Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Situational Forces & Inner Voices

After weeks of gospel readings where authorities ask questions of Jesus to trap or trick him, today Jesus finally has had enough. Speaking to his followers, Jesus says of the scribes and the Pharisees that they do not practice what they teach; they do not live the standards to which they expect others to adhere. It is a rant reminiscent of our own dissatisfaction with today’s political and economic leaders, who also seem to have a knack for making life more and more difficult for us while making their own lives more and more cushy.

Only two Pharisees are named in the Gospels - Nicodemus (the person who approached Jesus under cover of night and landed in a conversation about being born again) and Joseph of Arimathea (who buried Jesus’ body in his own tomb). No scribe is named. Jesus places into his stories characters from both backgrounds and always in a poor light. From all of this we might take that these two orders and occupations were inhabited with anonymous men who, while perhaps being good and godly individuals, fell under the influence of a corrupt and (at times) evil system. To use today’s language, they were influenced by the culture of the organization; a culture that took even the good and influenced them for ill.

We have always known that this kind of thing happens, but it wasn’t until 1963 a study demonstrated how profoundly human behavior is influenced by environmental factors. That is when researcher Stanley Milgram devised a series of experiments to test how ordinary people can be influenced by authority figures.

His best known experiment asked a volunteer to administer electrical shocks as a penalty that another person – the victim - received for giving wrong answers. The volunteer believed the study was about memory and learning, but all the others involved were there to test the volunteer. When “wrong answers” were given, a clinician in a white coat instructed the volunteer to deliver an electrical shock to the victim. While the victim was not really shocked, never-the-less he acted as if he was in increasing pain. Milgram discovered that, at the direction of an authority figure, two-thirds of the volunteers were willing to dole out painful shocks even when the victim screamed out and begged for the experiment to stop. It was stunning to see how ordinary people could be transformed into sadistic tortures simply by placing them in a situation where they felt such behavior was demanded of them by the person in charge.

When I hear today’s Gospel reading it is so tempting simply to condemn the Pharisees and the scribes; to think if it weren’t for those guys or the politicians or the bankers or the bishops or any of the other bogymen running things so poorly, then life would be rosy for all of us. No doubt there are some really bad people walking in the halls of power, but lets take a step back and acknowledge that the halls themselves are part of the problem. Just as Lord Acton famously observed about absolute power corrupting absolutely, we need to admit that all human behavior – including our own - is much more influenced by situational forces than most of us recognize or want to acknowledge. Yes, who we want to be is an important factor in determining how we will act, but so too is the kind of situation in which we find ourselves. We all know this is true. We know that there are jokes we will tell over beers with a buddy that we won’t tell in the Parish Hall after the service.

And if you think the outside world, with its conflicting demands and opportunities plays havoc on us, think about the chaos that is our inner world. A psychologist named Roberto Assagioli summed it up pretty well this way:

As persons, “we are not unified. We often feel we are because we do not have many bodies and many limbs, and because one hand doesn’t usually hit the other. But, metaphorically, that is exactly what does happen within us. Several sub-personalities are continually scuffling: impulses, desires, principles, aspirations are engaged in an unceasing struggle.”

Rita Carter, in her book Multiplicity, adds this:

“Personalities, or selves, do not come one to a person, but are created by that person in as many forms and as great and small a number as is required. Multiplicity of mind is not some stranger aberration but the natural state of a human being.”

So, within each of us there may be a stern parent, a playful child, a fearful worrier, an adventurer, a bad-boy or girl, a thoughtful saint, a willful sinner, and host of other personalities that all weigh in from time to time. A few dominate our interior conversation, while others play a minor role, only occasionally having a moment in the sun. Somehow we order all these different personalities to engage a wide variety of situations in a way that is coherent, producing a characteristic way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and behaving know as ‘me’ and known as ‘you.’

So this is what I hear Jesus saying in today’s reading: the culture and climate around the occupations of scribe and Pharisee brought out the worst aspects of the personalities of the people in those positions. And I might add, it would do the same to me or to you if that were our station in life.

I said earlier that only two Pharisees were named in the gospels. The Book of Acts gives us two more names. One is Gamaliel who was a highly respected leader. The other is Paul, who initially hunted down Christians for imprisonment, torture, and execution. His life was famously changed on the road to Damascus when the Risen Christ spoke to him from a blinding, heavenly light. You know how Paul went from there to become the great missionary Apostle of the Early Church, founding faith communities around the northeastern Mediterranean region.

Listen again to the reading we heard this morning from a letter Paul wrote to one of those churches and as you listen, hold in mind how Paul the Christian Pharisee differs from the description Jesus offers of typical scribes and Pharisees:

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

The pre-Christian Paul would have slide easily into the way Jesus characterized the Pharisees, but not the Christian Paul. He still found himself in positions of power and authority but he operated in a manner different from the Pharisees. He still had the same competing personalities seeking to dominate his behavior, but the old ways were gone. It might sound corny or cliché to say that he got Jesus in his life, but that is exactly what happened. His inner dialogue, with its competing voices and ideas, received a new Voice to direct the discussion. And that Voice carried Paul into all those previously corrupting situations and enabled him to stand up to a culture that before held claim on him.

Through baptism we are asked if we will turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Lord. I find it very helpful to think of this vow using the image of Jesus as the Voice that directs the inner conversation of my various selves and each self, while having a place is the discussion, ultimately yields to the will of Christ, who is Lord of all. Well, it doesn’t always happen like that, but it should. And it is the Voice of Christ that guides my inner world as I make my way through the various changes and chances of the outer world. It is this Voice that helps me to act in situations and cultural climates in a way that is consistent with the teachings of Christ. And, guess what, it doesn’t always happen that way, but it can more and more.

Jesus said that his followers have him as a teacher and as instructor. At some level Christianity is about the simple decision of giving Jesus control of your life. It is about allowing his voice to be the Voice which directs the discussion of our inner life in such a way that our actions in the outer life are consistent with the covenant we make with God beginning at Baptism.