealed abuse
at the Don Dale Detention Centre in Darwin;
it was Rosie Batty, who decided she wouldn’t stay silent,
as had so many others who suffer family violence,
when she decided to answer painful questions
about the death of her son Luke
honestly and openly,
and with tears rolling down her face.
Zimbardo says that in each of us,
along with a capacity for evil,
there is also the potential and possibility
to be an ordinary heroine or hero.
There are some, he says,
like Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa,
and Martin Luther King, and Gandhi,
whose stories seem to suggest
that they were born to be heroic -
but even they, and many others like them
simply make a choice,
at a particular moment,
that something that they’ve seen
shouldn’t be ignored,
and they begin -
maybe with a comment,
or a phone call, a visit, a gift,
to find a way out for those who are trapped
in some injustice, or shame,
or pain, or loneliness.
Any one of us, Zimbardo says,
has the potential for heroism;
to challenge rules and attitudes
that no longer offer safety or protection;
to restore the heart and soul
to broken systems;
to do as Jesus did:
become a gate to whole and abundant life.