When we choose poorly and hurt ourselves or others, we often find it incredibly easy to shift the blame away from ourselves, but in doing so, we only do more damage.
Mutsuhiro Watanabe was better known to the captives of Japan’s most infamous concentration camps as “the Bird” so that they could warn one another when he was coming without him knowing.
Deeply impressed by the French philosophy of nihilism, Watanabe was a fervent patriot and brutal taskmaster in the POW camps. He withheld medical care from sick prisoners, forced others to have limbs unnecessarily amputated, and once practiced judo on an appendectomy patient. One prisoner recounted in an interview how the Japanese corporal “took pride in his sadism and would become so carried away with his attacks that saliva would bubble around his mouth.”
He was so deranged that General MacArthur named him 23rd on a list of 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. However, he avoided capture and later became a successful and wealthy insurance salesman.
In his final days, he reflected back on the war. “If I had been better educated during the war, I think I would have been kinder, more friendly,” he wrote.
“There were two people inside me. One that followed military orders, and the other that was more human. At times I felt I had a good heart, but Japan at that time had a bad heart. I’m glad our prime minister apologized for the war, but I can’t understand why the government as a whole doesn’t apologize. We have a bad cabinet.”
Doctor Milgram’s Terrible Discovery
Dr. Lee Ross, seminal Stanford social psychologist, coined the term “fundamental attribution error.” Never was a term more apt for humanity’s least admirable quality.
This behavior he noted and studied was people’s penchant to credit others’ faults to internal factors and their own flaws to external causes. For example, “Some idiot ran a red light and nearly hit me. Don’t they know how to drive? I mean, I ran a red once, but it was only because there’s a tree blocking the light until you’re practically at the intersection. You can’t see the light until the last minute, so sometimes you just can’t help running the light.”
When I cause a problem, I’m not really at fault. Someone or something else has forced my hand in this poor decision. When someone else makes a mistake, though, their mental acuity or moral judgment is immediately suspect.
Dr. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, was similarly fascinated by this flaw in people’s perceptions of themselves. He had followed the trials of Nazi officers who were similar to Watanabe in blaming their government for their own actions, so he began an experiment.
He invited volunteers to his lab. They met a “doctor” and another participant named “Mr. Wallace”—both Milgram’s assistants, unbeknownst to them—who would be with them in the experiment. The doctor then explained to the volunteer that he would be responsible for asking Mr. Wallace several questions. If Mr. Wallace failed to answer correctly, the volunteer was to electrocute him. Small shocks, nothing dangerous. (The man playing Mr. Wallace was not actually being shocked, but he would pretend as if he was.)
As the experiment continued, however, the doctor told the volunteer to increase the voltage. As the dial crept toward the dangerously high voltages and Mr. Wallace began shouting and then screaming in the other room, some volunteers protested. The doctor simply told them, “You have no other choice but to continue.”
Every single participant punished Mr. Wallace with dangerously high levels of electricity. About two-thirds of the participants ultimately chose to give him a lethal shock, believing they were killing the other man.
What could excuse such behavior? How did they justify knowingly electrocuting another innocent person to death?
“The doctor told me I had to do it.”
The Heart Unaddressed and Unamended
The failure of people to acknowledge our own sins is hardly a problem of the modern age. The story of humanity began in Genesis with such a blame game as Adam pointed a finger at Eve and his wife in turn blamed the serpent.
Barely a chapter later, God once more confronts their son and receives an uncannily similar response. “Afterward the Lord asked Cain, ‘Where is your brother? Where is Abel?’
“‘I don’t know,’ Cain responded. ‘Am I my brother’s guardian?’
“But the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood’” (Genesis 4:9-11 NLT).
In a sermon, David Wilkerson warned listeners that our lack of victory in the Christian life is often due to an unwillingness to confront the real reasons for deep-seated dissatisfaction and besetting sins. “You can blame your unhappiness on poor health, being misunderstood, or having an uncaring mate, boss or friend. In fact, you can blame it on anything you choose. But the truth is that there is no excuse for a Christian to live as a slave to the devil.
“If the devil plays on your emotions and you are getting worse, not better; if your problems are getting bigger; if fear is rising and joy is dissipating; sadness is setting in, it means you are a captive to the enemy of your soul and are being manipulated by him.
“You must recognize the trap you’re in…”
Perhaps there is no flaw in people’s broken hearts that Satan is faster to use against us. He nudges us to look away from the pain we’ve caused ourselves and others, and we are more than eager to find someone else to point our fingers at and blame.
If only you knew what my ex did to me…then you’d know that my bitterness is totally justified. If my coworkers were actually godly people, I wouldn’t gossip about them. If people around me weren’t inexperienced and stupid, I wouldn’t lose my temper so often. My relationship with God would be so much more energetic if only I could find a better church.
Worst yet, as long as we are busy pushing our problems onto someone else, they will repeat themselves and compound in our own lives, unaddressed and unamended.
The Desperately Needed Gift
Director at Midwestern Seminary and The Gospel Coalition writer Jared Wilson points out the solution for our blame game.
“In our lives we are always trying to figure out who else’s fault it is, and Jesus says, ‘Enough with all that. Give it to me.’ The one guy who is without sin says ‘Give me your sin. Pass the blame, the shame, the cover-ups onto me. I will take them.’”
He continues, “When God comes to us that we might give an account, we start the defense presentation, and we start naming names…. When that time for reckoning comes, he names us in a completely different way: He could tell the truth of the law: sinners, unholy, unclean, unworthy, accursed, dead. But he tells the better truth of the gospel: saints, holy, clean, worthy, blessed, alive. He is not ashamed to call us his brothers (Heb. 2:11).
“While Satan comes to accuse, Christ comes to accept. Where the law announces death, Christ announces eternal life. While we’re all blame-shifting, Jesus is blessing-shifting.”
If we honestly consider the hideous death Jesus endured, we must acknowledge the grotesqueness of our own sins.
If we meditate on Jesus’ gracious claim on us, we must feel the relief of not having to stand alone before God’s throne. Another important shift should happen, though, when we dwell on Christ’s gift. If we are to accept another’s graciousness, we must first acknowledge how badly we need to be pardoned.
A Letter of Forgiveness to Humanity
Years after the war, several American, British and Australian POWs wrote that they had forgiven Watanabe. As best we know, he did not respond. When former prisoner Zamperini traveled to Japan to open the 1998 Olympics, he asked to meet Watanabe who refused.
In leu of a meeting, he wrote about the freedom from bitterness and trauma he had experienced after coming to know God, and then he penned this to the man who had brutally tortured him 50 years before: As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 [sic] and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison… I asked then about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.
Watanabe never replied.
One man refused to accept that he was responsible for terrible crimes against others. Another man was able to forgive those hideous crimes because he realized how much he had been forgiven.
Zamperini looked into the darkness of his own heart and realized that the God who had lifted judgment from him would have also willingly done so for his captor.