Just because we see Jesus for who he is does not mean we see ourselves for who we are or the world around us for what it is. Our vision is peppered with blind spots we need to talk more about.
The concept of spiritual blindness has informed our understanding of the Gospel from the start. St. Paul said: ‘the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). The endemic nature of this blindness is a cause of intercession, for only God can open eyes to see. Yet what if this blindness is a foundational failure in how we interpret everything in this world and not just the Gospel? Margaret Heffernan has explored the idea of wilful blindness in a book by the same name.
In his summary of the Enron trial, Judge Simeon Lake said to the jury:
You may find that a defendant had knowledge of a fact if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what would otherwise have been obvious to him. Knowledge can be inferred if the defendant deliberately blinded himself to the existence of a fact.
Heffernan uses this summary to start an enjoyable yet unsettling journey through the foibles of public life. She was initially prompted by the epic failings of the recent global banking crash and comes to the conclusion that corporate culture and compensation lay at the heart of the problem. While a furious debate is being sustained over the bonus culture, Heffernan – herself a successful businesswoman – makes a compelling case that pervasive and outlandish financial incentives utterly distorted the moral framework of a whole series of key people in the financial and property worlds. This was allied to a morass of complex corporate structures and financial instruments which no-one could fully make sense of until a moment came when the edifice began to crumble and some of those who spotted it first, in keeping with the prevailing ethic, chose to make a financial killing rather than expose the risks to the less adroit.
So far, this is an unexceptional portrait of what went wrong which has been replicated in a growing body of evidence. What makes her thesis more compelling is the way we allow our wilful blindness to distort choice after choice in life. The human predilection to obey and to conform and the tendency to surrender our moral agency as bystanders all contribute to the process. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment, where participants were told to administer increasingly large electric shocks to others when they made learning mistakes is the seminal work on obedience. The shocks were not real but the participants did not know this and many were prepared to administer what they knew to be lethal doses simply because they were told to. When I first heard of this experiment years ago, I could scarcely believe its authenticity; in fact it has been repeated time and again, across decades and cultures, with the same outcome. Milgram was so appalled by the findings that it took him years to find the courage to publish them. People do what they are told and tend to surrender their morality to the institution, especially where it is hierarchical.
Further research shows the desperate urge within us to conform to the group, even when its prevailing attitude is at odds with what we understand to be ethically right and also the instinct for bystanders to calamity or immorality to conform to their collective noun and stand idly by, waiting for others to act.
In such ways we demonstrate more than Heffernan’s wilful blindness. This is spiritual blindness, where we fail to interpret how to live for God in a world where the vulnerable are most at risk. We may genuinely have our eyes opened by God to the truth of the Gospel, but there is an attendant danger of hubris and complacency. Just because we see Jesus for who he is does not mean we see ourselves for who we are. If you doubt me, think how often you have wondered in amazement that the Christian in front of you cannot see their flaws like you can -and then contemplate whether they might be thinking the same thing about you.
The thesis of wilful blindness raises important questions, in passing, for the way we pursue our mission as local churches. Here are just two out of many.
In our desire to express the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, there is an inherent risk of this collapsing into conformism; a belief that the avoidance of conflict and disagreement aids the Spirit’s work rather than inhibits it. The early Church was dogged by pain and conflict, but this was a consequence of an exceptional growth spurt. We should not be afraid of disagreeing with one another. Perhaps the only reason we are is because we prove so poor at resolving our conflicts in churches. The vicious circle of conformism and inertia should be resisted.
The other question concerns tiredness. Exhaustion has been shown to be a major contributory factor in our ‘blindness’, yet most churches make their decisions in the final hours of the day, when people are already spent. It is hard to do otherwise in a volunteer organisation, but little account is ever made of the effect that tiredness plays in poor decision making in church life. There are many biblical promises of God upholding his tired people and granting them wisdom and grace, but some of this wisdom might be spent on new modes of operation. It might also be worth nudging the odd church leader who extols the virtue of working all hours in a state of permanent exhaustion that God may not be getting the best out of them that way. Former US President Bill Clinton has gone on record as saying that every bad decision he ever made in the White House happened when he was too tired.
Rested people are simply more alert – and alive.
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