(This week, I'm taking a break from my usual fact-intensive blogs. There is no burning current topic I felt compelled to write about. Although the President’s Emergency Declaration is clearly a deep constitutional crisis, it is too complex and involved for a blog to do it justice. And “other than that,” to quote one of my favorite Maine jokes, “there ain't been no news!”)
In the absence of a pressing current issue, I wanted to talk about a foundational issue that isn't often discussed--the link between self-righteousness and hate. We are all shocked and appalled that people who hold themselves out as models of morality and Christian virtue can express opinions that are brazenly self-serving, narrow-minded and hateful. But we really should not be surprised, because the link between “righteousness” and hatred has strong and deep roots in history and theology. There are several good reasons for that.
1. Judging others based on our “righteousness” inevitably creates negative comparisons with other people,
Jesus warned many times about the dangers of judging others and maintaining our spiritual superiority. The most vivid illustration of that point is the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. (Luke 18:9-14) The Pharisee flattered himself that he was very close to attaining perfect morality, and thanked God he was not like the tax collector. But Jesus had another story. He said it was the tax collector who was made truly righteous!
There are many parallels in modern Christianity. “I thank God I'm not like that (expletive deleted) who just aborted her baby,” “I thank God I'm not like that gay man,” “I thank God I'm not like that drug-dealing immigrant, who's taking our jobs.” "I thank God I'm not like that lazy, free-loading welfare mother."
But to just point this outward to people we consider intolerant misses the whole point. Because we who pride ourselves on our caring, compassion and tolerance are far from immune to contagious, toxic “righteousness.” For us, it is, “I thank God I'm not like that racist Republican who’s trying to defend Southern heritage,” “I thank God I'm not one of those ignorant, Fox-loving believers in ‘fake news,’” “I thank God MY party isn't stupid enough to allow Big Business to mug the poor and the environment!” (ISN'T it???) In making these judgments we forget that the people we despise are human beings just like us, in need of compassion and love.
I'm not suggesting that we should not oppose immoral and un-Christlike attitudes and behaviors, both by government and by the public. I believe that's our moral duty. But the trap is to believe that doing so makes us inherently superior morally to those whose views we oppose. Big News Flash--we're NOT! Just ask Jesus.
He said, “With the judgment you judge you shall be judged.” (Matt. 7:1) Be honest, how many of us could really withstand that kind of judgment?
2. Believing in our own righteousness makes us cold and heartless, and can lead to victimizing others.
There are several stories in the Gospels that illustrate this point. The one that first comes to mind is the Good Samaritan. Before the Samaritan came upon the bloody body of the victim, a priest and a Levite had already passed by, taking care to stay as far away as possible so as not to risk ceremonial uncleanness. They put their external, ceremonial righteousness ahead of a human life! (Luke 10:25-37)
Even more shocking is the story of the woman taken in adultery. Reading between the lines, it seems clear that this woman was a helpless pawn in the religious leaders’ plot to catch Jesus--either in treason against Rome, or in blasphemy against Moses. Strangely, although adultery requires at least two people, only one of them was accused by this kangaroo court. The religious leaders’ hatred of Jesus was so great that they deliberately entrapped a helpless woman, and dangled the possibility of the death penalty over her head, just so they could have leverage over their enemy. (John 8: 3-11)
And of course, ultimately the same leaders’ zeal for righteousness caused them to try and condemn the Son of God, who was not “righteous” enough for them.
3. Believing ourselves to be righteous creates an "us/them" mentality and allows dehumanization of "them."
Throughout history, many of the most inhuman acts, from the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to the biblical defense of slavery, to the forceable “conversion” of Native peoples, have been committed by people who were absolutely convinced of their own “righteousness.” They firmly believed that because of their superior morality and the favor they had been given by God, they had the God-given right (and even the duty!) to persecute, despise, torture, and slaughter those who were not "righteous" like them.
So it would be wise for us, who value tolerance, justice and compassion for all people, to take seriously the counsel of the Apostle. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1)