November 12, 2018 | pride | 1 Comment
Most of us think we are better than most of us. As a consequence, we are sometimes tempted to advertise our moral superiority through public expression. This is known as “moral grandstanding”. There’s nothing wrong with issuing public moral pronouncements; it’s not merely a right, but sometimes a duty. The issue here is motive. It is grandstanding when the main motive is to flaunt our virtue. (With human behavior, usually more than one motive is in play).
One of the many drawbacks of moral grandstanding is that it can lead to “ramping up.” If a conversation partner makes a moral statement that is equally virtuous to our own position, pride may push us to a more extreme position in order to maintain our own moral superiority. Ramping up is one of many prideful behaviors that contribute to extreme polarization on issues.
Both moral grandstanding and ramping up are pervasive in social and political spheres. It is often referred to as "virtue signalling" but that expression is a misnomer with a life of its own. This is not an invitation to point fingers. When we accuse specific people of moral grandstanding, we cross a line. We can't know the sincerity of their motive. It's like accusing a person of lying, when for all we know they may actually believe what they're saying. In the broader social context though, we can identify it, criticize it, ignore it, but especially avoid doing it.
Naturally, being the spiritual people we are, none of us would stoop to moral grandstanding, would we? Christians wouldn’t try to outdo one another in their spirituality, would they?
The “Dilbert” comic strip by Scott Adams features an intermittent character named “Topper”. Topper has a single distinguishing trait: whenever any other character makes a statement in his presence, he must counter with a competing claim that is more impressive. It’s always something outrageous, or it wouldn’t be funny. But the point of satire is to poke fun at things real people do. Have you ever played Christian Topper? It goes like this:
Sam: How was your trip?
Loretta: What a blessing! We were in Haiti for two weeks.
Topper: I spent 37 years in Borneo living off grass and beetles!
Loretta: We did get a stomach bug. I lost 3 pounds.
Topper: I survived malaria, dengue fever, Zika, and Ebola!
Loretta: But we prayed for a quick recovery and were soon back on our feet.
Topper: I was eaten by cannibals and prayed my way back to life!
Or closer to home:
Bob: We watched “Harry Potter” last night and had a good conversation with our kids this morning about the themes of courage and sacrifice.
Leah: We won’t let our kids watch “Harry Potter”. Didn’t you know that because of those stories millions of Christian kids turned to Satanism?
Topper: I’ve never watched a movie my entire life! In fact, I walk everywhere with my eyes shut so I can’t even see an advertisement!
Now, most Christians who eschewed the Harry Potter franchise probably were quite sincere in their belief that it was harmful (even if a disturbing number fell for the hoax about witchcraft and Satanism, mistaking parody for fact). Making a public display over it is more problematic. Moral grandstanding comes so naturally to us, it can be unconscious and quite unintentional.
Christians play this game even with the Bible. At one extreme some compete to see how simplistically they can interpret it without hitting 10 on the nuttiness scale. (Snakes, anyone?) At the other extreme they compete to see how much of the Bible they can jettison and still pretend to be Christian. It’s hard to grandstand from inside the mainstream where no one notices or pays much attention to you. Unfortunately, if enough people jump in, the ramping up effect can either move the mainstream, split it, or (usually) both.
Jesus knew moral grandstanding when he saw it, and warned his disciples:
"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly." (Matthew 6:1-4, NKJV)
We play Christian Topper with an endless list of theological and moral issues, but it’s a poor Christian witness. Better we follow the admonition of our Lord and let our character speak - softly:
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16 NKJV).
Excerpted from the upcoming book "Superbia" by Steven Willing, MD