Humility ought to be a starting point for our social discourse. Sad to say, it has been largely discarded as a public — or, for that matter, a private — virtue.
I think about this a lot, especially when I’m listening to preachers or political candidates or various activists rage on TV.
I thought of it again recently while reading the “Ethicist” column in the online New York Times Magazine. In that weekly feature, author and New York University philosophy instructor Kwame Anthony Appiah answers readers’ questions about their moral dilemmas.
In the May 26 edition, an anonymous correspondent asked what he should do about visiting his evangelical Christian family.
This reader had cut contact with his family and was living happily apart from them. He didn’t believe in their God or practice any religion.
He described himself as openly gay. He’d been wounded by his family and their church, which condemned homosexuality. He was frustrated by what he viewed as his family’s hypocrisy, too. For instance, his relatives were staunchly pro-life, yet one got an abortion during a difficult pregnancy.
Unfortunately, he was facing upcoming events that might require him to attend family gatherings. He wanted the ethicist to advise him whether, if confronted about his long absence, he ought to trot out his catalog of grievances.
I know nothing of Appiah’s personal background or religion, if any. But his answer was insightful. Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, pagans, liberals, conservatives, gays, straights, transgenders, all could benefit from his response.
Appiah didn’t discount the reader’s offense or his discomfort or even his family’s supposed hypocrisy. But none of those issues was the central point, he said.
“It’s sad when these sort of disagreements break up a family and natural, when hostility is directed at you, to be both resentful and highly critical,” Appiah wrote. “Yet your family’s inconstancy in matters of sexual ethics may not be as unforgivable as you obviously feel it is. We all regularly fall short of our own standards. ... For all you say, people of your family may well admit, in their own social circle, that they have sinned, because sinfulness is the normal condition of everyone, according to the traditions to which they belong. After all, you’re not around to see how they handle the issue.”
The real issue, Appiah said, was heartlessness. The reader’s family had acted mean and petty toward the reader because he was gay, even though many families — including conservative evangelical ones — love and accept their gay kids while disagreeing with their sexual practices.
But such heartlessness could easily cut both ways, Appiah warned:
“The heart of the matter is that you can maintain relationships with those who conscientiously disagree with you, even if they are living in ways you disapprove of. That would be my message to them. But also to you.”
This last paragraph did it for me. That’s what I wish everybody on all sides of our political, sexual, cultural and religious divisions would consider.
Given human nature, people will regularly disagree on such fundamental matters as sexual identity or religious adherence or political philosophy.
Yet they can maintain a compassionate heart. They can decide to respect one another other. They can choose to forgive despite the frictions their differences create. They can refuse to demonize each other.
However, doing so requires that they act like adults. And acting like adults requires humility.
Unfortunately, humility seems in short supply today. Maybe it always has been.
Evangelicals need to be humble toward gay people and gay people toward evangelicals. Republicans need to be humble toward Democrats and Democrats toward Republicans. Christians need to be humble toward atheists and atheists toward Christians.
Humility results when, however we get there, we come to recognize a few basic facts.
We recognize that none of us has all the answers — to anything. We like to think we do, but we don’t. Over the long haul, life has a way of proving our dearly held beliefs wrong.
All of us see through a glass darkly.
We recognize that we ourselves are imperfect, that we’ve said and done hurtful or short-sighted or self-contradictory things. Or in my case, just plain dumb things. Thus we shouldn’t hold others’ mistakes against them for very long.
We recognize that the only person in a position to see into another’s heart is God (or your cosmic entity of choice). You and I don’t know what anybody else is thinking. We don’t know her history, what struggles brought her to the place she’s in. We don’t know how that place she’s in, or the place we’re in, might evolve in 10 years, much less across eternity.
We recognize that we all are but dust, here for a moment then carried away by a puff of wind.
Humility doesn’t mean we surrender our faith in whomever or whatever we have faith in. We can believe strongly the things we believe.
We just have to admit the glaringly obvious: that we might be wrong. We have to admit that we can’t fix ourselves, much less anyone else.
And so it’s our job to love and accept others, and to hope somehow they’ll come to love and accept us.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.