Thinking Highly of Oneself

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Romans 12:3-8

Paul tells us not to think of ourselves more highly than we should. That is good counsel. There are many people who exaggerate their own importance and virtue. On the other hand, partly because of Paul’s influence, the problem in the church today may be more a fear of accurately judging our strengths and contributions and affirming ourselves. Paul was not against such affirmation. We are to think of ourselves with sober judgment, finding where we belong in the body of Christ, what our particular gifts are. Many of us may be in greater danger of judging ourselves against the standards we have not met than of appreciating what God has enabled us positively to do. Psychologists have pointed out that low self-esteem has many negative consequences both for those who have it, and for those with whom they relate. To understand oneself as performing one indispensable role in the body of Christ, whatever that role may be, should be a source of joy and pride.

Yesterday many of us attended the memorial service of Kay Bower. Kay Bower certainly did not think of herself any more highly than she should. But she knew that there were many people who loved her and felt deeply indebted to her. She knew that they would appreciate the chance to tell her so. So she shared the news of her fatal diagnosis and the length of time remaining to her, and she was open to expressions of thanks. She knew that she had gifts from God that she had used for the community. The kind of supposed humility that refuses to accept compliments helps no one. It does not express the sober judgment about ourselves as gifted believers for which Paul calls. Several people commented that Kay had shown them how to die.

When I first thought of speaking on this topic, I did not have Kay Bower in mind. Indeed, I was not thinking primarily of the personal problem of thinking too highly of ourselves, on the one hand, or putting ourselves down, on the other. I was responding to another kind of problem.

It may be one of the many problems that is caused by lack of adequate self-esteem. In any case, we find many people who do not inflate themselves as individuals, but who think far more highly than they should of groups or communities with which they identify themselves. In particular, I have been disturbed by the fact that so many Americans seem to make an idol out of our nation. They seem to think that an American life is of far greater value than other lives, that to oppose American policy defines another people as evil.

When we Americans collectively count the cost of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, we do so in terms of how many casualties there have been to Americans. To this day, we have little information on the number of Afghans and Iraqi who were injured or killed. Or we speak much more often of how much money the reconstruction of conquered countries is going to cost American taxpayers than we do of the suffering populations of the countries we have helped to devastate.

When we ask how nations come to be placed on the list of rogue states or the axis of evil, we can point out many bad things about these countries. But the deeper reason is that they oppose our country’s goals and policies. Similar evils are overlooked in countries that support us.

A striking case was the public attitude toward France during the United Nations Security Council discussion of invading Iraq. Whereas we were pushing for a preventive strike against Iraq, France opposed it. Now France has been our ally throughout our history, beginning with the Revolutionary War. Without the aid of France it is doubtful that we would have gained our independence. We fought on the side of France in World War I and World War II. But all this was forgotten, because France did not obediently fall into line behind our leadership. French wine was boycotted and French fries were renamed.

Once we invaded Iraq, the question of whether our cause was just or our goals could be realized seemed unimportant to many Americans. We were showing the world our overwhelming might and what would happen to any who stood in our way. Individuals who may have felt powerless in their personal lives identified themselves with this display of power.

Collectively, we Americans think far too highly of ourselves. Our leaders and our media systematically devalue the lives and well-being of people of other countries, and as a people we do not protest. We judge other nations according to their conformity to our policies and goals. We demonize those who oppose us.

Sadly, we may not be particularly worse than other peoples in these regards. The great virtue of love and service to one’s own community tends to express itself also in anger and hostility toward other communities that threaten ours in any way. This is true of religious communities as well as national ones. For millennia, devoted Christians have called others infidels and have felt justified in fighting against them and inflicting harm on them. For centuries, strong commitment to Protestantism was inseparable from anti-Catholicism. The intense and truly admirable devotion to the Jewish people that has enabled them to survive through so much suffering and horror through millennia, easily becomes anti-Palestinian and even anti-Muslim, when the presence of these people blocks the realization of Jewish dreams for a homeland of their own.

Often it seems that we can overcome these hostilities only by reducing the deep loyalties and commitments than bind the several communities together. Only as Christians become less devoted to Christianity, it seems, will they tolerate those who do not share our faith. Only as Protestants become less convinced of the value and importance of being Protestant will they treat Catholics as equals. Only as Jews come to care less for the survival of the Jewish way of life will they give a fully equal place to Muslims in Israel/Palestine.

Is there an alternative?  Yes there is. For Christians it involves a genuine conversion to Christian faith that goes far beyond a strong sense of belonging to a Christian community. This is a conversion that has taken place among many Christians through the centuries and especially in recent times. One of the joys of living in Pilgrim Place is that so many have experienced this conversion.

Most of us know that, whatever the advantages of Christian faith, God loves equally those who order their lives in other ways. This does not mean that we should care less about our Christian faith or be less eager to share it. But it radically and forever forbids us to cause suffering to others or deny them justice because they decline to accept our truth.

This same Christian understanding forbids thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think as Americans.

The conversion of which I speak is beautifully expressed in the song Bob Dewey has sung for us. “This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight, too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine. O hear my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine.”

The alternative to thinking of ourselves as Americans too highly is not to put ourselves down. There are times when, in reaction to our arrogance as a nation I find myself emphasizing our sins – and there are many to recite. We are, indeed, called to repentance. But equally, we could recite the sins of other peoples. I fear that history teaches us that nations characteristically use their power to impose their will on weaker peoples.

This song, however, does not focus on the historical crimes of which we are all guilty. It focuses on our deep love of our own nations, a love that is in itself healthy and needed. But it reminds us movingly that before God we are but one of many nations, each of which rightly calls forth the devotion of its own people.

Nations as nations, I fear, have little ability to restrain their tendencies to idolatry and the abuse of power. But they can be influenced by the moral leadership of communities of faith. What troubles me now is that so many of our communities of faith have acquiesced in the idolatrous nationalism that is so antithetical to the teachings of all the great traditions.

As Christians, and I believe also as Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus, we have the task of warning against thinking of our nation more highly than we should. We should encourage instead a sober assessment of the particular gifts of our nation, the particular contributions it could make as one nation among others to the building of a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world order. There are legitimate differences among faithful people as to just what the right policy will be. But we should all share in the conviction that God cares as much for Iraqi children as for American soldiers, for Afghan peasants as for American engineers, for North Korean workers as for American managers. The discussion about goals and policies that would take place in that context would be very different from what now occurs in the halls of power. Sadly, it is very different from what takes place even in many Christian congregations.

Our closing hymn makes much the same, simple point. It is not quite as clear as the song Bob sang. It could be understood to say that only as all accept Christ do they become part of that great fellowship in which the opposition of East and West is overcome. But I think it is susceptible of another understanding. Those of us who live in Christ know that God’s love for all, and God’s work among all throughout the world, gives us a unity that is not destroyed by our many differences. Viewing the world through the eyes of Christ we know that the differences between Jew and Greek, poor and rich, male and female, while important and valuable in their contribution to the whole, do not destroy our deep kinship and equality as children of God.

Before we sing this hymn, let us pray.

Holy and merciful God, we hold before you a suffering world and ask for your healing. We know that that healing must take place through people like us, and we offer ourselves to you. Help us to look soberly at our gifts and our situation to judge what small role we may play, through prayer or reflection or action.

Be with us now as we go each our own way. We thank you that you accompany each one of us in all our living and in all our dying. You know our needs, our fears, and our anguish. We thank you that you share these with us. You know also our hopes, our joys, and our excitement. We thank you that you share these with us as well.

As we ask your blessing upon us, we ask your blessing also on all your creatures. For we pray in the name of Jesus whom we call the Christ.