Chris Henry: The Problem with Piety


In the fall of 2000, I began my studies at Duke University as an intended political science major with my sights set on a future in elected office. I only lasted one semester with this intended concentration and vocation. One of the primary reasons was the first course I took in the political science department. The course was titled, "Political Systems in Contemporary America" and it had a deeply negative impact on me. It was not the brilliant professor, nor the challenging reading list, nor the fascinating subject matter. It was one particular lecture on the growing use and impact of negative campaign advertising that did me in. We often complain about such pieces from both ends of the political spectrum, describing them as "attack ads" and "mudslinging." They disappoint us and erode our trust in the political system. And, perhaps most disturbingly, they are successful. These attack ads get results. I remember our professor explaining that the reason for the increasing prevalence of such campaign ads was their consistent record of effectiveness. "It turns out," he said with a smile, "that in politics you really can lift yourself up by tearing others down. I have the research to prove it."

Lifting yourself up by tearing others down. It is a playground ethic that is also played out in almost every realm of our society, even in communities of faith. It is a shameful human instinct that has been with us for a very long time, and invades every part of our lives. Jesus must have known this, because in the eighteenth chapter of Luke's gospel, he tells a parable that is as current as the latest political attack ad or hateful Facebook post, a parable that captures the heart of this tragic human instinct, a parable about two approaches to prayer.

First, there is the Pharisee. His prayer is less heartfelt plea than resumé recap, describing before God (and anyone within earshot) his pious qualifications. But, before getting to this list of self-congratulatory accolades, the Pharisee clarifies what he is not. Namely, he is not like other people: people who do bad things: sinners, thieves, adulterers or even that tax collector over in the corner. In his prayer, the Pharisee lifts himself up by tearing others down. It is the most blatant form of attack ad, and he chooses the easiest of targets. Thank God I am not like those people.

Then there is the tax collector, standing far off, begging for God's mercy. His prayer is not public spectacle but private plea. He prays for forgiveness, admitting before God his weaknesses, failings, and vices, with no time for opposition research on the Pharisee. He lifts himself up, not through insult of others, but through candid petition and honest confession. Lord, have mercy on me.

And, according to Jesus, he returns to his home justified. The moral of the story is explicit: if you praise yourself, you will be humbled; if you humble yourself, you will be praised. It is a simple story with profoundly relevant and timely implications.

It is, of course, a frequent theme in the teachings of Jesus. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Any who want to be my disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. You also must wash one another's feet. Those who wish to save their lives must lose them. All those who humble themselves will be exalted.

It is also a bizarre and mystifying promise for us who belong to a culture that rewards self-promotion and celebrates success. The exalted of our day tend not to be saints but celebrities. And, in a culture of endless and cutthroat competition, we are required to promote ourselves in order to get into the best schools and be considered for the best jobs. Humility has almost no place in our time. And in far too many cases, self-promotion bleeds into other-demotion; our effort to get to the top requires pushing others down or out.

Examples abound, of course, and this season of division and outright hatred in our nation's political life is overflowing with them. Back in July, the author and writing professor George Saunders wrote a powerful piece on the 2016 Presidential election for the New Yorker magazine. Ordinarily a person of hopeful optimism, Saunders found himself demoralized by the actions and words he saw and heard as he attended political rallies and counter-demonstrations this spring and summer. Saunders captured the ethos in words that I highlighted and underlined: "Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages..."[i]

Like the Pharisee, we have become well-practiced at pointing fingers. Delighting in the sins of others and our own righteousness by comparison, we have lost sight of the common good, satisfied with merely what is better for our side. And the consequences surround us in demonizing rhetoric and violent acts. The virtue of humility so central to the parable has all but disappeared from our personal and political lives.

And the church, the place where we might hope humility would still have a foothold, has given in as well. While professing our unity in Christ and our common mission, we have too often demonized and criticized those who go about that mission differently. We have been dismissive of those with different viewpoints, and we have run the religious equivalent of attack ads against other Christian communities and perspectives. If the Christian community cannot find its way back to the teachings of Jesus that emphasize humble servanthood and love and civility and respect, then I fear we will lose the uniqueness of our mission and our witness to the world.

The words of the Pharisee are timeless and his goal is as current as the morning paper. He aims to make himself bigger, greater, or more popular by pushing someone else aside, by tearing down those who are vulnerable or different. By saying, "I thank God that I am not like him or her." This kind of "othering" is an ever-present temptation, especially for those of us who spent much of our time in echo chambers that reinforce our preconceptions and assumptions. Reinhold Niebuhr saw it so clearly sixty years ago, and wrote in his powerful book, The Irony of American History, "we have become so deluded by the concept of our innocenc(e), that we are ill prepared to deal with the temptations of power that now assail us."[ii] Do we not see the impact of this deluded thinking all around us? Do we not see the finger pointing and arrogance?

How will the church respond? As a community of faith we must stand together in opposition to this kind of self-righteous "othering." We must create safe places for genuine dialogue and authentic community. We cannot allow voices of antagonism and derision to fill the vacuum of our silence. For God's sake, we have to stand up, speak out, and be counted. And, as we do, we must remember the bold and humble witness of the tax collector.

At its best, the church of Jesus Christ is a counter-narrative to the one-upsmanship that characterizes too much of the world surrounding us. At our worst, we exacerbate the crisis by exalting ourselves and claiming God's support for our limited perspective. The church must embody the ethic of the tax collector, we must resist the urge to pray in the posture of the Pharisee.

My sermon title may have surprised you. After all, why would a preacher have a problem with piety? Shouldn't we honor devout reverence and godliness? Of course we should. The problem with piety is that, in the hands of humans, it too quickly turns to golden calf. The Pharisee is condemned not for being pious but for worshipping his piety as an idol. I thank you that I am not like other people. The tax collector is praised for the authenticity of his prayer. His humility offers a picture of what is possible for us all. His words open him to receive forgiveness-he goes home reconciled to God, at peace in his own heart.

With weeks of divisive rhetoric still to come, the community of faith can offer an authentic, clear voice of compassion and justice. We can embody a more excellent way rooted in respect for the dignity of all. We can build up and not tear down. We can offer visible witness of the God who lifts the lowly and humbles the haughty.

In Wendell Berry's novel Jayber Crow, the narrator and title character offers the most honest and moving vision of the church I've ever read. Here is what he says: "What I saw was a community, imperfect and irresolute, but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of affection. (In that church), there had never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on... It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill... I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another's love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace."[iii]

Grace. This is what the tax collector receives. It is available to the Pharisee as well, but he sees no need for it. Grace, freely and abundantly offered. Ours to share in these beloved and broken communities. Grace, a gift that could change the world. Let it begin with us. Amen.

Let us pray: O God, in whose presence and before whose providence we live, give us the courage to speak truthfully, the humility to live authentically, the grace to walk gently, and the strength to live faithfully. May the words we speak and the actions we take give witness to your unfailing love for all. For all. Amen.






[ii] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History. University of Chicago Press, 2008. p. 38.

[iii] Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow. Counterpoint Press, 2001. p. 205.