Self-righteousness can be a crippling disease. We saw self-righteousness on full display this week when one Senator after another tried to trip up Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson with their arrogant and aggressive questions. Except, for the most part, they weren’t questions at all; rather, they were opportunities for the inquisitors to demonstrate their version of moral, religious and political rectitude. The only response that would satisfy them was for Judge Jackson to give them what they wanted to hear. To confirm their being right.
While a good deal of the hearings was cringeworthy, if not shameful, nevertheless there was no small measure of grace that showed up during the proceedings. It was first visible in the poise and intellectual acuity of Judge Jackson herself; and second, the self-righteousness didn’t work. It boomeranged back on those Senators who were steeped in it; their aggression exposed them as petty and vengeful lawmakers; (except, of course, for their political base which cheered on their verbal assaults.)
Self-righteousness is not a disease that only afflicts people of a certain political persuasion. Self-righteousness was also on display during the confirmation hearings of the three previous Supreme Court nominees – Amy Coney Barret, Bret Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch (all of which happened in the last five years). Each of them espoused a different legal philosophy from Judge Jackson, and so the Senators who grilled them came from the other side of the aisle. In my memory, their interrogations weren’t as caustic as what we saw last week, but the self-righteousness was still hard to miss.
We are now living in a society in which self-righteousness is promoted at every turn. The Supreme Court hearings were merely a manifestation of how disabling, if not crippling, self-righteousness has become. At its core, self-righteousness reflects a need to be right —and there is an endless stream of voices and forces that try and corral people into their particular silo of rightness. Their come-ons are hard to resist, especially when we feel vulnerable or scared. Self-righteousness is a disease of needing to be right. It proposes to seal us off from vulnerability or fear. And conversely, depending on the severity of the disease, self-righteousness carries with it a mild or fierce resistance to being shown, told or exposed to being wrong.
Most people know the arc of the story of the Prodigal Son, as described in Luke’s Gospel (and which was read in many Christian churches this past weekend). Most of the attention in the story is paid to the younger son who returns in abject humiliation after he squanders his inheritance in “loose living.” His father welcomes him back, no questions asked, and prepares a feast for his prodigal son upon his return. What is often overlooked in the story is the attitude of the older son, who has been dutiful and faithful – and who is furious at the attention and love showered on his younger brother, who he thinks doesn’t deserve it. The older brother frames his world view from the perspective of self-righteousness. While the younger brother, the prodigal, eventually turns back to his father, painfully aware of his self-destructive behavior – and his father turns to his son, out of love and compassion, the older brother doesn’t turn. He is crippled in his self-righteousness. He is stuck.
The disease of self-righteousness is on the rise in this country. It is disabling because, like the older brother in the Gospel story, it leaves us stuck. Unwilling, or in some cases, unable to turn. Unable to see things differently. The challenge is for us to own our vulnerability and fear, and recognize not that we are necessarily wrong – but we are not as right as we think. And to turn toward compassion and mercy.