On Not Being Self-Righteous about Not Being Self-Righteous
As a gay Christian I care about gay marriage and inclusion. But as story after story hits my media feeds, I feel a twinge of nausea and punch the scroll button. So many of them are fueled by self-righteousness. I’ve been as self-righteousness as anyone. But I’m realizing it rots my soul and I want to do better. An article like this could be an exercise in “I’m not self-righteous like those other people. See how righteous I am!” But I want to get beyond that. How might that be possible?
In my life there are at least two things that fuel self-righteousness. The first is the desire to cover up my own sense of inadequacy. Growing up gay in a conservative religious environment, I thought I that if people knew me they would find me repulsive. I medicated that with the drug of self-righteousness. In high school for example, I went to a pro-life campaign which inspired me to produce an anti-abortion multi-media presentation. In a couple of classes, I argued that life begins at conception and showed pictures of aborted fetuses.
I eventually became uncomfortable with that. It wasn’t that I changed my mind about abortion, but I realized that I was a gay, closeted, virgin telling others to repent of something that was not a temptation for me. I was acting out of my own ego needs more than I was out of a care for the unborn or other people. I began to wonder, are there things in my life I need to repent of? And if I do that, might that example encourage others toward God as well?
While I’m mostly over my self-loathing for being gay, I still struggle with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. It is tempting to medicate those feeling by using self-righteousness to tell myself that at least I’m superior to “those other people.” But like any drug, it doesn’t last for long and it doesn’t heal the underlying feelings. I’m learning that I’ve got to feel the difficult feelings, give them to God and find my identity in God’s love. Only then do the feelings begin to subside permanently.
A second reason I tend towards self-righteousness is more subtle. It’s that I’m afraid of dying. Ernest Becker convinced me of this in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death. He observes that we are gods with anuses. We are like God in that we can contemplate eternity with our minds, but every time we make a pile, we are reminded that we live in animal bodies that are going to die and putrefy. What Becker convincingly demonstrates is that we humans use symbolic ways of overcoming this dilemma. One of the most common is to think ourselves superior to others, and thus deserving of eternal life.
Happily, God has given us eternal life and therefore we don’t need to play superiority games. The question becomes, do I relax into God’s hands, trusting that God’s got me? Or, do I continue to practice religion games, in which I trust my own efforts to make myself better than others, and thus deserving of eternal life? As I get older, my anxiety about death is increasing. So, somewhat counter-intuitively, when I find myself rehearsing to myself how bad another person is, or how irritating “that group” is, I tell myself, “Tim, yes you are gonna die and this is an occasion to trust God.” It helps.
None of this means that the stakes aren’t high in the controversy over gay marriage and inclusion. But I suspect that just like me, people on the other side of the issue are allergic to any self-righteousness on my part. It doesn’t convince them; it repels them. They rightly sense that I’m operating more out of my own ego needs than a love for truth and people. So for me the debate becomes a kind of spiritual exercise. Can I repent of self-righteousness and invite others to do the same? If we do, I have hope that in the resulting humble, open space, the Spirit might show up and lead us all into greater truth.