Pharisees, Tax Collectors, and the Politics of Self-Righteousness

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These days it doesn’t take much to notice the polarization and disintegration of discourse in the public square. Far more difficult is the task of identifying the root causes of our political divisions. What are the spiritual and moral dynamics lying behind the dismemberment of our body politic and, all too often, of the Body of Christ?  

Some have observed just how much fear has flooded the American imagination. Scaremongering, as a result, has become an unusually effective electoral tool. But, as Marilynn Robinson has urged us to remember, followers of Christ would do well to remember that despite how warranted it may feel in the moment, “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” 

Others have pointed out our collective struggle with anger. “Outrage” is all the rage. Our Christian forebears listed this vice among the Seven Deadly Sins, albeit by a different name: Wrath. American politics reek of wrath. Earlier this year, Damon Linker, senior correspondent at The Week, offered this insightful commentary on America’s addiction to “the politics of rage”: 

Each side considers the positions embraced by the other to be not just foolhardy or ill-advised but fundamentally unjust (“just plain wrong”) and therefore beyond politics, beyond negotiation, beyond compromise or accommodation, and so also worthy of indignation and denunciation.

Linker identifies our primary struggle as one of anger. In my view, he’s actually putting his finger on something closely related yet categorically distinct — a vice that may be morally “upstream” from anger. It’s what ties political rage to what’s right and “just plain wrong.” It’s what establishes the perceived “worthiness” of one’s indignation, transforming anger into a political virtue. 

I’m referring to self-righteousness. Allow me to wonder aloud: Have American Christians succumbed to a politics of self-righteousness? 

Each side considers the positions embraced by the other to be not just foolhardy or ill-advised but fundamentally unjust (“just plain wrong”) and therefore beyond politics, beyond negotiation, beyond compromise or accommodation, and so also worthy of indignation and denunciation.

What is Self-Righteousness?  

Jesus vividly illustrates the nature of self-righteousness in Luke 18:9-14. He tells a parable. Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. They represent two different “lifestyles,” two vastly different locations on the moral spectrum in ancient Jewish society. They also represented different political tribes. One resisted Roman occupation and law; the other was an agent of the Empire. One rejected the influence of the culture; the other more or less embraced it. We overhear each of their prayers. The Pharisee preens with pride; the tax collector pleads for mercy. Their words reveal their hearts. Of course they do: “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). 

Now Jesus was directing this story to “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (v. 9). This statement teaches us two things. First, self-righteousness is being “confident of your own righteousness.” It is not only the exaggerated certainty that you are right; it is also the certainty that the reasons for your rightness are located in yourself — your (political) choices, your (political) knowledge and intellect, your (political) affiliations, your moral ability, and so on. As a result, second, self-righteousness causes you to measure yourself against others in such a way that you’re always “looking down on everyone else.” If I’m right, you must be wrong. I’m superior; you’re inferior. 

These two strands of self-righteousness are linked together in the heart. When our basic identity (our life’s “confidence”) is rooted in ourselves, our hearts are essentially unstable and insecure. We’ll do anything to fortify our self-image, including tearing down the public image of — and the image of God in — others. That’s why the self-righteous heart is always condemning. It’s never satisfied with being “right”; it also always needs to prove that others are wrong. It is “good at denouncing things.” That’s how Judy Wu Dominick described her former self in a wise and powerful article about her journey through the challenges of loving political enemies. At another point in the article, she also acknowledges: “I didn’t want to admit that I’d had fallen under the spell of self-righteousness. Much had changed inside me, and yet I still considered certain people deserving of scorn, suppression, or expulsion.”

The root of this pattern is idolatry, the human heart’s dark art of “turning a good thing into an ultimate thing” (Keller). That distorted “good thing” might be my material possessions, career, or relationships. It can also be my political point of view or party. Fearnervously anticipates the loss of my idol. Anger explodes when something blocks me from serving (or being served by) my idol. But self-righteousness boasts that I have served my idol better than you have. Put another way, self-righteousness is always full of self-congratulation, on the one hand, and comparison and condemnation, on the other. 

I think Steve Almond offered good insight into the nature of self-righteousness, as well as its relationship to political anger, when he wrote the following in the New York Times Magazine several years ago: 

Rather than taking up the banner and the burden of the causes I believe in, or questioning my own consumptive habits, I’ve come to rely on private moments of indignation for moral vindication. I fume at the iniquity of Pundit A and laugh at the hypocrisy of Candidate B and feel absolved — without ever having left my couch. It’s a closed system of scorn and self-congratulation.

That’s it. Political self-righteousness is “a closed system of scorn and self-congratulation.” 

That’s it. Political self-righteousness is “a closed system of scorn and self-congratulation.” 

The Pharisee: A Portrait of Self-Righteousness 

But what exactly does it look or sound like in political discourse? The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (v. 11) Consider all the ways this prayer illustrates how self-righteousness rears its ugly head in our words and actions: 

1.    Religious humble-bragging. The most insidious (and irritating) form of humble-bragging is religious humble-bragging, that is, self-congratulation camouflaged as prayer or proof-text. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—those … progressives … Republicans … white evangelicals … abortionists … racists and misogynists … unbelievers … politically indifferent ignoramuses ….”

2.   Publicizing rightness. Never mind that an ornery tweet is usually the full extent of my “righteous” action, self-righteousness loves to rehearse all that I’ve done for a cause (how I voted, what I’ve done to help, etc.) and all the ways I’m right about it. “Why can’t more people be like me” is the exasperated subtext to these declarations. We might not boast about fasting twice a week or tithing (v. 12), but “I give to the poor,” “I volunteer at the pregnancy center,” “I pray for refugees,” “I …[fill in the blank].” The degree to which we do this is embarrassing. It’s childish. 

3.   Moral blindness. Relatedly, there’s a kind of blindness that accompanies self-righteousness. When you grade yourself on a curve, the only marks you tend to notice are the ones the other person is missing. The Pharisee rattles off gross, visible, behavioral sins (theft, evildoing, adultery), but he’s inattentive to matters of the heart — and to his own heart. Covetousness, for example, doesn’t make his list. Neither does divisiveness. Or anger. Political self-righteousness always rationalizes wretched character and sins of the heart in the name of public justice. My insulting rhetoric serves the greater good. 

[T]here’s a kind of blindness that accompanies self-righteousness. When you grade yourself on a curve, the only marks you tend to notice are the ones the other person is missing.

4.   Caricature-making. We already noted how the nature of self-righteousness is to compare and condemn.Notice how the Pharisee places the tax collector at the extreme end of his line-up of bad guys: “robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (emphasis added). And so, like a street artist at a carnival, the self-righteous heart creates a caricature of its opponents, exaggerating their every flaw and misstep. Self-righteousness refuses to give political adversaries the benefit of the doubt (1 Cor. 13:5-7), only offers the worst reading of their words, and only attributes to them the worst possible motives. The self-righteous heart never admits it’s wrong (because it isn’t), never misses the opportunity to point out where others are wrong (because it must), and never truly listens to, let alone empathizes with, the other side (because they’re, well, wrong). When I’m at my most self-righteous, I’m quick to demonize and dehumanize my opponents in order to enhance my self-image. It motivates me to define myself by the failures of others, and therefore, to celebrate those failures. Is it any surprise, then, that self-righteousness renders us powerless to love our political enemies? 

5.    Self-Deception. Jesus’ original audience would have expected the Pharisee to be the good guy, but the master storyteller turns the tables. They would’ve been surprised; we’re led to believe the fictional Pharisee himself would’ve been stunned, too. Jesus is teaching us a crucial lesson: Self-righteousness is deceptive. It typically looks and feels morally laudable. Make no mistake: Self-righteousness is most dangerous not when you’re wrong but when you’re right. And it’s precisely this smug, moral certitude that spawns political outrage (“If I can get this right, how can these inferior people be so wrong!”) and then cements and justifies that outrage (“I am right to be indignant. And if I am right, then how can I be wrong?”). Undetected and untreated, self-righteousness becomes a habit of the heart. 

Undetected and untreated, self-righteousness becomes a habit of the heart. 

And yet, for all its power to divide us, here’s the real danger of self-righteousness: Not simply that it alienates us from one another, but that it alienates us from God. Who “went home justified before God” (v. 14)? The tax collector, not the Pharisee. The self-righteous soul is a soul in danger. 

The Tax Collector: An Alternative 

Is there hope for self-righteous hearts like ours? What’s the antidote?

Notice how the tax collector, in stark contrast to the Pharisee, was desperate for God’s mercy and emptied of all self-congratulation and illusion of personal righteousness. He “would not even look up to heaven,” we’re told in v. 13, “but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” We’re told that it was he, not the Pharisee, who went home “righteous” in God’s sight (v. 14). 

This parable invites us to die to our need to be right and to find our ultimate “rightness” in something outside ourselves — to ground our life’s “confidence” (v. 9) in Someone besides ourselves. This is deeply humbling. In other words, the only lasting antidote to the poison of self-righteousness is the gift of Christ’s righteousness credited to us through faith in him (see Phil. 3:8-9). 

[T]he only lasting antidote to the poison of self-righteousness is the gift of Christ’s righteousness credited to us through faith in him

Which isn’t to say that Christians are the only people who can exercise a measure of civic humility, but it is to say that Christians ought to be the least self-righteous of all people in the public square. Jesus calls us to be those who “humble themselves” (v. 14), yes, even in politics. But this humility isn’t the equivalent of political spinelessness. It doesn’t mean refusing to hold robust convictions, engage in political debate, or speak with moral clarity. Rather, it means making some version of the tax collector’s prayer the honest meditation of our hearts, and, whenever possible, the public confession of our lips: 

God, have mercy on me, I think I’m right on this issue, but I know I have many blind spots — reveal them to me. Have mercy on me, a political fool apart from the wisdom of God. Have mercy on me, I’m prone to wander toward partisan arrogance, self-centeredness, and tribalism. Have mercy on me, I’m more complicit in the public evils I condemn than I dare to admit. Have mercy on me, I was not listening to you — I tend to quickly dismiss those with whom I disagree. Have mercy on me, I’m more self-righteous than I want to believe.

Jesus was leading the members of his audience to discover in the tax collector, their moral and political adversary, an unexpected hero. Freshly humbled by the riches of God’s grace, we too might begin to discover something commendable — a formerly unrecognized “rightness” or an unexpected sort of moral heroism, perhaps — in even our worst political enemies. The antidote to that ugly, poisonous confidence in your own righteousness (v. 9) is your growing confidence that no one out there is a bigger debtor to mercy than you (1 Tim. 1:15-16). After all, it’s impossible to love someone you disagree when you secretly believe they need Jesus more than you do. 

Duke Kwon (M.Div., Th.M., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the Lead Pastor of Grace Meridian Hill, a congregation in the GraceDC Network located in the District of Columbia. He lives and ministers in the Columbia Heights neighborhood with his wife Paula and their three children.