I was planning to write about something else for this post. But then I saw this video:
If for some reason the video doesn't play for you, it is of a man in a drive thru at Chick-Fil-A who verbally harasses the young lady working there. I hope you had the same horrified reaction that I had at this poor girl trying to act professionally at someone assaulting her character. But the thing that struck me the most was that the man was actually proud of his accomplishment. He drove up to a complete stranger and called her names. And in his mind he was the good guy?
I want to step back from this moment specifically and draw attention to the really horrible problem: Self-righteousness. In the Gospels, Christ had very gentle words for sinners who came into his presence, but he had loosed his verbal wrath on those who thought themselves holy. Read Matthew 23 and you find a Jesus brimming with anger, so unlike the caricature of mushy, la-la Jesus of much modern spirituality. Christ did not play around when it came to people who thought themselves better than others. It was not because this was his personal pet peeve. It was because self-righteousness is poisonous to the human soul and dehumanizing to others.
There is nothing wrong with being righteous. In fact, we must strive to have the righteousness of saints. There is nothing wrong with fighting for a good cause. Those are the only causes worth fighting for. The mistake occurs when the good of the cause is confused with the good of the person. If I judge that the cause for which I am fighting is right and true, I can easily fall into the trap that fighting for this cause de facto makes me good.
The spiritual problem with self-righteousness is that it blinds you to the truth: you are a sinner. Peter Kreeft once said that there are only 2 kinds of people in the world: Sinners who think they're saints and saints who know they are sinners. The former hold themselves in such high regard while the latter to do not. The saints were wise enough to see that even though they fought on the side of angels, they were not themselves angels. They constantly reflected on their sins and how unworthy they were to be a part of God's work. This caused them to constantly seek God's mercy and forgiveness. And if they acknowledge that they were horrible sinners, they realized that they were in no position to judge others. But the self-righteous cannot turn to God because they cannot see why they need to do so.
I recently went to the doctor for a checkup. I asked them to do blood work to check for things like signs of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. I was not presenting any symptoms, but I knew that I needed to a thorough examination of my health. If I could find even the smallest hint of a serious disease it would be better to attack it when it is not life threatening. When the symptoms present, it may be too late. Praise God that everything came back fine. But I must be vigilant or I could miss something malignant down the road.
What is true of the body is also true of the soul. I have to constantly examine my conscience, my motivations, my righteousness and go see the Divine Physician to cure me. If I do not, if I think that my own shortcomings are “no big deal,” then I will not notice the cancer of sin choking off my soul before it is too late. As AA reminds us, we will not get any better until we realize we have a problem. If I do not acknowledge that I am a sinner, and take this problem very seriously, then I will never get better.
Now you may say that this is all well and good for personal spiritual growth, but what does this have to do with my daily life? Everything.
The second problem with self-righteousness is the dehumanizing effect it has on your “enemies.” When you cast yourself in the role of the hero, all of those who oppose you become the villains. They are the rouges gallery of your life that must have justice served to them. Does Superman kvetch when he throws a bank robber in jail? Of course not. He is the hero, they are the villains. Should Aragorn feel badly about throwing a torch at a Nazgul's face? No, because the Ringwraiths are soulless monsters who should be face-torched. Perhaps I'm being too overly simplistic, but look at that video again. The man looked at this poor young woman and labeled her an enemy who had to be vanquished. I'm sure in his own head he heard the swell of score from The West Wing as he got the better of this heartless harpy who perpetuated the profit of an evil corporation that tacitly encourages hate crimes on gays. He really stuck it to THE MAN! (or in this case a polite employee trying to give him a free water).
How easy is it for us to flip that switch in our heads and say, “The deserve it?” How many of us are fine with torturing someone as long as they are a terrorist with important information? Jack Bauer did some unspeakably immoral things, but he was a hero to many because he was the good guy giving the bad guy what they deserved. How many of us have felt that sweet sting of pleasure when we hear something bad happening to someone we don't like? Why? Because they are bad and they deserve it. And how often do we justify our own bad behavior towards another person because we are on the side of right and they are on the side of sin?
Self-righteousness gives you licensee to treat your fellow human beings like crap. It lets you wrap yourself in an invisible blanket of protection that somehow gives moral immunity from the horrible things you say and do to others, like girls who work at the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. I make no comment here about whether or not the man in the car was right to protest the restaurant. That is not the point. But even if his cause was so spotless as to be beyond reproach, his self-righteousness blinded him to the humanity of his victim. How often that happens in this world! How many of history's greatest crimes have been done for the “greater good?” The man at the drive thru is not atypical. We judge each other so quickly and so often. Even as I write this, I have to fight the temptation to look at this man and enjoy any backlash he receives because "he deserves it." I must remember the words of Hamlet, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"
The thing that scares me the most about self-righteousness is that it closes off the possibility of love. Yes, a moral busybody can say that they are imposing their morality on another because they love the person and only want what is best for them. “It's for your own good.” “This is your wakeup call.” "You'll thank me one day." But you cannot have love AT someone. You have to have love WITH someone. True, love can be unrequited. But it can only given to the person through some kind of relationship. I must truly care about someone as a person before I can love them. But if I paint a picture of you in my mind and color that picture with the broad brush of self-righteousness, then I will never actually see the real you. And if I never get to know the real you, I can never love you.
And isn't that the whole point, in the end? Love takes us out of ourselves and focuses on another. Self-righteousness imprisons us in an ignorant cocoon of egotism. When I see the person who believes things differently than me politically, religiously, or morally do I label them as an enemy that must be defeated? Or do I take a breath, remember that I am probably a much bigger sinner than they are, and try to understand who they are as a person? Can I see them first as a child of God, made in His image?
When someone exalts the righteousness of the self, they turn from the humanity of others and into selfish aggrandizement.
Only by being selfless can we ever hope to make the self righteous.