There is a shadow side, deep in human kind about ‘righteousness.’ A translation of the Sermon on the Mount for example has Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:9 NRSV) A lovely sentiment but all too often, when I believe that I am right, and you are wrong, then when you disagree with me I may believe that you are persecuting me for “righteousness sake.” And it does not take long for me to start to feel that God must be on my side!
How often we see arguments about ethical issues like abortion or Medical Assistance in Death (MAID) heading down this sad road; both sides believing that they are right and righteous, and God is on my side, and certainly not your side! How often do we see civic society arguments heading in similar directions; “it’s about the economy, stupid”, “religion is just superstition, and if you are religious, you must be an idiot”, “the ecological questions must be answered before the economic questions, and anyone who doesn’t see that is missing the point entirely.” Do you see how my thinking I am “right” can become a terrible weapon?
A challenge it seems to me is in how we see each other. If we disagree, does that make me less than human? Do all disagreements need to become verbally violent? The moment we use verbally violent language like “stupid”, “idiot”, or “missing the point”, we see the other person as less than us, and they are more likely to either try to top us as villain, or react as a victim, and strike back.
A way of thinking about “righteousness” is to see it not as my being right, or you being right, rather, to see it as the common good. To see it as we are both on a journey to uncovering truth, uncovering the greatest good for all concerned. I may disagree with you, but that does not mean I cannot respect and care for you.
The playwright William Saroyan in the preface to his play The Time of Your Life wrote, “[b]e the inferior of no [person], or of any [people] be superior. Remember that every [person] is a variation of yourself. No [one]'s guilt is not yours, nor is any [one]'s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not[ people] of ungodliness or evil. These, understand.”
The power here, for me, is that by practicing this ethic, ‘loving neighbor as self’, or in Saroyan’s words, ‘remember every person is a variation of yourself, working hard to bring it into my daily life, bit by bit, I can more likely respond to people with whom I disagree, seeing them as fellow travelers on the way. It is difficult work, but it is the best way forward to all of us.
Alisdair Smith is Deacon and Business Chaplain at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver BC.
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE