SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS AND SELF-RESPECT

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“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Luke 18:9-14

One of the many things that appalls me about the current presidential race for the White House is the total lack of respect for people in debate, the media and on the street.  This happens everywhere and all the time, but Donald Trump’s campaign has made contempt for everyone who is different from himself and his followers a trade mark.  This has long been the norm in the political arena world-wide; it is also a source of violent conflict.  The sad truth is that through the centuries and still today many nations  have decided that they have to have enemies in order to be themselves.  Their identity is shaped by those they don’t like, those they hate, those they must defeat, those they must if need be, kill.  Enemies it seems too often are necessary in order to assert one’s own identity.  Umberto Eco, the Italian author who died recently, had this to say:  “In Italy today, Romanians are being portrayed as the enemy by extending to a whole culture the characteristics of a few of its marginalized members, thus providing an ideal scapegoat for a society that, caught up in change…is no longer able to recognise itself.”  

But is this not true of all of us to some extent?  We assert who we are by disrespecting or  even making enemies out of others.  We learn to do this when we are young; it happens all the time on school playgrounds!  But it is a sign of immaturity whether there or later in life, a  display our own lack of self-worth.  Throughout life we project onto others precisely those things we don’t like about ourselves, as parents do when they get angry with their children. Our inability to relate to others who are different and disagree with us, can even be a symptom of self-hatred.  For if we truly respect ourselves as human beings, we will respect the dignity of others as well.  That is what we have to learn as we grow up, but often don’t.

Treating others with contempt, Jesus says, is also a sign of self-righteousness.  Self-righteousness is the opposite of self-respect.  When we are self-righteous we exalt ourselves and our status because we actually feel inadequate and put on an arrogant front.  I know some people in leadership positions in churches who are just like that. The same is true of others who are in positions of authority in other walks of life most notoriously in the police force and military across the world.  Officers too often demand respect, but they have little respect for others.  So it is not surprising that those in authority are sometimes not respected; they have lost respect.  People in authority have to earn respect and not just be respected because of their office.  But this does not mean that  we treat them with contempt.  The fact that your cause is just, does not give you a licence to be self-righteous and arrogant.  Self-righteous politicians, self-righteous priests and pastors, self-righteous academics or students, self-righteous police, self-righteous racists are part of the problem, not part of the solution to our social ills. 

Self-respect is different.  When people who are downtrodden fight for justice; when the poor protest, when those who have been unjustly treated stand up for their rights, they are not normally being self-righteous, they are asserting their self-respect.  Being humble, which is the opposite of being arrogant, does not mean crumbling before unjust authority, it does not mean stopping fighting for human rights,  and it does not mean losing respect for who you are, surrendering your dignity as a human being.   Our model of humility is Jesus who took a stand for the poor and oppressed, and challenged the pharisees, even calling them hypocrites. But this was never for self-gain, this was never in order to exalt himself.  It was for the sake of challenging them to change their ways, to become more truly human, to regain their self-respect  and recover  their dignity so that they would respect others. It was, in short, for the sake of their salvation not damnation.

But even if the cause we defend is just, it is not a licence for arrogance or contempt of the other.  I happen to support the cause of the protesting students, but I abhor the violence which disrespects the rights of others, and the disrespect some students have shown towards some university Vice-Chancellors.  Such disrespect not only undermines their cause, it also hinders the building of a just society because it polarises people, it creates enemies. This is true in every walk of life.  If husband and wife lose respect for each other, their marriage is heading for the rocks.  If children and parents lose respect for each other, the family is becoming dysfunctional; if sportsmen and women lose respect for their opponents, sport has lost its soul; if academics lose respect for students, and students for lecturers and professors, a university cannot function; if priests and pastors lose respect for their congregations and parishioners, and vice-versa, churches fail; and if politicians lose respect for their opponents,  or police for citizens, countries start to fall apart. 

Surely respect for the other and avoiding arrogance are values all human beings can strive for as human beings even if politics cannot always be conducted on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount.  But for the church and Christians to really be the salt of the earth we have no alternative than to go the second mile and also learn to love our enemies. You have heard that it was said “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)

John de Gruchy

An edited version of my Volmoed meditation  27 October 2016

 

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