Arrogance is the sibling of pride, and humility is the nemesis of haughtiness. As I use the word “pride” today, I’m not talking about healthy self-appreciation and with it the ability to enjoy appropriately one’s connections and accomplishments; these are not expressions of arrogance by any means, and–in fact–the inability to appreciate self and personal accomplishments is an indication of low self-esteem, which is a glaring symptom of compromised emotional health. Ironically, unbridled pride is also a kind of emotional illness closely connected to megalomania.
Glancing through a two-year old list of “The 50 Cockiest Athletes of All Time,” I see Tiger Woods as the last athlete on the list, number 50 of 50. Brian Wilson is number 48, and he believes that he is hot stuff playing baseball or wherever he may be; quote, “My I.Q. is 188. End of discussion, it’s been proven. Certified genius.” John McEnroe 28. Number 24, LeBon James, said, “I’m like a superhero. Call me, ‘Basketball Man.'” Soccer star, Christiano Ronaldo, is number 12; he once said, “God sent me to Earth to show people how to play soccer.” Michael Jordan, at number 9, once told a reporter, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ but there is in ‘wIn.'” Larry Bird is number 7, “I didn’t care who guarded me–red, yellow, black. I just didn’t want a white guy guarding me, because it’s disrespectful to my game.” Number 6 is Terrell Owens, “I’ll watch the highlights every now and then, but, as far as watching the game, I feel like I AM the game.” Number 1. As little as I know about sports, this was the athlete I guessed would hold slot number 1. I first knew him as Cassius Clay; a religious experience motivated him to change his name to Muhammad Ali. Often seen in interviews with the haughty sportscaster, Howard Cosell (who described himself as: arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, and verbose), Ali once crowed, “I am not the greatest; I am the double greatest!”
OK, so overpaid athletes don’t have the corner on arrogance. Overpaid performers rank as well. Figuring out who the most arrogant person is among contemporary US entertainers would be difficult since arrogance is highly regarded by a number of people, sad to say. I can’t begin to make a reliable list, but I would have to think Kanye West would be on it. I came across a handful of quotes that Kanye West had made, and one never knows with a job in which one needs to be in the limelight whether outrageous behavior is authentic or staged. Nonetheless, here is a Kanye West sampler, “My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.” Another. He was saying in an interview somewhere that he was going to go down in history as a legend, and from there he jumped to say the Bible has 20, 30, 40, 50 major characters in it. “You don’t think that I would be one of the characters of today’s modern Bible?” One more for now; he said in an interview with Sirius XM “I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.”
It seems to me that almost every president while he occupies the Oval Office is regarded by many Americans and others around the world as incomprehensibly arrogant. Obama certainly gets plenty of such criticism, and all over the place people are calling him and his administration the most arrogant in history. That would be very difficult to say. Picking out a humble president would be an easier task since there are so few to consider. Brooks D Simpson is a professor at Arizona State University and a highly regarded historian of the American presidency. He believes that judging from memoirs the most humble of all US presidents was Ulysses S Grant. Professor Simpson bases his assessment in part on Grant’s willingness to accept the blame for what went wrong on his watch.
Journalist Ken Klukowski wrote around the fourth of July a couple of years back, “We [Americans] celebrate American exceptionalism–everything that makes the United States the greatest nation on earth.” We should realize that just because many of our citizens have amazing opportunities to live out their freedoms exactly as they wish not all citizens can do so, and not all who do, make choices that benefit any, other than themselves.
In the formal study of critical thinking, a core part of introductory content centers in learning to spot various fallacies in claims that are made–generally nullifying the statement by their very presence. In a sense, the four that I have in mind today are subcategories of what often are called “Us versus Them” fallacies, and each one is based in utter arrogance. They are:
“Egocentrism” means that it’s all about me, baby. There are many ways to conceive of this, but let’s use an explanation of trouble as our base for today. In this context, egocentrism flows forth from the mouth of someone who finds it impossible to entertain the notion that she or he could ever be at fault, period. Dame Maggie Smith’s character on the hottest television drama in the world right now, “Downton Abby,” was told by her son that he would take her advice as long as she would be willing to admit she was wrong if things blew up in his face. She said, “Oh, that’s an easy promise for me to make since I’m never wrong.”
I’m so grateful in all the churches I’ve served that there have been a few members who were never and could never be wrong. When something went awry, one thing we could always count on was that those people could not be considered to have been involved in any wrong choices or actions that got us into whatever bind we were in. Thank you, Lord, for the perfect among us!
“Ethnocentrism” means that there may be a problem alright, but people in my racial group couldn’t have been at fault. The Klan was born based essentially on ethnocentric perspectives, and we all know that most problems in our country are caused by immigrants, right?
“Anthropocentrisim” is a perspective that says animals and the natural order are here to serve humans and must exist always and only for human satisfaction so, for example, it’s fine to kill a rhino so it’s easier to cut off his horn to be ground up for use in Chinese traditional medicine. Why not?
“Antiquacentrism,” my coinage, is a belief that anything from bygone eras has more value than whatever the present or future can come up with. Without a doubt, we need to build on historic successes and failures, but not without adapting the principle to modern circumstances.
Religious arrogance abounds. As you have noticed, the people most likely to be haughty in theistic traditions are those who believe God likes, most of all, those folks who are in the same religious group they are in. If God likes an outsider at all, it’s certainly significantly less than God likes their religious insiders.
Several years ago a Sunday morning rolled around when I had laryngitis and, thus, could not preach. By coincidence, Dr. Tom McDaniel, who died just a few days ago–a tremendous loss, was already scheduled that morning to lead Forum back in the days when Forum met after the gathering on Sundays, and he happily agreed to add preaching a sermon to his Sunday morning duties. I was in the congregation for a change listening to a preacher in the Silverside pulpit, and it was a wonderful sermon. No surprises there, of course.
In the sermon Tom spoke about the chosen people theology, which can be traced back to the ancient Hebrews, who were said to have been the chosen people of God. Almost always in modern times that designation is taken out of context, not that it was left completely in-context all through the centuries. However, in modern contexts many people make their own uninformed interpretation of what “chosen people” means and often rather largely ignore what is going on with the biblical text. So the idea that the ancient Hebrews were God’s chosen people did not ever mean, as Tom explained with wondrous detail growing out of his vast knowledge of Hebrew language and culture, that God liked them better than God liked anybody else. He said something like this, “`Chosen’ did not mean `chosen for adulation.’ Rather, `chosen’ meant `chosen for a purpose,’ `chosen to do some great task.’”
Contemporary US foreign policy with reference to Israel still reflects a perspective based on unexamined biblical literalism that says the Jews are and always have been and always will be divinely favored over all the others within the human race. As such, they are always right. This is why Palestinians in the American eye have largely been the culprits any time there are differences of opinion between Jews and Palestinians. This simply can’t be the case. Former President Carter was roundly criticized some years ago by some Jewish folk and their ardent supporters when he wrote a book that said, in summary, the Palestinians have not always been on the side or wrong in interaction with the Jews. The Jewish nation is just as apt to make mistakes as any other nation—wherever God may fit into the picture. I’ve never run across a Holocaust survivor who believed that the Jews were the chosen people during Hitler’s reign of terror.
That chosen-people-confusion came to this country in the minds of the British settlers who used it to bolster their confidence in making their homes here as well as stoking the fires of pride, on religious grounds, allowing them to see themselves as far superior to the indigenous Americans, more easily thereafter taking their land and if necessary killing them off.
In his book, Lies Teachers Tell, James Loewen points out that Indigenous Americans have been the most lied-about subset in our population primarily because of the intentional omission in teaching of anti-Native racism. In 1788, the United States government declined to cooperate with the Delaware Indians when they proposed that Natives be admitted to the union as a separate state. Congress steadfastly refused even to debate the idea. We had a racist Congress.
A little more than 50 years later, the so called Indian Territory attempted to send representatives to Congress, something other territories had been doing. White Southerners in Congress stopped them, but promised to admit the Territory as a state IF the South won the Civil War. Even if the South had won the Civil War, the chances of the South’s following through on this political promise was virtually zilch.
Our beloved forebear, those of us who treasure the separation of synagogue/church/mosque and state, Roger Williams, challenged Massachusetts in the 1630’s to renounce its royal patent on the Native land, insisting over and over again that the Natives and only the Natives were the owners of that land. The angry outcry against him was the primary reason he fled Rhode Island.
Helen Hunt Jackson got a similar response from our lawmakers at the time. She paid out of her own pocket to have copies of her famous book, A Century of Dishonor, given to every member of Congress in 1881. She was all but ignored; Congress wouldn’t even consider her concerns.
These are only two among many examples where arrogant lawmakers refused to give any attention whatsoever to a race of people most of them thought undeserving of equality. “Congress repudiated Helen Jackson’s book, and the Puritans ran Roger Williams out of town. This contrast is noted as cultural racism, since the neglectful views enforce the inferiority of Native Americans. The time between 1630 and 1881 changed nothing within white supremacist ideologies.”
We do well to remember the biblical injunction. “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” There is no way to water it down; it can be ignored or written off, but it can’t be watered down.
Probably anybody who takes a stand expressing an opinion as rather absolute is subject to be criticized by others—others who are insecure in what they believe and therefore made uncomfortable by those who are quite sure what they believe and also by others who are jealous of the fact that enough people are interested in the opinion someone has expressed actually to take the time to listen and respond even if not favorably. What this latter group is feeling is that if they were to go out and take a stand no one would pay attention anyway.
Jesus had his detractors as we all know, and some of them disliked Jesus simply because they took him to be arrogant. His most serious critics believed that he pitted himself against the rather inerrant tradition of the ancient Hebrews. Here was a carpenter, and the son of a carpenter, so the Pharisees reasoned, who thinks he knows more than the great teachers in our past history not to mention the contemporary (contemporary to Jesus’ time) scribes who are the professional interpreters of the ancient law.
Jesus wasn’t trying to put himself into conflict with anything. He was simply trying to demonstrate that living by ancient laws as well intentioned as they might have been would not get anyone anywhere along the way toward understanding God. Thus, they believed he was not only flat out wrong but also arrogant.
What Jesus really would be remembered for by those who studied his life closely was his humility. Jesus bowing down before his followers and washing their feet to demonstrate symbolically that he was the servant who had come to minister, not as somebody who would win with popularity and political power but rather as somebody willing to do the most menial tasks necessary in order to be able to care for those who needed ministry the most.
Paul quoted this memorable hymn when writing to the Christians at the Church in Philippi:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The concept of a preexistent Jesus, that is one who lived with God in God’s realm before becoming a human being on earth, is clearly a theo-poetic image. What the hymn writer whom Paul quotes here is caught up with is that from such magnificence Jesus came to earth and lived like a servant to others. He emptied himself of all divine trappings to live his life in humble service to others, even to the point of losing his life because he wouldn’t stop pronouncing God’s blessings on those regarded as inconsequential to the wider society in which he ministered. Pope Francis, a really cool pope, said rather recently, “If a thought, if a desire takes you along the road of humility…in service to others, it is from Jesus.”
Our true theologies aren’t necessarily spoken and don’t have to be. We are living them out day by day. If you are one who humbly serves others in any way, you have a powerful theology shaping you. Amen.