by Brad Duncan
I'm continuing to explore the idea that the pursuit of righteousness is the wrong priority of Christians and the Church. It leads to all kinds of trouble. Like the legal experts and Pharisees that Jesus corrected in Matthew 5:20, we need to be called to a higher objective than just RIGHT BELIEFS and RIGHT ACTIONS. Also called "faith" and "works", or doctrine and practice, or orthodoxy and orthopraxy as you'll hear in theological circles. The concept of righteousness is that these right beliefs and right actions somehow give us right standing with God (or if not, they are a clear sign and result of right standing with God).
So what kind of trouble does righteousness cause?
In the name of righteousness, American settlers committed genocide to indigenous peoples. We all know it, and our country still struggles with the guilt of our actions. The atrocities were endorsed by the Church and the idea of a God-granted destiny for the settlers, those whose BELIEFS made them the chosen predestined to conquer the unbelievers. I'm not trying to exaggerate here. In fact this type of religiously-fueled war is common throughout history and in the world today. I'm no expert on history. But I'm painfully aware that the cross of Christ has been and is used as a weapon.
Why? Righteousness. The idea that we are better. The idea that someone is below us. Yes, what I'm saying is that the notion of righteousness leads to elitism. Elitism leads to prejudice and inequality.
In the name of righteousness, churches have split over and over to subdivide those that are "accepted by God" into smaller and smaller factions. Each side thought that they are right, and that their differences were worth abandoning the others over. Church denominations largely hold onto these distinguishing differences today and separate themselves from the other guys. Now, again I am no church historian, and I hope that by now the riffs have been mended, but it continues to happen today. Churches argue over righteousness. As if they can pick a right side and be more accepted by God for their choice.
In the name of righteousness, I know that I myself have looked down on others. I have perpetrated institutional elitism. I have been dysfunctionally righteous. I have practiced faith and actions to the point that I was pretty sure God was happy with me, especially when you throw in God's grace to cover in case I did it wrong. After all, I'm only human. I'm doing the best that I can. But that "other guy" is not even trying! He drinks and cusses and surely he's going to hell. I'd better not talk to him. Unless he changes of course. This type of thinking led me down the wrong path. I didn't see the other guy. Instead I ignored him.
In the name of righteousness, Christians feel no regret in hating gays or giving them the cold shoulder of apathy. If we believe they are wrong, we feel entitled to belittle them in every way and reduce their rights to try to make them stop being what they are. Or maybe ignore them and hope they'll go away. In this way, righteousness is brooding arrogance.
So, to revisit the righteousness of the Pharisees, our attempts at right beliefs and right actions lead to the same fallacy: righteousness that isn't right. We need to seek something greater. We need to give up on righteousness of that sort and go back to the drawing board.