Pride, Shame, Humility

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18 NRSV)

On an unseasonably warm (even for Texas) January morning, I was waiting for a bus and saw a man, I would guess in his late 30s, walk by wearing a tank top shirt. When he had walked past, I saw that he had tattoos on his triceps, a word written on each arm, from his shoulder to his elbow. On his left arm was the word, “white”. On the other, “pride”.

My immediate reaction was one of fear and repulsion. Although myself a white man, I immediately imagined this man having a pointy white hood in his wardrobe and a supply of wooden crosses soaking in kerosene in his backyard.

My second reaction was to step back, to examine my own reaction. I felt I was being unfair. Why shouldn’t there be “White Pride”? There’s Black Pride and Gay Pride and who knows what other kinds of pride movements, founded in order to celebrate a certain ethnicity’s or orientation’s or age bracket’s contributions to society and culture. Perhaps this man was simply embracing his heritage as a white man, claiming pride in all the contributions white people have made to the world.

My third reaction was, “Who am I kidding?” My Lutheran lessons in putting the best construction on every situation were working overtime and trying very hard to justify this man’s tattoos. While it may be unfair to assume he is a member of the KKK, it is a stretch of any imagination to assume that he was doing anything but co-opting a phrase meant to build up certain populations’ self-esteem. When members of the dominant culture do this sort of thing, only the most naive would believe that it wasn’t done in angry response to sub-cultures daring to claim some respect in the world.

Later that same day, I was taking a walk, enjoying the unseasonable weather. A jogger breezed by me. The T-shirt he was wearing had a gay pride rainbow covering the entire back of his shirt. In the stripes were the words, “Celebrate yourself, others will follow.” I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought any other day, but so soon after the incident with the “white pride” guy, I couldn’t help but reflect on the very different reactions the two statements of pride generated in me. One was of repulsion and the other much more sympathetic.

And as I reflected upon those reactions, a third thought came to the fore. While I would be able to wear both statements of “pride” and either one took some amount of courage to wear, the Scriptures and Traditions of my Christian faith consistently refer to pride as a harmful, sinful thing.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel . . . (Romans 1:16 NRSV)

Shame. I would submit this is where most pride movements begin. A group of people with some similar characteristic gather together and collectively state to the dominant culture or social powers “we will not be ashamed of who we are. You will not oppress us because of the color of our skin, because of our age, or because of who we love.”

I am not a student of psychology. For a psychological explanation and exploration of shame, one would do better looking elsewhere. My interest is religion and looking briefly through Scripture (proving that I own and can use a concordance) it seems that shame is not part of God’s intention for creation (Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed). A frequent petition to God asks that the one praying not be put to shame. Jesus warns about being ashamed of him and Paul mentions more than once that he is unashamed of the grace he’s received.

The thing that strikes me about most biblical mentions of shame is that there is an act of will attached to them. Some are put to shame. Others proclaim they will not be ashamed. Shame is something that is put on one or something one refuses to harbor in his or her being. This is not to say that one can, by simple proclamation, shake off the effects of shame. It isn’t so simple as that. Part of the purpose of the pride movements, however, is to shake off the willfully placed shame on their beings, to willfully disown the shame that keeps them in bondage.

To return to the men at the beginning of this essay, I have felt the shame of being gay, the shame of the closet. I have also felt the shame of being a white male, insofar as the white male has become the ubiquitous scapegoat of the late 20th century. Having felt both these shames, I can identify with both the white pride and the gay pride fellows above. I can guess at the feelings which might have led to both the tattoos and the T-shirt.

What I still have problems with is the word, “pride”. While I will admit to struggling with those vagaries known as self-respect and self-esteem, pride always seemed like a rather large thing to claim just for being. For example, even as a kid growing up in rural Texas, I never understood the “proud to be a Texan” sort of rhetoric. I was a Texan by accident of history and ancestral choices. I remain a Texan by choice as it is the only place I’ve known as “home”. But “proud” to be one? Not especially. Ashamed to be one? Not usually. It’s a fact of my life, much like being white or being gay. To be proud of such things feels like following a path to haughtiness, to arrogance.

Didn’t Jesus warn about this very thing with his admonition against those who claimed favor because they were children of Abraham?

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. (I Peter 5:6 NRSV)

Humility. Here is a word to approach with caution. Still, it is a word that needs mention when discussing pride. I will start with some personal assertions.

True humility only comes from a position of power. Humility that is forced upon anyone, as in what is done is slavery, is not true humility. True humility must be a choice, even if it is a choice claimed from a weak position. For example, a person who is unemployed may choose employment that is lowly, but if that person is told that is the only employment he or she is worthy or capable of doing and social constructs enforce that message, that person becomes a victim of oppressive attitudes. There is no shame in “flipping burgers” for a time in order to maintain housing and food, no humiliation, per se. The power of such a choice is in understanding and accepting that such work need not be a vocational stopping point. Similarly, the sort of humility that kept women subjugated by men — that “accepting of your station in life” talk — is nothing short of insidious. It takes a biblical principal and virtue and makes it a club to keep the powerful in power and the oppressed in service.

Having said that, humility will always look like weakness. To quote one of my favorite books, To Love as God Loves by Roberta Bondi:

Humility itself is countercultural . . . It wreaks havoc with all individualistic values: it is not a “live and let live” attitude. . . . It does not believe Christian values are purely subjective, each person negotiating her or his own values with God in private. It calls for the renunciation of all deep attachments to what the world holds dear: goods, social advancement, the satisfaction of appetites at the expense of others, the right to dominate others in any personal relationship. (p.54)

In a world that promotes success at all costs, a world that says you can have it all and a mansion to store it in, humility looks like choosing weakness, like preferring servitude. Subsequently, humility requires letting go of worry about what we look like to others.

Most of all, humility should not be confused with passivity. Instead, humility is about claiming and acting upon the conviction that every human being is worthy of dignity and worth. My heroes, the Desert Fathers, understood this as a way of bringing evil to true repentance and conversion of heart. Shows of power only make us defensive. Treatment as one carrying the image of God can sometimes bring us to that desired breaking of a stony heart which results in new life.

A story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Macarius was once returning to his cell from the marsh carrying palm-leaves. And the devil met him by the way, with a sickle, and wanted to run him through with the sickle, but could not. The devil said: “Macarius, I suffer much violence from you, for I cannot overcome you. For whatever you do, I do also. If you fast, I eat nothing: if you keep watch, I get no sleep. But it is only one quality in you which overcomes me.” And Abba Macarius said to him: “What is that?” The devil answered: “Your humility — that is why I cannot prevail against you.” (Western Asceticism, Owen Chadwick, ed., p.163)

As Bondi also points out in response to this story, anyone with enough will power can fast or keep vigil. Likewise, anyone can resort to name-calling, defensive posturing, taking up arms. Evil delights in these shows of strength and can match them, blow for blow. Evil cannot love in true in humility and is therefore rendered powerless against those who practices such virtues.

Now, I hear the cries of “naive idealist!” coming from around the world. Very well, I will accept the label, but understand that I am not calling for Christians to become doormats to be walked upon by the powers of the world. What I am calling for is a radical change of how we work for human rights. In countries where Christians have a certain amount of privilege and power, we ought not grasp that power but instead . . .

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. -Philippians 2:5-6 (NRSV)

From a position of ultimate power, our God put on weakness in Jesus and so became an advocate for all humanity. Likewise, we might take inventory in where we have power, even if we are in an oppressed, attacked minority, and from that power choose humility in lifting up someone else. For an example, it is has been asserted that gay males are, as a group, generally affluent. (I cannot say if this is true. In my own situation, I live paycheck to paycheck, but for the sake of the example, we will assume this is true.) What if this minority population were to suddenly make this affluence felt in the fight against homelessness, hunger or some other social ill? Indeed, it could probably be shown that this demographic has put its affluence to work in much research into AIDS and care for its victims.

Humility, I would then propose, is the means by which a subculture, already seen as countercultural, might take what little power within its grasp and truly impact the dominant culture, maybe even serve as a model for how the dominant culture might be radically converted, led to a radical repentance. Humility would be an alternative to the defensiveness of some (though, admittedly, not all) Pride events, leading to substantial service instead of empty posturing. Humility might even be a way to turn paralyzing shame into productive action.

This sort of thing is not without cost. There is no way to get around how the powers of the world react to this way of impacting lives. The cross stands against the sky as testament that humble service threatens the powerful in ways that have real prices attached. I do not like it and would that there be no more martyrs. Still, the empty tomb, indeed, the existence of the church 2000 years later, stands as stronger testament to the ongoing power of God in the lives of those who would who would not be ashamed of the Gospel.

So I close with this question: Can we catch a vision wherein we might do away with tattoos about pride and shorten the motto to simply “celebrate others” and through this find the strength of will to let go of both pride and shame so that, in giving life to others, we finally live?