When I was in high school, I really did not like most people who lived in the suburbs or even near them. I lived in the city, my family lived on public assistance, and I went to a public high school with an open enrollment policy that meant anyone in the school district could attend. About 10 years before my time, the city had made a serious effort to revitalize the school and strengthen the quality of its education, and it had paid off. It was a well-respected school with a strong emphasis on writing, the humanities, and college preparation. So the school attracted students from all over the city, including many who didn’t technically live in the suburbs, but who didn’t seem like legitimate city dwellers to me. Some of them lived in wealthy urban neighborhoods; others lived on the city’s edges in modest tract houses that seemed like luxury homes compared to the creaking old houses I had always lived in–and especially compared to our roach-infested rental that leaned to one side, all the floors sloping and the rooms reflecting 75 years of DIY decorating, repairs, and amateur plumbing.
I’ll be honest, I was intimidated by these kids who played soccer, went to dance class, drove their own cars to school, had new clothes, went shopping for fun, carried themselves with confidence, and made fun of my neighborhood. I was envious of what they had. And at the same time I felt I was superior to them. They were spoiled, I thought. I assumed they thought they were better than me, and I figured that made me better than them. I wouldn’t look down on anyone the way they did. I wouldn’t ever be spoiled like that, living a comfortable life in a safe neighborhood that just didn’t reflect reality.
Well, I assume you can guess what happened. Here I am, 25 years later, enjoying life in the suburbs with a husband, two kids, and a dog. I still don’t go shopping for fun, and I’ve never had a mini van, but when my kids need school clothes, I have the means to buy them. My husband and I work hard to live here so our kids can attend great schools. When our daughter turns 16 next year, we plan to have a car for her to drive (although we’ll make a point of telling her it doesn’t belong to her). And my biggest complaint about our house is that it’s 50 years old and we can’t afford to buy new windows. Oh, and we’ve spent a lot of money on piano lessons, karate, swim team, softball, and a host of other activities. And I’ll be honest, I don’t really feel bad about any of it.
I have become one of the people I once scorned–and yet I’m not really like the people I stereotyped. Neither are most of my neighbors. Ironically, I’m still the same person I was. I was more like those suburban kids than I could have imagined.
This story might be chuckle-worthy at best for most people, but for me this progression in my lifestyle has served as an important lesson. The stereotypes I held, the resentment I felt were all unfair. They probably got in the way of what could have been some nice friendships. And if some of those kids looked down on me because of my zip code, I did the same to them. It was no more acceptable for me to scorn them because I was a “have not.” My self-righteousness set me up for judgment.
Similarly, we set ourselves up for judgment when we decide we are better people than our villains du jour. Jesus told us as much when he said, “Do not judge and you will not be judged…The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged” (Matthew 7:1-2). In very picturesque language, he asked, “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (verse 3). Good question. I don’t think there’s an exception here for those times when people just really, really deserve condemnation. After all, we deserve condemnation too.
In the wake of Ashley Madison and abuse scandals and Christian leaders falling from grace, some of the public reactions I see remind me of the Pharisee’s prayer in a parable Jesus told “to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else.” In this story, a Pharisee, considered ultra-righteous by most, was praying at the Temple alongside a tax collector, one of the greatest cultural villains of the day. In his prayer, with great confidence the Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the tax collector and all those other sinners out there: “I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery.” The tax collector, by contrast, stood before God in humility, confessed his sin, and asked God for mercy. And Jesus turned his audience’s accepted notions inside out: “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:9-14).
May we never be as shocked by this story as Jesus’ self-righteous audience must have been. In our race to distance ourselves from those who would give Christians a bad name, we may forget we don’t deserve to claim that name any more than they do. Try a Bible Gateway search for the words humble and humility and take a look at just how important this is to God.
This doesn’t mean we should overlook anyone’s sin. Justice must be served, and humans are called to administer it soberly, to the best of our ability. I’m a huge believer in consequences. Standing against wrongdoing is the right thing to do. But in the process we can’t afford to overlook our own sin and the grace we have been granted. Not one person gets to claim freedom from the capacity to be the very worst kind of person. An appropriate Christian response to evil includes both horror and humility. It includes love.
After all, “pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). Let’s be careful where we step.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.