Flirting With Self-Righteousness

Flirting With Self-Righteousness

One of the challenges of being a prophetic community and speaking out on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed is that we constantly flirt with self-righteousness. The political realm is full of finger pointing, sanctimonious rhetoric and self-vindication. But Jesus shows us another way: a way of love, where we speak and act with great zeal (and even anger) but out of humility and compassion—that also extends to our enemies.

In Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” he challenges us to forgive others, to love even our enemies and to be careful not to judge. Jesus highlights how easily we see ourselves as “other” and separate, whether through hateful speech (Matthew 5: 21-24), objectifying others (Matthew 5: 27-30) or judging self-righteously (Matthew 7:1-5). And he presents an alternative way based on a much deeper reality that we are one with God and with all humanity: there is no “other.”

Jesus said “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). He dispelled the illusion of separation from God and one another and brought reconciliation. He embodied this by reaching out to people who were considered “other” or even “second class” (women, children, the poor, the infirm, certain ethnic groups, tax collectors, etc.). For Jesus, there is no “other” and that’s why we cannot hate, objectify or judge. This oneness is, of course: love.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters, Father Zosima (a Russian Orthodox monk), calls the other monks in his charge to a radical spirituality:

“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”

Father Zosima’s vision of “an all-embracing love” leads him to call the monks to:

“Love God’s people. For we are not holier than those in the world because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls…”

He aspires to a state of spiritual awareness that leaves no room for religious vanity:

“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth… Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and that knows no satiety. Then each of us will be able to gain the whole world by love and wash away the world’s sins with his tears.”

Rather than judging, he sees himself as part of the whole human problem not separate from it and therefore able quite incredibly to be part of the solution too. Jesus’ way of love not only means we see our oneness with the oppressed, but also with those we perceive as oppressors. This kind of awareness, this kind of love leads us to a place of humility and of compassion for our enemies rather than self-righteous hatred. It does not mean we have to affirm or agree with the actions of our enemies. It does not mean we should remain quiet. It does not mean we shouldn’t be angry. Far from it! But we can speak from a place of humility and take action within the broken system of humanity that includes each of us as well as the oppressed and the oppressor.

As a church community, we have recently been exploring the meaning of Jesus’ death. In the letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to first century fledgling churches he explains that on the cross Jesus put to death all separation between God and humanity, as well all separation between human beings (Ephesians 2:12-18). Jesus “personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity” (Romans 8:3-4 [The Message]). Jesus did not stand separate from humanity and all our evil, hatred and brokenness. Rather he owned it, stood with us, took all the hatred and violence that humanity could throw at him—culminating in torturous execution by crucifixion—and returned only love, praying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus identified with the problem and became the solution, overcoming violence and hatred with love. Out of death came the seeds that could grow into something new (John 12:24-25).

Jesus calls us to the same kind of death. Not death on a cross but death by identifying with all of humanity (even our oppressors and our most disagreeable enemies) and letting love overcome hate. This kind of death means letting go of pride and being right as a motivation. It means seeing the light of God in the other. It means being willing to stand with the vulnerable and oppressed no matter what the cost. It means not removing ourselves when political decisions and policies negatively impact the poor and marginalized. It means working for reconciliation and a new creation, a new world (2 Corinthians 5: 17-18).

In the current political reality, the need for this “new creation” is more evident than ever. Government decisions are creating fear among the poor and vulnerable; among women, people of color, immigrants, refugees and Muslims. Policies of Economic Nationalism, wall-building and “us first” are creating a culture of “them and us” with blame for societal problems being pinned on certain people groups. I do not say this by way of support of or opposition to either Republicans or Democrats: it’s not a partisan issue. I say it simply as one who is trying to be true to the call of Jesus to be a prophetic community. Whether we are Democrat or Republican, we have to own this. We cannot remove ourselves from it. We have to be part of the solution.

As followers of Jesus we must speak up and act out in opposition to this fear and divisiveness. But we cannot do it out of hate or in a way that produces more fear and hatred. We have to die to our own need to be right and our own prideful desire to conquer our enemies. We have to die to our own desire to assign all evil to one particular person or group of people. We have to die to our need to see ourselves as superior and separate from this whole human problem and view our enemies with compassion. We have to die to our own desire for self-protection (“us first”) and stand as one with the vulnerable and oppressed no matter what the cost. We have to die to our own desire to look away and pretend none of this is happening.

Out of this death comes resurrection: a new creation of love that transcends hatred, lifts the veil of the illusion of separateness, and vanquishes injustice. This is why Jesus came, this is what we are called to and this is what it means to be a prophetic community.