Moral superiority is not a virtue, at least not in the church. It’s an ugly attitude, uglier still when it’s used as a weapon to destroy fellow human beings. Roman pagans killed first century saints for getting the wrong religion. Nazis did it to European Jews for getting the wrong DNA. Klan members did it to black American males for getting uppity. Who’s more evil: the mobs who march with their torches and pitchforks, or the passive neighbors who hide in their living rooms refusing to hear the wails from packed rail cars headed for Auschwitz and the screams of victims unjustly marked for death?
Today we find ourselves in another moment of national hysteria. People are called out for private offenses and comments dredged up from decades in the past. It’s not enough to be tried in the press without the benefit of judges or juries; they must be sacked, fired, or otherwise destroyed, or the corporations who employ them will be boycotted, slandered, and ruined. Individuals are publicly shamed and shunned because they associate with one political party or another. No, it’s not the same thing as burning Christians, gassing Jews, or lynching black men, but it’s the same kind of arrogance that led to those appalling crimes.
This seems like a critical moment for the church to rise to the ethos of the Gospel. Read the Bible and you discover ancient saints did not behave like the Morality Police because they didn’t feel qualified:
- The man who wrote most of the New Testament confessed that he was the worst of sinners; that all his religious accomplishments before Christ had been like dung. And he didn’t say “I was the worst sinner.” He wrote, “I am chief of sinners.”1
- Scripture insists the common ground where all of us meet Jesus is the shared tragedy of moral and spiritual failure.2
- The New Testament warns us to correct our fallen brothers with gentleness and respect, fully aware we are tempted by the same forces, the same depravity.3
- 1 Corinthians 10:12 urges a sober evaluation of self: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”
- And of course, everyone knows that pride comes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. 4
As a follower of Christ, I know far more about my own sinful attitudes and wrongful actions than I do about the moral failures of my neighbors. I am painfully aware that after decades of life in the Kingdom, I can still be tripped up my own self righteousness and feelings of superiority. I rebuke myself whenever I find myself analyzing the motives of others, holding people up to standards I don’t apply to myself, offering some bland word of praise so that I can follow up with “constructive” criticism. That sin continually lounges too comfortably at my door.
I find the same problem that leads me to judge others unfairly also leads to polite praying rather than desperate, ongoing crying out to the Almighty: I live under the illusion I’m a pretty decent guy. I don’t need as much help as those depraved sinners next door. Of course, that’s a lie straight from Hell.
It’s probably an opportune moment for those of us in the church to talk more about our own bad behaviors and moral failures, and less about the latest icon being toppled. On one hand, that would make us more inclined to pray and seek the grace of God. And on the other hand, it might give us a more compelling platform for occasionally saying aloud, “Let’s be very cautious about condemning others too quickly. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
None of us should have any qualms about criminals and lawbreakers receiving justice. Rapists should go to prison. Men who use corporate or political power to demand sexual favors from female employees should lose their jobs. Racists who trample upon the law to injure people of a different skin color should be prosecuted and punished. And priests who have molested children should be arrested, tried and incarcerated. But there are courts and other institutions where justice can be calmly discussed and legally dispensed. Witch hunts are always tragic and shameful no matter who the witches seem to be at the moment.
For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s a universal truth that demonstrates the grace, compassion, and power of God in Christ. It also calls for some humility and a reluctance to gleefully pounce upon the fallen; people like me… like you.
Lift up the Cross!