By Elton HiggsRecently I have been made aware of some confrontations between Christian brothers and sisters that highlight how easy it is for people who differ to retreat into opposing fortresses of righteous indignation, thereby effectively guaranteeing that there will be no resolution of their contentious differences. Of course, this happens in the secular realm as well, as the present polarization of political groups in our nation illustrates. But this kind of standoff is especially distressing in a Christian context, where humility and mutual charity are the prescribed norms for attitudes and behavior. It’s worth examining why Christians are so easily led to indulge in the heady and dangerous cocktail of righteous indignation.
As in every human argument, the fleshly way of dealing with conflict is to concentrate on defending one’s own point of view. Particularly is this true when the opposing point of view is seen to be unjust, unfair, or unscriptural. That perception pushes us toward taking on the role of defender of the faith or champion of the oppressed. Certainly it is sometimes necessary to launch bravely into these roles, but doing so always carries with it the danger of very easily slipping into the feeling that we are morally superior to those we oppose. This attitude will lead quickly to the mutual entrenchment that leads to church splits and divorce, as well as to political deadlock in the secular realm.
How do we avoid getting to this kind of impasse? A good place to start is the admonition of the Apostle James: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19b-20). Anger is one of the first ingredients to go into the cocktail of righteous indignation, following immediately on the shock of learning that we or somebody we feel responsible for has been abused or treated unfairly. Taking the trouble to listen carefully to someone we feel in conflict with slows down the kindling of anger, and delaying speaking provides time to examine whether we have correctly understood what we have heard. Speaking too quickly tends to harden our position prematurely, to lock us into our words and make it more difficult to make concessions that can lead to a middle ground of agreement.
Another key element to avoiding intoxication from that “heady cocktail” of self-righteous rigidity is the cultivation of humility, coupled with its companion, a desire to think the best of others, so as not to assume that their actions or opinions necessarily indicate malevolent intent or perverse objectives. As Paul puts it, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Humility enables each side in an argument to reaffirm that we are all fallible and subject to error, even when we behave with the best of intentions. Humility is a retardant to assuming the worst about our opponents, because we value them as much as we do ourselves. Humility makes us keenly aware that all of us are of equal value in the eyes of God, all equally in need of and receiving His love and grace. Humility prevents the emotional detachment that enables us to demonize and depersonalize an opponent.
Finally, just as going into battle gets the adrenalin flowing, so sometimes the thrill of defending what we regard to be a just cause or belief tempts us to make an emotional investment in it that overcomes both our objectivity and any desire to do the hard work of maintaining or restoring harmony. The battle assumes a life of its own that perpetuates and escalates the conflict, each side feeling increasingly justified by the literal or figurative atrocities committed by the other. In other words, we imbibe in the emotional high of battle, rather than sipping on the profounder and more complex nectar of swallowing our pride and giving up our partisanship in order to pursue the sober work of being peace-makers. We are instructed to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3-4).
Although Paul’s words in Eph. 5:18 are addressed to literal drunkenness, they also apply as cautionary words against tippling in the heady cocktail of righteous indignation: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”