I cannot begin to imagine what its like right now in the halls of DC where senators negotiate or the executive and legislative branches scenario plan for every option coming across the hill. But I’ll bet that, in spite of all the differing political and social agendas operating, these elected officials and their aids share at least this one thing in common: they all feel like they are right.
I was 18, a freshman in college. There were five of us guys in polo rugby shirts and khakis riding in my friend Scott’s brand new white Honda Accord from Lynchburg, VA to Washington DC. The Virginia mountain air blowing through winter trees as we blared the songs of the Indigo Girls and REM. We were like most private college boys that weekend in Virginia… except we were driving to a “Right to Life” rally.
I’m not sure how I ended up there. My parents, while being committed Evangelicals, were much less politically opinionated than my university Chancellor, Jerry Falwell. But it all happened so easily. The year before, I’d spent four weeks at Focus on the Family’s camp on God and Country, and I simply kept agreeing with those around me until I’d built a wall protecting myself from whomever I viewed as wrong. I was taught how to protect myself from everyone out to destroy my Christian American mind. I was taught to despise the other: the Democrats and the Secular Humanists, numbered among the molesters, killers, and adulterers with flagrant disregard of the ten commandments: the communists!!! the feminazis!!! the masturbators!!!.
Not everyone at that camp or at Liberty University was that angry. Many were compassionate and passionately sought to serve God and others. Many of them remain friends of mine to this day. But there were plenty of angry role models among us to choose from.
That January 1991, our Honda arrived in DC and after lunch in Georgetown we met up with other College Republicans (I had recently been elected state treasurer for the Virginia chapter). We filed in with our signs—some snarky, some gory. And we walked and walked and walked. I believe that march was my first occasion to meet a real life Catholic! It seemed to me that everyone had put aside differences because we all believed in doing the right thing. The air was filled with revolution. Like waters rolling from streets into the Potomac, and the masses rolling down that street in protest to Roe v Wade, I had been swept into the ecstatic frenzy.
When we rounded the corner to the steps of the Supreme Court, those protesting our march stared at us, pierced, tatted, hair-dyed, and crazy eyed. They held signs calling us bigots. They shouted at us—shouted like the enemy of God. And so we shouted back. I remember yelling “Murderers, liars, go to hell!” I remember the blood rushing to my head, the hoarseness of my voice, and all of us boys egging each other on. Suddenly the provocateurs ran into our ranks and started pushing us down, taking our signs. One kicked me between the legs.
The D.C. Mounties were there in no time flat and it was over as quickly as it had begun. As we brushed ourselves off and people gathered around to help us to our feet the words that kept rolling in my head were, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness… when they revile you… and say all kinds of false things about you for my name sake.”
But something else stuck with me as well. I loved hating those people.
There is something so gratifying about being right.
That’s when it started to collapse for me. I realized that being right was what it was all about for me. In fact the righteousness that was earning me persecution was a self-referential righteousness. I was the one reviling people. We were the ones committed to saying inflammatory and cruel things when necessary.
Now it’d be tempting to say that this self-referential right-ness changed as I ran the other direction. That the progressives I would eventually also count as my friends were humble, kind, and cooperative. But this was not the case either.
Ten years later I was in a liberal Presbyterian seminary in the south and I noticed myself angrily rejecting neighboring conservatives as they marched past in a similar rally. So as it turns out every group has its propensity to fight for what is right, and to call the other wrong.
But before you pass this off as a sort of ode to tolerance I’m beginning to see the whole issue as all together something else. You see, tolerance can develop into a pride of “rightness” too. Rightness is simply not a satisfying enough feeling. In fact, feeling right at the expense of someone who feels otherwise is damaging. Being right keeps me from listening to others. Maintaining my image as the “right” one keeps me from taking risks. Being right enables me to say what I want about those who aren’t with me: they are uninformed, they are fools, or they are just evil. So how to be differentiated and yet connected, this is the big riddle!
I recently reviewed the TED talk of Kathryn Schulz entitled “On Being Wrong.” In it she says that being wrong feels just like being right: it feels good. On the other had, what feels bad is the realization that you’ve been wrong. And because of this, at the very point of being wrong we often miss the very window out- the possibility that we might not know, because we fear the humiliation of being wrong. She describes that window as “wonder.”
In the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 readers are encouraged to live toward a like-mindedness that esteems others as better than themselves. Not to have a mind that is right but one that is humble. One like Christ who did not think of his equality with God as something to grasp onto, but who took on the nature of a servant to the point of the cruelty of the cross. This gets me thinking: did Christ choose wonder over being equal to God? Was the right card something that even Jesus recognized as negatively affecting his relationships with others?
What would it look like in the politics of my own life and relationships if being right were not the point? When do I grasp onto the being right card? And what am I missing when I do? What am I holding on to so tightly that robs me of wonder?
What about you? Are there practices that you have come to rely on to help you choose wonder over self-rightness?