Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Dangerous Politics of Pride

(This is all that politicians should be allowed to say until one month before the election.)
I'm going to write a little bit about politics today--or, more to the point, about politicians--not because I'm terribly interested in the election circus which we in this country allow to drag on to a truly nauseating duration, but because politicians offer us a glimpse of certain aspects of our American culture that are worth rethinking. In my circle of evangelical Christianity, there tends to be a good deal of political activism, all of it well-intentioned and much of it sensible. Some moral issues, like the fight against abortion, are of such grave importance as to validate using as much of the political machinery as we can employ. However, though I try to practice my political privileges as a citizen with diligence and thoughtfulness, I wouldn't say I'm quite as much of an activist as some of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Part of the reason for this is because of temperament, and part of it is theological perspective--I tend not to get quite so worried as some do by the current state of political affairs. Why not? I recognize that most of the people we elect are bright, hard workers, most of them trying be good public servants, and very few, despite what you may hear, are insidious despots fixated on the ruination of our republic. Further, though I love my country deeply, I'm not among those Christians that regard the USA as God's last best hope for the world (I rather think Christ and his Kingdom fills that role remarkably well), and so even the distant prospect of the fall of our country, though something that would grieve me tremendously, does not for an instant make me worry about the ultimate fate of the things that truly matter.

However, even old stoics like me, who are stolid and composed in the face of the vagaries of our hyperactive political scene, can, on rare occasions, become truly alarmed by what we see there. Amid the current crop of presidential
("The Demagogue," José Clemente Orozco, 1946; public domain)
hopefuls, we've had a number of stories about some of them (I won't name any names) who make headlines far more often for their displays of crudity, barbarism, and self-absorption than for any program of political substance. Such people are out there, I know, but until recently they've been largely confined to their natural habitat of tabloid newspapers and reality TV shows, a surrealistic fantasy-world where they can be easily ignored. The truly alarming thing is that these tactics are now actually succeeding on the political stage, and, even more alarming, pulling in their wake a broad following even from among the Christian voting populace. 


Now, obviously, the main reason that such politicians are gaining a following is that they say things that tap into the deeply-held grievances of certain people against recent government policies. However, from a traditional Christian perspective, it's worth saying that such politicians openly display the single most dangerous vice of all: pride. What?! Is pride a vice? In our current speech, it has become of a virtue--"pride" has become a synonym for confidence and healthy self-esteem.
(From a print of the seven deadly sins, France, c.1621)
That's not the way the Christian tradition looks at pride, though--pride is the natural self-centeredness of the fallen human condition, which, when left untreated by the radical and humbling grace of Christ, leaves people "turned in upon themselves," narrow and blind, unable to truly see God or others for who they really are. Pride is the ultimate sin, because it is the sin of Satan himself. And it is truly worrisome to see politicians who are quite obviously consumed by pride--in the traditional Christian sense of the word--now gaining a following among Christians. Now, to be fair, I suppose most politicians would need to have a slight dose of narcissism in order to submit themselves to the unending flagellations of our political media, just in order to have the world's most stressful job. But some of our current crop of candidates are so far down that road that they are quite probably diagnosable with severe cases of narcissistic personality disorder. To any thoughtful Christian, regardless of how much of what such a candidate says about the current administration's policies might be exactly what they want to hear, such a character-trait ought to be the biggest of red flags. If we believe that "personal character" really matters in our political candidates, then we have to remind ourselves that, according to the ancient Christian tradition, this particular character-flaw--pride--is the most dangerous failing of all. Yes, that's right--more dangerous than all the other things that we bemoan in our feckless and venal politicians--the sexual sins, the lying, the persistent hypocrisy--no, pride, according to the church fathers, is the most dangerous thing of all.


Why would pride be so dangerous, when it seems to be so common? For the very sensible reason that it is the mother of all other vices. Whatever moral downfall you might think of--greed, violence, concupiscence, or a thousand others--they all begin with a rank self-centeredness that make them possible. Therefore, of all the vices, pride is the one that most requires our careful attention.

("Three Camaldolite Monks at Prayer," Alessandro Magnasco, 1714)
But this is no easy task. Pride is so basic to us, a cancer so widely metastasized throughout our nature, that it requires the most radical of surgeries to excise it and attain humility. Further, that goal--gaining true humility--is not quite what our culture perceives it to be today. We now view "humility" as simply a sort of polite deference, an aw-shucks refusal to hog the spotlight. But to the ancient Christian tradition, "humility" was something more along the lines of complete self-abnegation. It was the lifelong journey of taking ourselves completely off of the throne of our hearts, so that Christ could reign there instead. It is built up by hard habits of discipline, habits that chasten the wild defector inside of us, always ready to usurp that throne again. What kind of habits am I talking about? The leaders of the early church advised Christians to do things that sound almost off-the-wall to us Americans today. Not only are we called to not hog the spotlight for ourselves, we are told to consider others as being better than ourselves (a philosophy that goes all the way back to the Apostle Paul); to weep in repentance--literally weep--over our sinful state; to submit yourself completely to the authority of a spiritual father or mother, and to obey them without complaint even when you think they are wrong; to confess your sins openly to others around you; to be silent and not speak in your own defense, especially when others are talking poorly of you (this even applies when what they are saying about you is patently false). These things may sound strange to us, who are raised on a philosophical diet of self-esteem and personal independence, but they are found everywhere in the writings of the first thousand years of Christianity. Not only did many in the early church advise such ridiculously difficult and counter-intuitive practices, they actually sought to carry them out. Anyone joining a devoted religious order would be expected to learn and practice these kinds of habits. Why? Because the battle against pride was seen as the most important goal of the Christian life--it is the war in which we are called to deliver over the contested battlefields of our very beings into the dominion of Christ's Kingdom. We modern Christians have forgotten this, and so we allow pride to rest unchallenged in our hearts, bearing bitter fruits in our personal lives in anger, frustration, and despair (reactions which, though common, often give evidence of underlying pride), greed and lust and gluttony, and a quickness to take personal offense and to hold fast to our own opinions even when it endangers the unity of the Body of Christ.

Those habits of the early Christian saints are the sorts of habits that build true humility, and they are agonizingly hard to accomplish. If you want a real challenge in life, if you want to accomplish something immeasurably more difficult and more momentous than amassing billions of dollars or becoming president of the United States, then try learning true humility. That is a rare accomplishment, but it is something that is desperately needed in our day. 

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