Columnists > Voices

The pride game

It got us into this mess in the first place

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

It would be a stretch and then some to suggest that I've ever really been on the receiving end of anti-Semitic behavior. But I did catch a wisp of a hint of something like that several years ago-and the quiet sting sticks with me still.

Four or five of us were standing in a hotel lobby waiting for an airport limousine. The conversation turned to family names and their origins. "I've always been intrigued," I said, "that Belz is originally a Jewish name. It comes from a little town on the Polish-German border."

"And you're braggin' about that?" one of my companions asked. It was clear he wasn't just joshing; he meant it as a put-down to a little fragment of family history in which I had always taken a bit of pride. Someone else awkwardly changed the subject.

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Some folks spend their whole lives both expecting and then taking such put-downs. Jews and blacks in particular have for centuries, and in most parts of the world, understood such insults as their lot in life. Sometimes we Christians have defended them against such; sometimes, of course, we have joined in the shameful piling on.

What is new for many Christians is that for the first time in our lives we have begun to find ourselves also demeaned -both in public and by the public. We are by no means total outcasts, nor have we begun to know what the term persecution is all about. But more and more, we have tasted what it is like to be made light of and regularly put down. It's not fun.

"You are naïve," Christians are now regularly told by the rest of society. "Your science is narrow and misguided, your sociology of marriage and the family is antiquated, your art and music are irrelevant, your view of god not nearly pluralistic enough." The chuckling reverberates through the media, the educational establishment, and among the intellectual elite.

Clearly, to be laughed at is far different from being gassed in an oven-although many Christians in other parts of the world now face equally gruesome ends for their refusal to give up their faith. The point is not to establish some kind of equivalence. The point instead is to accept as an unexpected gift some level of empathy for what it means to be at the bottom end of other people's pride.

In the process, we are reminded of how varied, old, imaginative, stubborn, universal, sneaky, and incorrigible is the pride that we humans exercise against each other. No matter what expression it takes, the inclination to put someone else down is always ultimately rooted in our determination to lift ourselves up and to perch ourselves on some lofty and prominent peak.

So living with the pride of others-which is certainly the lot of all minority groups-is a hard assignment. The typical human response to such put-downs is simply to answer: "So you don't think I'm much? Well, I'll show you." And then we scramble to the highest and most prominent perch we can find, implicitly putting down the one who just put us down. We all play the game, because the need to play it rises out of the core of who we are.

Examining our common response to other people's pride seems to me to be something all minorities might profitably do together-and especially something we evangelical Christians might do with our Jewish friends. I'd love to hear the answers Jewish minorities have come up with as they try to respond constructively to other people's pride.

In addressing such a conversation, Christians should say in advance that one thing we will bring to the table-the best antidote to pride we've ever found-is the essence of the Christian gospel. It is the message of God's grace. It is the awareness that none of us has a single thing that wasn't given to us in the first place. That's true of individuals; it's also true of nations and people groups. It is the assertion that no level of accomplishment or excellence of behavior on our part is good enough to please God; it usually isn't even good enough to please each other! Like every Jewish family in the Old Testament, we need a Lamb. That Lamb, for us, of course, is Jesus.

Oh, yes. The embarrassing reality is that sometimes we Christians have sounded arrogant while we tried to explain that message of humility and grace. We've come across as cocky, proud, and exclusive. So if during this proposed conversation we slip back into that bad behavior again, we invite our Jewish friends to remind us of a basic ground rule: Leave your pride at the door. It's what got us into this mess in the first place.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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