“I Teach Sunday School, [Expletive deleted]”

February 27, 2008

This video was brought to my attention via Rusty’s Post.

Stephen Colbert would make the short list of people that I love. Of all the late night talkers he certainly has the most ability to converse intelligently with his guests, which makes for very interesting and entertaining television (and made the writer’s strike almost bearable). One of those recent guests was Dr. Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect (which inexplicably has black and red puzzle pieces all over the cover). I have not read this book, but based on how easily Mr. Colbert shredded his argument I can imagine it would be frustrating to get through.

Zimbardo explains that his task was to understand how good people became evil. Colbert asks if one can’t be good by following authority. Zimbardo then says that’s exactly what authority wants us to think, but there are a lot of corrupt and unjust authorities. And the best solution that he can come up with in light of this is “mindful and critical thinking,” i.e. a hermeneutics of suspicion.

But Colbert objects, “If they are unjust, they wouldn’t be authority.” With that one statement Stephen Colbert demonstrates that he has done his homework on Romans 13 and that Zimbardo’s argument is silly. Is every act of evil committed simply because someone didn’t question their social situation? How then do we measure a standard of good and a standard of evil? From what he says, it seems Zimbardo holds to a “Situation Ethics” without a measuring rod for each situation. This kind of thinking displaces guilt and responsibility from the person and hefts it upon society. It is not that the person has done a bad thing, it is just that they have not thought critically about the evils of the unjust authority before going along with it.

As Rusty points out, Zimbardo seems to hold to a dualism between good and evil, that these concepts are equal in stature and locked in an epic struggle for supremacy. Thus humans, according to this framework, can choose between either option. But Colbert objects to this when he argues that Good and evil started in the Garden of Eden. There was no “choosing” (Bonhoeffer states this well in Ethics) before original sin; to discern a good and evil already points to, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “a falling a way from [the human’s] origin in God.” In other words, in Colbert’s terminology, the devil critically assesses God’s authority and determines it to be unjust and this does not lead him to a choice between good and evil, but to a falling away from the origin of obedience to God’s authority which is the good. Evil is not another option opposed to the Good, evil is the absence or a falling away from the Good. Colbert understands this, Zimbardo does not–and so his argument gets even sillier.

Zimbardo goes on to say that if God were into reconciliation he would have admitted that Lucifer was right and God was wrong (presumably about free will and the ability to question authority) and he would not have created Hell to send the devil and all the evil people to. Colbert again rises to the theological challenge. He demonstrates that this Hell Zimbardo speaks of is not created by God, nor is it prior to the rise of evil but is in fact the human person’s removal of self from God’s love. Again, we have a sense of evil as not a thing, but as a deprivation, an absence or falling away from an origin. God doesn’t send us to hell, we place ourselves there by removing ourselves from God’s love, Colbert states intensely.

At this point, the only thing left for Zimbardo to do (as Colbert has just unraveled the argument of his nearly 600 page book) is to smugly say “Obviously, you learned well in Sunday school.” Normally this would render anything Colbert had said in the argument as irrelevant, but not this time. Colbert responds without a pause with the statement that comprises the title of this post.

This statement from Colbert demonstrates exactly the kind of “militant” Christianity that is needed in this post-modern, post-Christian world. Allow me to explain.

Normally Zimbardo’s statement would be the equivalent to an academic pat on the head and a send off with a nickel to buy a stick of gum, an “Oh that’s nice, but we’re talking big people talk” kind of thing. It is as if faith is a private thing to make me feel better, but doesn’t have much use in public life, say politics or psychology or the academy. Normally this statement would embarrass the person to which it was directed.

But Colbert (an actual Catholic Sunday school teacher!) turns it around in a very helpful way. Instead of an invective, Colbert accepts it as an opportunity to demonstrate that the church does have a politics. In this case, the church does have an account of evil, and it differs in some very important ways from Zimbardo’s psychologist’s approach. It is not that Colbert has trotted out the canned answers from fifth grade Sunday school, rather he sees the importance of a training in the Christian faith, a catechism and a discipleship. The Christian life is a particular way, a particular path and in order for the Christian church to be a very visible presence of the body of Christ, there is a necessary training for living this way.

Needless to say, Zimbardo looked very taken aback, it was if he had just been attacked. And in a certain sense, although playfully from Colbert, he was attacked (admittedly, Colbert may have some confession to do this week–and that’s the point!). Colbert was pointing to a particpation in the “war of the Lamb.” Hans Urs von Balthasar states that in Revelation the Lamb makes war on all opposed to God’s authority. But it is key to remember that this Lamb is a slain one and so this is a very different kind of war. For Balthasar, “It is the slain Lamb that has won his victory; it follows that his disciples’ struggle cannot be an armed one, except their armor be the full panoply of faith (1 Th 5.8; Eph 6.14f), and especially the ‘endurance and faith of the saints’ (Rev 13.10)” (Theo-Drama IV, p 58). This training in the full panoply of faith and the endurance of the saints is the most effective weapon against the powers opposed to the intelligibility and beauty of the Christian message.


4 Responses to ““I Teach Sunday School, [Expletive deleted]””

  1. Benjamin said

    I think it’s unfortunate that Mr. Zimbardo got into a religious discussion, since Christianity is clearly something he doesn’t understand. However, the main point he was trying the get across is not a refutation of Christian theology. It’s simply the observation that people tend to be influenced very strongly by social situations, sometimes for good and other times for evil. Most people are not aware of the full extent of this influence, which makes them prone to participate in acts of evil.

    Any social psychologist who tells you that this observation refutes free will, and that all acts of evil result from social pressure, is clearly wrong. Free will is the only possible basis for any kind of morality.

    However, Mr. Zimbardo is not questioning free will. Instead, in his book he is trying to establish that authorities with the power to shape social situations have a responsibility to minimize these situations’ moral corrosiveness. Thus Mr. Rumsfeld is partially responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, since he created a situation conducive to prisoner abuse. This does not, however, negate the prison guards personal responsibility for their actions.

  2. Ryan L. Hansen said


    Thanks for your clarification. I was not focusing on the sociological aspect of the argument so much as the theological argument. Although, the very fact that Zimbardo titles his book _The Lucifer Effect_ means he is playing with theology already.

    I really don’t think the heart of the conversation was free will, its denial or affirmation, but rather the idea that God condemns humanity for making choices. I think this is the thing that Colbert was pressing Zimbardo about, not that God condemns for making the free choice, but that the choice of something other than God is already a turning away from God. This is standard theological construal (Augustine, Aquinas, Balthasar, Bonhoeffer, etc.), and Zimbardo was playing with fire in trying to mess with it theologically.

    Just as I would be playing with fire were I to delve into the sociology of it. And so I appreciate your insight regarding that aspect, something I was too polemical to get into at the time. Thanks for reading, Benjamin.

  3. mswyrr said

    Okay, so I’m a couple years late in seeing this interview! I saw a post about it on Tumblr and then found yours through Google.

    It seemed to me that the thing Zimbardo did that got Colbert’s ire up was in essentializing the story of Lucifer — in acting as if that story is solely a prop to authoritarianism and that if one accepts it that means that one is an unquestioning fool when it comes to authority. Rather than considering how many people have actually used their religious faith as a way into questioning earthly authority quite strongly for its injustice and evil! Considering that one of Colbert’s quote is “I don’t believe I can’t disagree with my church,” I think the distinction is probably important to him.

    I know that, personally, the way some self-satisfied non-religious folks act as if religion is a gateway drug into unthinking adherence to abusive authority really rubs me the wrong way. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t sometimes, merely that it can also be a way to hold onto something beyond temporal authorities which enables you to challenge them.

    • Ryan L. Hansen said


      Thanks for your insightful comments. As we have seen from the recent militant atheism, most things can be turned into unthinking adherence to ideology. The best of the Christian tradition is found in “faith seeking understanding” which never allows for fideism, but confesses revelation that is intelligible, even if not logical according to modern enlightenment scientistic standards. I think the “seeking understanding” part always allows for humility, revision, and criticism within the bounds of revelation.

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