People, I suspect, often think themselves brave in the abstract. You watch a movie, read a book about an event or an adventure that requires courage, resourcefulness from the antagonist. It's almost impossible not to ask yourself, "Could I do that? Would I cave under pressure? Would I do the right thing—even if doing the right thing cost me greatly?" We identify with the characters.
Tomorrow, for instance, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With all the inspiring quotes on social media and documentary retrospectives, many people who weren’t alive during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s ask themselves, “Given the chance, would I have done the right thing back then? Would I have marched? Would I have faced the dogs and water cannons? Would I have gotten arrested along with Dr. King?”
Perhaps we give ourselves too much credit, but it's easy to believe that, when it all comes down to it, if it were us, we'd do the right thing.
Who doesn't want to think that, forced to choose, they would resist evil, refrain from falling into corruption, from being dishonest, from doing harm to the most vulnerable?
In the wake of World War II and revelations about the systematic horror of the Holocaust, people were appalled to think that Germany, a model of Western civilization, could produce the kind of people who stood by without raising even the slightest objection, while their Jewish friends and associates were mercilessly carted off to the death camps.
Stanlely Milgram, a Yale psychology professor, was fascinated by the moral dilemma raised by those, otherwise seemingly, good people who stood by and did nothing as the Jews were rounded up to be killed. Specifically, he wanted to answer the question: Did the people who worked with Adolph Eichmann in exterminating the Jews share his moral perspective?
That is to say, did the people who were complicit, the people not in charge during the Holocaust do what they did because they believed they were doing the right thing? And if not, why didn't they speak out? So, in 1961, Milgram set up an experiment to test the strength of the average person's moral fiber when confronted with evil.
In this experiment, Milgram explained to pairs of volunteers that they were doing an experiment testing memory. Unbeknownst to them, each volunteer was paired with an actor. In other words, not all the volunteers were volunteers—half of them were paid actors. A volunteer was placed in one room, able to communicate with the actor in another room, but they couldn't see each other.
The volunteers were positioned in the role of teacher, doing a word game with cards. Every time the learner (the actor in the other room) gave an incorrect answer, the volunteer was supposed to press a button delivering an electric shock. Though the button didn't actually deliver a shock, the volunteer operated with the belief that pain was being inflicted. In fact, after each wrong answer, the volunteer was told that the voltage was to be increased by 15 volts—all the way up to 450 volts—which the volunteer was told was life threatening.
The experiment began with the volunteer receiving a small 15 volt shock to let the person know what it felt like, and leading the volunteer to believe the fiction. Moreover, in many cases the volunteers were told up front that the person to whom they were delivering the shock had a heart condition.
After a number of shocks, the unseen actor in the other room would start screaming and pounding on the wall that separated them—begging the volunteer to stop administering the shocks. The volunteers began to get uncomfortable, but were told they weren't doing any lasting damage—and that they wouldn't be held responsible. After a number of times pounding on the wall, the noise from the next room would cease altogether. The volunteers were told to take silence as a wrong answer, and to continue administering the shock—up to the maximum, 450 volts (which was marked XXX on the voltage dial).
Prior to the experiment, Milgram polled several psychology grad students about their expectations that the volunteers would administer the maximum, 450 volt shock. The grad students predicted that only 3 out of 100 volunteers would actually administer the maximum shock. Milgram also polled his colleagues, who likewise predicted that very few people would be willing to inflict the maximum amount of pain.
As it turned out, however, 65% of the volunteers went all the way up to 450 volts—even after wondering out loud, many of them, whether they had killed the person in the next room. Interestingly, with some modifications to the test due to ethical considerations, over the last fifty years, Milgram's test has been replicated numerous times in numerous places, with the rate of those willing to mete out maximum pain remaining consistent.
The test has shown fairly conclusively that almost 2/3 of people will not speak up against authority, even if they believe that by their silence, innocent people will be harmed.
That's pretty scary, don't you think? Little people often find it difficult to stand up to those in authority, to say out loud that the emperor has no clothes.
The current political fight has been framed as a fight between white Americans and the Dreamers, or the El Salvadorans, or the Haitians, or those from Africa—always singling out some group as “other,” then arguing that anything that benefits somebody else comes at my expense.
That’s the issue at the forefront today, but you could just as easily substitute African Americans, or LGBTQ people, or refugees, or Muslims, or those without employer provided healthcare.
Populist anger is alive and well. Oh, people like to talk about how they're for the underdog, but when it comes down to it, there are too many people hoping to get a chance at being the top dog to start making too many waves. It's hard to challenge the people who're in charge, the movers and shakers, the ones who stand to gain by keeping everyone else in their place.
That's why this story about Samuel and Eli fascinates me—has always fascinated me.
Why is that?
Well, young master Samuel has been given over to the temple because of a promise his mother made to God. Samuel is a priest-in-training, who, we're told as our story begins, "did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him."
Still small. Still at the bottom of the pile looking up—looking up at old Eli, the priest in charge—fat, lazy, corrupt, and now, almost blind—but not so far gone that he's forgotten who his boss is.
Samuel's in bed one night, when God calls him: "Samuel! Samuel!"
Samuel thinks it's Eli. So, he rushes to the old priest's bedside to ask what he wants. Eli says he hasn't called Samuel, and sends him back to bed.
The same thing happens two more times—God calls. Samuel thinks it's Eli, and he goes to Eli to find out what he wants.
Finally, Eli says, "Go lie down; and if God calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'"
Which is exactly what Samuel does. And when Samuel says to God, "Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening," God has some harsh words about what's fixin' to happen to old Eli—all of it bad. God's going to punish Eli's house forever, because Eli's sons have committed blasphemy—and Eli has failed to stop them.
What is it that Eli's sons have done? According to the story, found just a few verses before our text for this morning, back in chapter two, Eli's sons, themselves members of the priestly lineage, would come along while someone was offering a sacrifice at the temple, and they would take the choicest parts of meat for themselves—by force, if necessary.
Their sin was that they treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt. They treated those who came seeking the LORD callously, as though as members of a privileged class, they had some right to take what belonged to God.
Not good. God's angry with their arrogant presumption and their willingness to commit injustice.
This taking advantage of the powerless by the powerful is a big deal in the book of Samuel.
But we might expect that. One of the possible meanings of the name Samuel is "God has heard." God has heard the plight of the helpless and come to their aid.
Indeed, after Hannah had taken young Samuel to the temple to give him up to God as she'd promised, she said a prayer that challenges the arrogance of the proud and the unjust, acknowledging God as judge.
Humility, according to Hannah, is the appropriate attitude of those who would please God, because God is a God who turns the tables on the powerful and the arrogant: "The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil" (2:4-5a).
God has always been about turning systems of injustice on their head.
Consequently, it makes perfect sense that in the book of Samuel we would find God angry with Eli's sons, those who're in power at the temple, who repay God the honor of their positions by taking advantage of those who come honestly to offer worship to God.
Not good. Not good at all.
But come on, Eli's old and blind. Why blame him? It's his sons who're the scoundrels, right? Why's God mad at him?
Because, as the chief priest, he's the one who's supposed to be looking out for the interests of God's people, especially those who come humbly seeking God. Instead those people are bullied and taken advantage of by the very people who's power Eli is responsible for overseeing.
That is to say, if you stand by and say nothing when the folks on top fleece the folks on the bottom, you've taken sides with Eli against God. I don't know how else to put it.
If you don’t stand up when those in power belittle and dehumanize the vulnerable, you’ve turned your back on the very people God cares most about.
It's not easy. Stanley Milgram shows us that. 2/3 of the people are Eli at heart.
But Samuel shows us it's possible.
God tells Samuel to go tell Eli the truth about how keeping silent in the face of corruption has provoked the wrath of heaven.
How you like them apples? Go tell your boss that what she's doing is wrong. Stand up. Speak truth to power. Tell the emperor he has no clothes.
Stanley Milgram tells us that most people won't do it—even if the price of not doing it is that people will suffer and die.
But not little Samuel. Samuel says, "Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening." Tell me what to say, and I'll say it.
So, this story of Samuel’s courage is an uncomfortable one. It raises questions:
"Where are those places in our world where justice has been cast aside?"
"Where is God asking us to tell those in charge that they've failed to do what's right, failed to treat those at the bottom of the pile in a manner pleasing to God?”
“Where are we when the cries of 200,000 El Salvadorans tear the night in two, or millions of Puerto Ricans lift up their plaintive cry?”
The story of Samuel challenges us:”And what are we going to do about it?"
God has heard. God is listening
The real question is . . . are we?