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My Righteous Self Says….

November 22, 2016

Several years ago I was listening to a co-worker at the Christian ministry we worked for give me an impassioned angry tirade about another member of our team.  He went on and on about this fellow’s wrong doings, his horrible attitude and his nefarious motives.  The depth and breadth of the tirade was breathtaking.

Since it was my responsibility to resolve this conflict if I could, I tried to get him to simmer down so we could discuss the facts and I could look into the matter.  My naive hope was that if we could get the anger out of the way I might be able to mediate a fact-based get together.  But when I started by saying something like “Let’s see if we can set aside your anger and deal with the issues….” he interrupted me and shouted “My anger is righteous!”   He concluded by giving me an ultimatum – either he goes or I go.

Being relatively new to mission leadership I nevertheless tried to mediate the matter, only to find that the other party in the dispute was also angry and also sure his anger was righteous.  I learned an important lesson that day – when two people are each convinced they are on the side of righteousness you will probably never find a middle ground.  After all, who would give up a righteous stance for the sake of getting along?  With your feet planted firmly on what you think is righteous ground you never want to move.

If there was one positive take-away from that failed discussion it was that I am just as susceptible to self-righteousness as they were.  Frustrated by the matter I confided that frustration to my wife and one other person.  But it eventually dawned on me that I was being just as self-righteous in my comments about their attitude as these two poor men had been in theirs.

I thought of this as I followed the flap after the cast of the Broadway show “Hamilton” took it upon themselves to lecture VP-elect Pence, who was at the show, on the need to the care about those who were fearful after the election.  You can hear the actual scold they gave Pence online and I’d encourage you to do that rather than go to sources, left or right, that are telling you what to think about it.

My reaction to the scold is that it was inappropriate as to time and place.  While it was clearly heartfelt, and rather mild, it had no place when directed at a man, and his daughter, just there to see the highly-acclaimed show.    It also reflected a strong degree of self-righteousness.  It was a lecture, pure and simple, given to a man they clearly viewed not only as wrong but also as not as enlightened and caring as they were.  It was a classic example of the clever mantra some progressives are hearing in these post-election times – “The wages of smug is Trump.”

Pence reacted graciously, both on Fox New and Face the Nation.  I expected no less.  In fact, his statements to the two news organizations were almost word-for-word identical.  Trump on the other hand revealed that his Twitter guns are still in his holster and he can fire at will and 30 million people will hear him.

But how are we to respond to this sort of self-righteous?  For the most part the conservative reaction has been our own brand of self-righteousness.  We’ve self-righteously declared their self-righteousness despicable.  I can’t tell you how many “we’d never do that” posts, tweets and Facebook message I have seen.   Somehow being more self-righteous in return doesn’t strike me as a great idea.  But, gosh, the desire to not let “them” get away with it is a siren call to conservative hearts that is hard to resist.

The problem for Christians is that darned “What would Jesus do?”  When we look at Jesus; more righteous than anyone who has ever walked the earth, we see him devoid of smugness and self-righteousness.  He encourages turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and not returning evil for evil.

Every time we feel the swelling tide of self-righteousness within us – and there are lots of cultural triggers for that emotion – we think of Jesus, the meek King of all creation, and it sucks the anger out of us.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?

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