Likely, you’ve heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted in 1971, carefully-screened college students were chosen to play the role of prisoners and guards. The experiment was to last 2 weeks. The project coordinator, Philip Zimbardo, had to shut it down after 6 days. Why? Because the ones who were given authority in the game moved from acting to becoming.
In his book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch highlights Gary Haugen’s 15/70/15 principle, which applies to public justice systems around the world. This principle states that in a typical police force, 15% are honest and honorable; they simply cannot be bought or corrupted. On the other end of the spectrum, another 15% are corrupt, bent on using their power for their own sake. But the rest, the vast majority (70%) are just ordinary people who can be swayed by pressure from either direction. How they act will probably be due to which 15% have the largest influence in their context.
A couple of months ago, I arrived for church services and was walking through the parking lot to the building. As I did, some stuff on the ground caught my eye. I walked over to find a fast-food bag that someone had left, with sauce dipping cups laying around it. Clearly, someone had enjoyed a feast, and had left the remains for someone else to clean up. Right before I came across the trash, I had walked past a bunch of goose poop that also soiled our parking lot.
For me, all 3 of these “snapshots” point to the human condition. Power is easily misused. Authority can quickly turn from being benign, or even beneficial, to malignant. And when prison guards, or anyone with authority, misuses it in hurtful and hateful ways, we call their actions inhumane — that is to say, not acting in a human way.
And while leaving fast-food trash in a church parking lot is not a big deal, it is a minor offense against what it means to be human. And so, that Sunday, while it was frustrating to have to walk around all of that goose poop, I don’t blame the geese. They are just being geese. They were just acting geesy. So, when a goose snaps at someone, or leaves some crap for someone else to clean up, we don’t say: You’re acting un-goosy! There is no such thing as a goose acting “un-goosy.” Why? Because there’s only one way for a goose to act: by instinct.
But there is a way for people to act “un-people-y.” It’s when we choose, on the one end of the spectrum, to leave our trash for someone else to deal with — or, on the other end, when we mistreat our fellow human beings. In ways small and significant, when we act against our calling, against what we were made for — we are acting inhumanely.
Another word for this is sin. To act, to choose, another way than the way God designed us to be, is to choose to act in a way that harms others, harms the human community, harms this place we call home; harms us. And while geese and their “geesy ways” will probably never stop annoying me, what is more devastating is when I choose to act inhumanely. When I choose to act for self. When I choose to act based on what I feel, rather than I know. When I use others, belittle others, mistreat others.
In these ways, and so many more, we are forgetting who we are, and who we are truly called to be. That is to say: human. Which is precisely the reason Jesus came, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.7-8).
And so, the path from inhumanity to true and restored humanity? It’s through a cross, and a human who took on himself ALL our inhumanity — making us, finally and fully, truly human.