The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo  

Reverend Curtis Webster, Reverend Jennifer Brooks, and Phil Zimbardo consider issues on the relationships between theology and social science. Read more about The Lucifer Effect Theology Blog.

Jesus and Lucifer on Social Justice
March 31, 2010 10:22 am
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Category: Heroes

I was intrigued by television personality Glenn Beck's advice that Christians "run as fast as you can" from a church that has "social justice" on its website. Beck apparently sees "social justice" as something new, springing from Marxism and not only irrelevant but harmful to Christianity.

Thinking about Beck’s advice, I asked myself, WWJD, "What Would Jesus Do?" and immediately wondered WWLD, or "What Would Lucifer Do?" Which one, Jesus or Lucifer, would run away from a congregation that has "social justice" on its website? For those of us who want to do good, not evil, what does the Lucifer Effect tell us about Christianity and social justice?



For Goodness Sake
March 2, 2010 8:56 am
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Category: Heroes

I can’t think about “goodness” without recalling the 1932 Mae West film, “Night after Night.” Mae West plays the role of gangster’s moll Maudie Tippett. As Maudie enters a nightclub draped in diamonds, the hat-check girl exclaims, “Goodness, what lovely diamonds!”

Mae answers, famously, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

The “goodness” flowing from the scriptwriter’s pen is cultural shorthand for God. The phrase “for goodness sake” is, more correctly, “for goodness’s sake,” or perhaps, “for Goodness’s sake.” In other words, “for God’s sake.” Linguistically and theologically, God and goodness are linked. “God” and “good” are one.

Because people think of God as good, and “good” as a sort of counterweight to “evil,” it is easy to think of God and goodness on one side, with Satan and evil on the other, as if in some cosmic tug-of-war where the forces are evenly balanced and human beings are challenged to throw their lot in with one side or the other. The Lucifer Effect, with its allusion to Satan, tends to reinforce this image.

There are many reasons why I think this is an incorrect picture of the universe, but I’ll deal with only one of them now and save the rest for future posts: good and evil are not evenly balanced.

Let’s set “God” aside for a moment and start with “good.” It is possible to think theologically about “good” whether or not we start with God. (Consider the Dalai Lama.) And it’s helpful.



November 24, 2009 5:52 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Current Events

“I’m ashamed of my school,” the seventh-grader said quietly.
     Since 12 year-olds are prone to finding fault with anything and everything having to do with school, you might under normal circumstances dismiss this statement as normal griping.
     But, these were not normal circumstances.



Stone Soup: A Fable for Our Times
November 1, 2009 6:19 pm
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Category: Heroes

We’re told that the story of Stone Soup is a medieval folk tale about soldiers on their long way home from war. But it’s really a story that is both older and more contemporary; it is a fable for our times, a lesson in the Lucifer Effect and how to reverse it.

One day three comrades walked down a road in medieval France, weary and hungry. They came upon a village of frightened people. These people hide their limited supply of food and bar their doors against hungry soldiers who arrive at dusk. This is the Lucifer Effect at work; the villagers have infected each other with their fear of strangers and their fear of scarcity.

If we think about the story of the Good Samaritan, the weary travelers could be seen as strangers bleeding by the side of the road, the “neighbors” who are to be loved and helped. And so they are. But almost as soon as they arrive, the three comrades perceive that this is not a village of Good Samaritans. Yes, the travelers may be tired and hungry and needy. Yet the villagers are even more in need. Their need is deep and subtle. They are trapped in the Lucifer Effect.

It is a pattern the travelers have seen many times before.



Tyger in Process: Evil in an Unfinished Universe
October 11, 2009 7:08 pm
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Category: Heroes

Why is there evil?

In William Blake's famous poem "The Tyger," the poet describes the tiger's ferocity and wonders about its Creator: "Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"

A telling question. A heart-felt, serious question.

The conventional understanding of God as all-powerful makes God responsible for both good and evil ("weal and woe"). People wrestle emotionally with the idea that good and evil could have their source in a single all-powerful being: Does God choose to do evil?

One response is a dualistic view of God, a "good" God figure and a "bad" God figure: in conventional terms, "God" and "Satan." In religious discourse today, many traditions resort to the idea of a "bifurcated" Power: Good vs. Evil, God vs. Satan.

People who think this way tend to classify other people as either on "God's side" or "Satan's side." It becomes a natural tendency to demonize anyone who disagrees. This bifurcated, "binary," right-wrong, good-evil way of thinking is a major source of violence, cruelty, and evil in the world. The moment we classify someone as "the spawn of Satan" is the moment we eliminate any need to understand, to feel compassion for, to love that person. The Lucifer Effect shows clearly that de-humanizing others is the first step toward evil actions.



August 31, 2009 6:47 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Khmer Rouge Tribunal

"I accept the regret, the sorrow and the suffering of the million Cambodian people who
lost their husbands and wives. I would like the Cambodian people to condemn me to the harshest punishment."
?Kaing Guek Eav (?uch?, addressing the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh, August 12, 2009

?At times, I have imagined you shackled, starved, whipped and clubbed, viciously. I have imagined your scrotum electrified, being forced to eat your own feces, being nearly drowned and having your throat cut.?
?Rob Hamill, brother of New Zealander and Khmer Rouge victim Kerry Hamill, addressing Duch before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, August 17, 2009.

     It would be easy for me to condemn Rob Hamill.
     After all, isn? my Christian theology all about forgiveness?
     The technically correct Christian response to the confession of one who has wronged you or your family is to accept the confession and be forgiving as Christ forgives us.
     Rob Hamill certainly failed to embody that ethic when given the opportunity to confront Kaing Guek Eav in open court. Confession had been given. Responsibility had been accepted. And yet no forgiveness came from the mouth of Rob Hamill.
     My training tells me to tut-tut Rob Hamill and hold him up as a sorry example of humanity? sinful refusal to forgive.
     That? what my training tells me . . .
     But that is absolutely not what my heart tells me. You will hear no condemnation of Rob Hamill? words from this quarter. Putting myself as best I can in the shoes of Rob Hamill, I cannot honestly say that I would not feel exactly the same way and that I would not express a desire for the infliction of retributive justice at its harshest.
     And therein lies the insidiously continuing damage of the evil perpetrated by the Khmer Rogue.



The Madoff Scandal: Plenty Of Evil To Go Around
July 1, 2009 8:18 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Corporate Responsibility

First off, I want to be perfectly clear on something . . .
     Bernie Madoff got exactly what he deserved. We haven? yet printed a book too big to throw at him.
     The point of this post is not to argue that Madoff is somehow not to be blamed for the wanton destruction he caused on other peoples?finances.
     The point of this post is to underscore, once again, a massive breakdown in systemic safeguards and a massive retreat from reality by a whole bunch of people who should have known a whole lot better.

     Randall W. Forsyth has laid out the various red flags that were ignored over the years by funds managers, investment advisors and even Madoff? own family in an article posted June 30 on entitled ?adoff Is ?vil,?But Hardly Unique?(
     Forsyth, a veteran reporter who has been observing the Wall Street scene for close to thirty years, argues that ?he very idea that he [Madoff] acted alone utterly beggars belief.? Forsyth is not suggesting a criminal conspiracy with Madoff as the ringleader. He is arguing a tacit conspiracy of ignorance by the ?rofessionals?who were charged with preventing these kinds of financial rape-and-pillage sessions.
     Forsyth characterizes the managers of the various feeder funds who kept Madoff supplied with capital as ?seful idiots who chose not to delve too deeply into Madoff? practices lest true due diligence might disturb the flow of hundreds of millions of fees they collected.?
     There were some fund managers, though, who smelled something rotting in the Madoff empire a long time ago and refused to play along. According to Forsyth, James Hedges of LJH Global Investments stands out as one hero who refused to pony up billions of dollars of investors?money to feed Madoff? voracious appetite. ? have said over the years to many people: Do not touch Madoff with a barge pole,?Forsyth quotes Hedges as saying.
     Forsyth? insights illuminate a sad reality that the proactive evil perpetrated by the Madoffs of the world cannot succeed without the cooperation of the passive evil of financial gatekeepers who elevate ignorance to an art form when confronted with the choice between competently discharging their professional responsibilities or making a ton of money.
     We saw the Lucifer Effect at work in the financial markets with the mushrooming of derivatives trading and we see it again now in the muck left in the wake of the Madoff scandal.
     Sometimes mass psychological dysfunction leads to genocide, sometimes it leads to oppression, and sometimes it leads to financial catastrophe.
     Bernie Madoff? success at convincing intelligent and well-informed people to buy his snake oil points up a spiritual deficit in our culture that continues to imperil our national well-being. Tarring and feathering Madoff is a good start, but if we think we?e solved the problem because we?e ridden the rascal out of town on a rail, then we are tragically naive.
     The Obama administration has rightfully proposed a series of new regulations in response to Madoff. They are but a start, however, in preventing future billion-dollar scams. It is only when we, as a culture, can summon up the moral fortitude displayed by James Hedges to resist the siren songs sung so convincingly by the billion-dollar scammers that we can begin to enjoy some measure of security from their predatory schemes.


Memorial Day
May 25, 2009 12:01 pm
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Category: Heroes

Today we remember those who died in the service of ideals we cherish. We remember the fallen. We mourn what is lost. And on this day I wonder what lessons we might draw from our new understanding of the Lucifer Effect.

I will never forget my first walk through the Vietnam war memorial. The walkway slanted gently downward, inviting entry. As I descended, the wall rose around me, each step taking me deeper and deeper into the hall of the dead.



What Do We Think We Learned From Columbine?
April 20, 2009 4:23 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Current Events

April 20, 1999.
     On that date, two teenage boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
     Harris and Klebold were members of a group/gang called the Trench Coat Mafia. Embittered over years of bullying, the two went on a shooting rampage in which they targeted athletes, Christians, and African-Americans. They killed 12 students and a teacher, and injured 23 others before they turned their guns on themselves and committed suicide.
     Harris and Klebold were such extremely disturbed loners that authorities should have seen it coming. It should be easier in the future to identify potential school shooters because of the profiles that could be developed from analyses of Harris and Klebold.
     And that’s how it happened . . .
     Or is it?



The Moral Value of Confession
April 2, 2009 6:16 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Khmer Rouge Tribunal

“I admit that I am responsible for the crimes, torture and execution at S-21.”
                    – From a prepared statement by Kang Kek Ieu, a.k.a. “Duch,” March 31, 2009.

     Kang Kek Ieu, the born-again Christian who once ran the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious torture facility in Phnom Penh, came tantalizingly close to making one of the most dramatic gestures in the history of international war crimes tribunals last Tuesday as his trial at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal opened.
     Duch, as he was called in his days of active duty with the Khmer Rouge, actually took a measure of responsibility for the thousands of brutally painful deaths inflicted at the Tuol Sleng S-21 facility.
     He asked forgiveness for his actions. “I apologize to the survivors of the regime and also the loved ones of those who died brutally in the regime. I don’t ask that you forgive me now, but I hope you will later.”


1 Comment   

CNBC And The Whip Of Cords
March 16, 2009 2:33 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Current Events

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
                                             --     John 2:15-16 (NRSV)

     On Sunday, March 15, 2009, the Third Sunday of Lent, the Reverend Janelle Tibbetts-Vaughan, the incredibly talented and creative Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Encino, California, delivered the best sermon on the above passage (and several surrounding verses) I have ever heard.
     Janelle thoroughly analyzed the passage and concluded that Jesus was not angry over the simple fact that business was being transacted on the grounds of the Jerusalem Temple. No, Jesus was angry because the Jewish peasants who came faithfully to the Temple and attempted to practice their faith were being fleeced mercilessly by predatory merchants taking advantage of certain mandatory Temple rules that left the poor of Judea no choice but to be gouged before they made their sacrifices.
     As I was listening to my colleague deliver her powerful message, I could not help but relate it to some headline events from the preceding week.



Saving Eden
February 6, 2009 8:22 am
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Category: Original Sin

In Adam on Mars, I imagined humans living in a domed city that protected them from the harsh wilderness of a partially terraformed alien planet. Cut off from the civilization that produced their domed city, the inhabitants gradually lose the ability to do the right thing. One of them—Adam—makes a decision that cracks the dome and dooms the city.

The doctrine of “original sin” explains the suffering of humanity as the result of a taint that spreads from one man’s wrongful action. God tells Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree; Lucifer whispers; Adam disobeys; humanity is cast out of Eden. Acknowledging the innate human capacity for both good and evil, the Lucifer Effect offers a broader perspective on evil acts. Phil Zimbardo’s psychological experiments show the extraordinary power of situations to override “the better angels of our nature.”

What we’ve learned of Lucifer Effect challenges the idea of “original sin.” Free will means the capacity to choose good or evil. What would it have taken for Adam to make the right choice?

What does it take to save Eden?



January 19, 2009 1:35 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Current Events

It’s almost too perfect.
     On the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., Barack Obama takes the oath of office as America’s first black President.
     The temptation to declare victory in the ages-old struggle against prejudice is strong. Inauguration Day 2009 is indeed a milestone, an event that few of us who are old enough to remember the civil rights struggles of the sixties and seventies ever expected to witness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that the Obama presidency ushers in a new era of unprecedented equality?



Adam on Mars
January 14, 2009 7:21 am
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Category: Original Sin

Imagine a place like Mars: barren, dry, lifeless. But in the far future humans have learned to terraform planets—to make them like Earth. As the planet changes, its thin atmosphere gradually increasing, the first tentative plants taking root, humans live in a domed city safe from the harsh external world. Inside the dome they have everything they need: air, beautiful gardens, food, wildlife, lakes and streams.

But some catastrophe happens back on Earth, and the humans living in the domed city on the strange planet are cut off from humankind. Over time they lose the knowledge of how the domed city came to be. They carry out the tasks that support their environment without understanding what they do, simply following the rules that sustain their environment. As the years pass, the atmosphere outside the dome slowly grows supportive of human life—though it is still harsh and unwelcoming compared to the veritable Garden of Eden that is their city inside the dome.

Then one day a man (let’s call him Adam) decides to break one of the rules he does not understand. Like the first bite of an apple, his decision ruptures the curving wall of the dome. Was Lucifer whispering in his ear?



November 10, 2008 6:32 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Heroes

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.
                                   – Martin Luther
                                   “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543)

     Seventy years ago, on November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi stormtroopers, along with mobs of civilian thugs, went on a rampage against Jews throughout Germany.
     Nominally sparked by the assassination of German diplomat Ernest vom Rath by a 17 year-old Jew in Paris, Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”) marked what seemed at the time the culmination of a five year campaign by the Nazis to villify and persecute German Jews.
     92 Jews were murdered. At least 200 synagogues were burned. Countless Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked. And, perhaps most ominously, something in the neighborhood of 30,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps.
     Jews who had prayed that Kristallnacht would mark the high tide of violent anti-Semitism in the Third Reich, though, were soon to be tragically disappointed. Kristallnacht was not an end to the violence, but merely a prelude to the full horror of the Holocaust. Kristallnacht was a turning point, but not an end point.



Jim Wallis Calls It What It Is . . . Sin
September 22, 2008 2:50 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Corporate Responsibility

The behavior of too many on Wall Street is a violation of biblical ethics. The teachings of Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths condemn the greed, selfishness, and cheating that have been revealed in corporate behavior over decades now, and denounce their callous mistreatment of employees. Read your Bible.
                                   – Jim Wallis,
                                        September 18, 2008

     Jim Wallis, the evangelical founder of Sojourners, has thusly summed up the theological implications of the recent capital market meltdown so eloquently that I hesitate to presume to add to the discussion.
     With so many Americans believing that we live in a Christian nation, the disconnect between our economic practices and the Bible’s repetitive trumpeting of warnings against greed and economic injustice is truly astounding.
     Beginning with the laws given to Moses by God right on up through the post-Resurrection preaching of Paul, Scripture consistently tells us that we must always be on the guard against greed and that we must always seek economic justice for all.
     And yet, here we are again, suffering through another devastating economic catastrophe brought on by greed.
     We can erect all of the regulatory schemes our imaginations can spawn and we can have politicians denouncing Wall Street from now until the next millenium, but until we learn to embrace the totality of Biblical teachings about economic morality as a part of our social fibre, we can expect to see this cycle repeated once every few decades.



August 2, 2008 4:53 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Sexual Abuse

These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation. They have caused great pains and have damaged the church’s witness. Victims should receive compassion and care and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice.
--     Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Sydney, Australia, on sexual abuse by priests.

     “Where is forgiveness in all of this?”
     I hesitated, not being quite sure at all how to answer that question.
     The woman standing in front of me was an independent and successful professional. She hardly seemed a likely person to excuse male sexual misbehavior. Yet, there she was, arguing that her pastor, convicted in ecclesiastical proceedings of sexual misconduct with several female congregants, should be “forgiven” and allowed to continue in his pulpit.
     “Perhaps he should be forgiven,” I replied, trying to avoid an overtly confrontational tone of voice. “But he has abused his authority and, until he can demonstrate that he has learned how to control his urges, he should not be allowed back into professional ministry.”
     That was not the answer this woman apparently was hoping to hear. The conversation ended rather quickly at that point.
     That exchange took place several years ago. In the intervening time, I have observed the effects of sexual misconduct on a number of different congregations. The only change I might make in my answer today would be to drop the possibility that any proven sexual predator could ever be allowed to return to parish ministry.



June 30, 2008 6:24 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Khmer Rouge Tribunal

It was almost exactly a year ago that I sat in the living room of the man Vann Nath has described as “The Butcher of Tuol Sleng.” My interview with the former chief of guards at the Khmer Rouge interrogation and detention (read “torture”) center in Phnom Penh was an experience I’ll not soon forget. As I have written in earlier blogs, the hour I spent with the seemingly amiable Him Huy put me face-to-face with Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” and has haunted me ever since.
     My interview with Him Huy was part of a larger agenda on a trip to Cambodia in quest of both perpetrators and survivors of the Khmer Rouge holocaust. There was an urgency to that trip, borne out of an understanding that the long-awaited Khmer Rouge Tribunal would likely be putting the surviving senior leaders of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea on trial for crimes against humanity before the end of 2007. Determined to provide a running commentary on the proceedings in this blog, I was attempting to prepare myself fully for my self-appointed role as a close observer of the Tribunal’s proceedings.
     A year ago . . .



May 29, 2008 2:50 pm
By Rev. Curtis Webster
Category: Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Nobody, it seems, can make documentaries quite like Ken Burns.
     His recent series, “The War,” tells the story of America’s involvement in World War Two through the eyes of four American cities and towns, among them Mobile, Alabama.
     When war broke out, Glenn Frazier, a 17 year-old infantryman from Mobile, was serving in the Philippines under General Douglas MacArthur. In “The War,” Mr. Frazier admits that he had enlisted several months earlier with no thought of ever seeing combat, and that he had gone to the Philippines under the assumption that it would be a nice, safe duty station in the event that war did break out.
     And Mr. Frazier had a good reason to do his best to avoid combat.
     “I was raised in a real Christian family,” Mr. Frazier explains, “ and, as a result, killing was not part of my training, and that was a big hurdle for me to get over because I’d been taught not to kill.”
     He goes on to describe the incident that pushed him over the edge and caused him to get past that particular doctrine.
     After watching a Japanese plane bomb a hospital and then land a direct hit on a friend of his, Mr. Frazier had a turn of heart.
     “When that Japanese Zero turned its wings right above the trees and started to fly away,” Mr. Frazier recalls, “I could see him with a smile on his face and at that point I had no trouble killing people. As a matter of fact I got to the point where I hunted them, and if I didn’t kill Japanese in a day I felt I didn’t do my job.”



Standing Between
April 28, 2008 11:05 am
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Category: Heroes

Sometimes heroes are people who stand between.

In 1859 a young Swiss entrepreneur named Henri Dunant witnessed the battle of Solfertino, where the French and Italians were fighting to drive Austrians out of Italy. Three years later he published a book about the experience, A Memory of Solfertino.
Dunant's book tells about the bloody battle, but its focus is on the aftermath—the fruitless attempt to help the wounded and dying. The book concludes with a proposal that all nations form volunteer committees of non-combatants to help care for soldiers injured in battle.

Two years after A Memory of Solfertino was published, twelve nations met in Geneva to sign a treaty, the first “Geneva Convention.” They agreed to form national committees of the “Red Cross” and to respect the battlefield neutrality of Red Cross volunteers. It was the first step to a new way for the global community to think about war.

Today everyone knows about the International Red Cross. They go to places where terrible things have happened and they bring first aid, food, blankets. They stand between people and disaster; they hand out bottles of water and when they can they set up field kitchens so people can have a hot meal. In wartime they bring balm to the injured, make the wounded whole; and they visit prisoners held by opposing armies.

Today there are many additional Geneva Conventions. In addition to battlefield neutrality for armband-wearing volunteers, the newer Conventions lay out a plan for humane treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war. The Red Cross has expanded from 12 nations to 181, and its symbol from the red cross to (in Arabic countries) a red crescent, and (in countries that wish to adopt neither cross nor crescent) a red crystal.

The current challenge for the International Red Cross is the detention of people who are not prisoners of war but persons named as unlawful enemy combatants. A 10-year-old Afghani boy named Esrarullah saw his father for the first time in 8 months—not in person, because families of detainees are not allowed to visit—but by an internet video conference arranged by the Red Cross. I cannot imagine how difficut it must have been for the Red Cross to arrange an internet video conferencing in Kabul, Afghanistan between a father detained at an American air base outside Kabul, when for months the authorities had allowed no contact.



©2006-2016, Philip G. Zimbardo

About the Book

About the Movie

About Phil Zimbardo

Stanford Prison Experiment

Celebrating Heroism

Resisting Influence


Other Links and Information

The Lucifer Effect Theology Blog

Rev. Jennifer J.S. Brooks
Minister of the Unitarian Church on Nantucket Island
Read more about Rev. Brooks
Rev. Curtis Webster
Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Encino, CA
Read more about Rev. Webster