I have been struggling with the idea of righteousness for the past few days. When does a Biblical sense of righteousness become self-righteousness or a holier-than-thou attitude?
I've been accused, on occasion, of being self-righteous - usually when the person I’m debating disagrees with me. Mind you, I’m not necessarily proud of that and have prayed lately to be able to let things go. It’s not really working yet. In God’s time.
What spurred this inner debate was my attendance at a “Moral Mondays” rally on July 29 in Raleigh, N.C. I'm not from North Carolina, but I was visiting a friend that weekend and he and his mother - an educator - wanted to go.
If you don't know about Moral Mondays, here's a quick breakdown. The North Carolina NAACP, under the leadership of Rev. William Barber, started the protests about three months ago in response to what they considered a regressive, Republican-led, statewide agenda.
It is no doubt a progressive movement, and as I am also a progressive liberal, most of the issues that they are bringing forth are ones with which I agree. For the past 13 weeks, protesters have gathered in downtown Raleigh to rally against restrictive policies concerning voting rights and women's rights, as well as budget cuts in education, healthcare, the environment and unemployment aid. During the rallies, several participants have marched to the General Assembly building and engaged in acts of civil disobedience by refusing to leave when it closed. Those acts have led to nearly 1,000 arrests. During the July 29 event, which was focused on education, the legislators had already gone home for the summer, so the protesters marched to the State Capitol.
The word "moral" isn't something these protestors came up with on a whim - these are interfaith events. On the day I attended, various faiths were represented, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. Prayers abounded from the stage and I looked around to see if everyone had their heads bowed. They didn’t. That’s partly because there were also participants who don't consider themselves to be religious. It makes me wonder where that aspect of morality - that “thirst for righteousness” - comes from if not from a belief in God or a higher power.
When does a Biblical sense of righteousness become self-righteousness or a holier-than-thou attitude?
There is, inherent in all of us, a knowledge of what is right and wrong. We are usually taught from an early age about morality and ethics, particularly from the perspective of our families. It is here, maybe, where this aspect of self-righteousness - at least for me - can often come up. I have a very strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and this comes from a variety of influences. Obviously I learned a lot from my parents, my grandparents and other family members. But I also learned from my Christian faith and community and have a good understanding based on my spiritual gifts of wisdom and discernment.
But the thing is, the way wisdom and discernment look to me - a progressive Christian - may not be what they look like to someone who is fundamental in their beliefs. For example, during the rally I didn't hear much of anything about rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people - at least not on that day. Some would say that it's impossible to reconcile my Christian faith with being an ally to the LGBT community, but somehow that reconciliation exists within me, so it is possible.
And just as some would argue that such reconciliation is impossible, others would argue that morality without faith is empty morality. At the rally, I spoke with Cornelia Barr, a writer from Winston-Salem, N.C. She and her husband David engaged in acts of civil disobedience and were arrested July 14. I asked her where this desire to stand up came from, what was in her that made her feel a moral obligation to participate in these protests.
“I don’t practice a faith, but I grew up with a strong sense that faith communities need to guard the rights of the weakest among us,” she said. “I was taught to volunteer, to reach out to people who have less than me. What’s happening here is that faith in action.”
To me, righteousness is about our relationship with humanity. It means right-standing. That is what the folks who participate in Moral Mondays are doing. They are fighting for what's right for their communities. They are righteousness in action.