Voices

The pride game

The need to play it is at the core of who we are

Issue: "50 family-friendly movies," June 28, 2003

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 bus. 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 joshing; he meant it as a put-down to a fragment of family history in which I had always taken a bit of pride. Someone else in the group graciously 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 Christians have defended them against such; sometimes, to our shame, we have joined in the 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 yet 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 denigrated. 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 is not nearly pluralistic enough." The chuckling reverberates through the media, the educational establishment, and among the intellectual elite.

Clearly, to be laughed at is different from being gassed in an oven or lynched and hung on a tree-although many Christians in other parts of the world now face equally gruesome ends for their refusal to give up their faith. The point, however, 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 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. Sadly, the typical human response to such put-downs is to reply with still another little dose of pride: "So you don't think I'm much?" the insulted person says. "I'll show you." And then we scramble to the highest and most prominent perch we can find, implicitly (and maybe even explicitly) 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 something all minorities might profitably do together. And perhaps now that Christians seem headed, in more and more contexts, toward minority status, maybe we should lead the way by asking other minorities how they have responded to other people's pride.

In launching such conversations, 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 in Christ. 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. Such a proclamation of grace says that no level of accomplishment or excellence on our part is good enough to please God; it usually isn't even good enough to please each other!

O, 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 other minority 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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