| Mar 20, 2012
Christianity keeps getting a bad rap. This is at least partially our fault as Christians.
There are days when it is hard to turn on a television or radio, or to open a newspaper, to discover again what “Christians” are saying about somebody else’s behavior, lifestyle, values, morality, perspective on the environment, sexuality, economics, etc. etc. etc., in the most judgmental and self-righteous terms. In the last few weeks alone I have been stunned to hear repeatedly “Christian” leaders, “Christian”politicians, and representatives of various “Christian” organizations and churches denounce one group or individual after another in favor of their own righteousness.
At one point last week, I was reminded of that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the village turned out to stone to death a person accused of blasphemy only to stone also the chief prosecutor for repeating the blasphemy in the course of making the official accusation. Once the stoning starts, nobody is safe.
Where did we ever get the idea that being Christians gave us the inside track on righteousness? The Bible, by contrast, shows the most religious folks, the folks convinced of their own righteousness, in a consistently bad light.
According to Jesus of Nazareth, his followers are to be good and faithful; he didn’t come to destroy either the law or the prophets (Matthew 5:17-20), but our goodness and faithfulness are defined in terms of rejecting revenge, placing the needs of others before our own needs, and rooting violence, hatred, envy, and lust out of our own hearts (Matthew 5: 21-42). Followers of Jesus are not, in fact, to be confident in our own goodness or righteousness at all. The emblem of our faithfulness is a wholehearted trust in God’s grace. According to Jesus, our resemblance to God has more to do with the quality of our mercy and forgiveness toward others than what most of us regard as ethics, morality, or even religious behavior (Matthew 5: 43-48). Jesus warns against praying and practicing our religion in front of other people so that they will notice how religious we are (Matthew 6: 5-18). He warns against trumpeting our generosity so that others will notice (Matthew 6: 1-4). And, in a remarkable passage about “values,” he is careful to say that seeking the reign of God in this world has to do with God’s righteousness, not ours (Matthew 6: 24-34). Jesus warns us not to draw too tightly our circle when it comes to those we will include, implying that the real question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but“Am I a neighbor to others?” (Matthew 5: 43-47; cf. Luke 10: 25-37).
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been described as teaching the ethics of the kingdom of God. But, if this sermon does teach ethics or morality, they represent a very different version from what we get in contemporary discourses on Christian values. Jesus’ approach to morality turns the light back upon us, his followers, asking us to look at ourselves, to look at our own hearts, to look at our own trust, mercy, forgiveness, lack of openness, lusts, the violence we harbor, and our desire for revenge. There is no encouragement at all here for Christians to examine the ethics and morality of others.
From where, then, does the compulsion come to equate faithfulness with self-righteousness, especially for us Christians?
C. S. Lewis seemed to point to taking ourselves too seriously. In his wonderfully diabolical little book, The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon instructs a demon-in-training how to ensnare human beings, Lewis describes a close connection between self-seriousness and self-righteousness. “For humor,” Lewis writes, “involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this [a sense of humor]. Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”
Hell, and a whole lot of other places (some of them very religious, some of them even “Christian”), could be characterized in these terms. Pride, ambition, lack of proportion, self-importance, envy, resentment, and a perpetual attitude of grievance, all of which are enemies of faithfulness, do not belong to any particular Christian denomination or religious faith alone; they are not the exclusive property of the left, right, or center (politically, socially, or theologically); they are, sadly, human failings in their inhumanity. They place us above others, and the higher we place ourselves above others, the harder the fall. Pride is the most unoriginal of sins.
Recently, in a lunch conversation organized by Louisville Seminary Trustee Kyle Lanham for two of his friends from Indianapolis, our professor, Cliff Kirkpatrick, shared another perspective on the problem of faithfulness and self-righteousness. Cliff paraphrased the late Lesslie Newbigin, who reminded Christians that God has called us “to the witness stand”not “the judge’s bench. Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Maybe we just aren’t clear about our role.
Jesus himself warned that religion can become sacrilegious. In the venerable Authorized Version (aka the KJV) of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s [or sister’s] eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”(Matthew 7: 1-2)
Anne Lamott has said: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do.”
What gets lost in the “Holier than Thou Shuffle” (the only dance to which even Christians who don’t believe in dancing know all the steps) is the good news of the gospel. And the good news of the gospel is not that any of us are “holier than thou,” nor that we have better values“than thou,” nor that we are more righteous “than thou,” whomever “thou” may be.
The good news of the gospel is that God forgives sinners. There may be more than this to the gospel, but there’s certainly not less. Will Campbell famously said that the Christian gospel can be boiled down to this single phrase (please excuse Will’s French):“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” That is a message our society needs to hear, if indeed it could only hear it over the clatter of us “Christians”trying to prove that somebody else is the b*****d, but that we deserve God’s love.
Whatever else Jesus taught, there's no doubt he taught us this: Self-righteousness is not righteous.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters(London: The Folio Society, 2008), xiii-xiv.