Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Dangers of Righteousness

Righteousness, especially when it turns indignant, can cause as much harm as the evil it opposes. Just think of Prohibition, that bonanza to bootleggers, and midwife of an empowered Mafia. 

Perhaps this is why St. Paul was so suspicious of it. His own righteous zeal had led him into the persecution and even outright lynching of the early Christians he later joined in a dramatic about-face. He insisted that contrasting your good points with your opponents bad points breeds blindness. Humility is the beginning of greater clear-sightedness. 

I was reminded of the the perils of righteousness this morning when I read about an Israeli documentary (photo above) rejected by a Norwegian film festival simply because it was by an Israeli filmmaker. The documentary, about disabled children, ran afoul of a “righteousness aura” growing up around the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Even the Palestinian founder of the B.D.S. movement says that “mere affiliation of Israeli cultural workers to an Israeli cultural institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.”  (1) 

Beware the Polarizing Brain

When righteousness gets up a head of steam, however, such fine distinctions cease to matter, because inflamed righteousness rejoices in simplistic thinking and polarizing stereotypes. Undocumented Mexicans are Trumpeted as “rapists, murderers and thieves,” a government-regulated health care plan is “socialist,” and anyone who opposes gay marriage is an ignorant fool. Inflamed righteousness is an equal opportunity virus, attacking liberals and conservatives of a particular stripe equally. (2)

Such righteousness actually holds us back from its more mature cousin, love of the Good. “Righteousness” so easily becomes about me, and puts me against all those who, because they seem devoted to some other good (or god) are unrighteous (or ignorant, wicked, lesser). Worse yet, I am so easily blinded to the ways I myself am ignorant, or wicked, or participate in policies that foster oppression or destruction. 

So, St. Paul challenges his Greek listeners to come off the high perch of their righteous sense of their own “wisdom” — their intellectual and cultural superiority — which leads them to label all other cultures, including the Jewish, “barbarian,” lesser, just not “enlightened.” And he challenges his Jewish listeners to let go of their stance of superior moral conduct and denigration of outsiders as morally inferior. Greeks can be stupid and Jews immoral, so get over it. “All have sinned and fallen short” (Romans 3:23).

Humility before human complexity and contradiction 

This is not, as is so often assumed, a wholesale condemnation of human nature, but a call to realistic humility in the face of our own complexity and the equally mixed nature of those we may disagree with. When we do that, we have a greater chance of wrestling with complex issues of good and evil with less heat, self-righteousness, blame and blindness.

True love of the Good means growing skill in discerning the good—as in seeing the good in a documentary about helping disabled kids by an Israeli “tainted” only by being an Israeli and therefore inevitably complicit as a citizen in his country’s mistakes and sins. Or seeing the good in one's opponent—unlike the good Norwegian film festival organizers, who are surely exempt from any sins and mistakes in their own country’s growing crisis over Muslim immigrants, touted by conservatives there as a “crime and rape crisis.” (3)

Sounds all too familiar.


2. For a full treatment of this phenomenon see Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind, available at