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The burden of self-righteousness

It’s fair to say that, except in rare circumstances, the Church is no longer the moral conscience of our culture. This comes with some benefits. If you’ve ever been immersed in Christian culture, you’ll remember how annoying it can be to have your moral life constantly monitored. It’s all the more annoying if that culture is new to you. For example, my high school was far from Christian, with its nihilistic culture of drug use, depression, and even, on some occasions, suicide. So, when I went to Bible camp and Bible college afterwards, I was culture-shocked. I found myself in a setting where the reality of hopeless teenage existence was ignored for the sake of rules about tattoos and hair length.

Of course there are different cultures of self-righteousness to be found abroad as well. I remember the time I traveled to Jerusalem. The narrow streets were jammed with people buying spices and trinkets. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all had their little corners, while curious Westerners like me stumbled around knocking stuff over. I managed to find myself an English companion that first day, and we decided to go out for a beer. Not really understanding Islam at all, he walked over to a couple of Muslims and asked where the nearest bar was. Needless to say they were not impressed. It was the perfect example of culture clash as my English friend — not fathoming that other cultures actually believe that everyone should follow the same rules — continued to say, “Yeah, I know that you don’t drink, but could you tell us where we could go so we can drink?”

As someone familiar with Christian sub-culture, their disgusted looks were quite familiar.

Self-righteousness is no longer the preserve of religious people these days. One of the benefits of Christianity losing its prestige is that we are now painfully aware that self-righteousness is a human problem. What else are we to make of the craze for online lynching? A man shoots a lion in Zimbabwe and, next thing you know, his dental practice is ruined, and he’s being hounded at home. The slightest politically incorrect faux pas today means that our livelihood can be taken away; our lack of privacy due to online-everything means that our words are constantly monitored, judged, and punished. Political positions posted on the “bumpers” of Facebook and Twitter are primarily badges of membership, not invitations to debate. And, if we don’t flash the right signals or use the right jargon, we will find ourselves socially in Siberia. “Judginess” is everywhere.

The troubling thing is that such self-righteousness is a sign of a total lack of self awareness. In the parable of Luke 18:9-15 the tax collector prays, “God, have mercy on me a sinner,” while the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector.” What differentiates these two spiritual types is that the self-righteous person is not self aware; the self-righteous person, unlike the “tax collector,” will not apologize to God or to man. The self-righteous person does not even seem to know that there is anything to apologize for. Yet this is dishonest because, deep down, maybe in his subconscious, he’s compensating for something. And what is the self-righteous person repressing? The fear, indeed perhaps the certainty, that there is no such thing as forgiveness. He will not, therefore, apologize because he does not believe in forgiveness. And, tracing this back to the Lord’s Prayer, he does not believe in forgiveness because he will not forgive others.

If the self-righteous person is forced to apologize, it will not be in recognition that he is wrong. No, he will only apologize for the sake of expedience in order to make the consequences go away. This seems to be the only form of repentance our culture knows at the moment.

Such apologies are always formulaic, but that doesn’t seem to matter. For the social pressure to “apologize” is always intended to make the person submit and conform to the herd. Until that time, the public shaming will be relentless.

Needless to say, conformity is not the same thing as forgiveness; it is the opposite. Conformity means breaking someone, mastering someone. Forgiveness means giving someone a fresh start. It means reintegrating them in society and making things whole again. If we were interested in what is effective, I believe forgiveness beats shaming and conformity hands down. Yet it is the narrow road; it is difficult.

So where forgiveness cannot be imagined, any self-respecting person will not apologize, since he thinks the shame and conformity that comes with apologizing would destroy his dignity. For some people, then, rightly or wrongly, there is a kind of nobility in not apologizing. To apologize would mean that they are worthless, and why would you admit that? (See Peter Leithart’s interesting observations on scapegoats.)

Let’s be honest, in a world that can’t imagine forgiveness, some people become pariahs: the pedophile, the racist, the wife-beater. No doubt this “untouchable” class has changed from Jesus’ time (robbers, evildoers, and tax collectors), but we still think that certain types of sins put some people beyond the pale — and not without good reason. But the judgment here is that they aren’t just guilty. More often than not, it is that they have themselves become junk — intrinsically worthless.

The popular social worker, Brené Brown, makes a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is when you think that you’ve done something wrong, while shame is when you think you yourself are worthless. This is an insightful distinction, but the line is blurry in a culture without forgiveness. The knowledge of our own guilt leads us and others to think we are rubbish.

The major difference Christ brings into the world, then, is the reality of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them,” Jesus says from the Cross. Christ makes it possible for us both to apologize and to receive a sense of dignity. For, without Christ, we are lost in a world of shame. Those who want us to apologize want us to submit to them, they want to break us. It was only Christ, though, who was broken by us. Being God, he could have crucified us; instead, he himself was crucified to make us whole. His forgiveness gives us our dignity back.

When we have been granted dignity, we can admit our guilt before God without doubting his fatherly love for us. If he sent his Son to die for us, we are worth it — tax collectors, pedophiles, murderers. Because we can trust God in this way, forgiving others as we are forgiven, we take a great big step towards self-awareness and away from the pharisaic mind set.

One last point about self-righteousness: We all have that Pharisee deep down inside of us, tricking us into becoming the judge of others. Even the act of identifying self-righteous Pharisees can be pharisaic! We therefore must become simple, judging no one. Remember the prayer of the tax collector who beat his breast and cried “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This simple prayer, repeated over and over again, sparked a religious renaissance in eighteenth-century Russia that carries on to today. Refusal to judge, acknowledgment of God’s mercy, and honesty about one’s own guilt are the beginning of self-awareness, which brings freedom from the burden of self-righteousness.

My small recommendation, then, is to take up this simple prayer of humility as your own. Repeat it a few times when you wake up and a few times when you go to sleep. Whenever you have a spare moment in the day, say that prayer under your breath: “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” You will find that the more you say it from your heart, the less you will be able to judge others, the less anxiety you will have about your own worth, and the less worry you will have about a guilty conscience. Without this kind of prayer, we are all just Pharisees.

Jeff Boldt’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is “Barbie’s house, featuring Atlas” (2011) by Quinn Dombrowski. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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