Superiority is a tricky thing. Why? Because we go at it — feel we need or want some sense of it – out of our insecurity. That’s where there’s some pathos in thinking ourselves better than others… because we often do it, I believe, because of a deeper seated insecurity. Are we good enough? Acceptable? We aren’t so sure…
Everyone has some insecurities — even those we can’t imagine having self-doubts. (And God help those who have no self-doubts!) Most of us try and cover up or cover over our concerns that something about us is inferior.
We human beings are incredibly creative about coming up with ways and reasons to think ourselves better than others. We are so good at it, that we often cause the people we think ourselves better than real harm. Our claims diminish, limit and endanger those who are labeled inferior.
As individuals we can come up with our own unique sense of superiority. I have a friend who is honestly convinced that his fingernails — they are quite handsome — are some outward sign! Another friend was adopted from Korea by an Euro-American family in North Dakota. Until college, he’d never met another person of Asian descent, but, he laughs, “I always knew Koreans were best.” And now that he has met plenty of people of Chinese and Japanese descent, he can delineate the ways Koreans are better!
We do it as communities too. One of the recurrent topics of the Philadelphia schools closings is the difficulty of combining two Germantown high schools that have had not only different, but competing identities. Superiority is certainly also some aspect of bullying that, because of its tragic effects, has rightfully claimed more of our attention.
Even the populations of whole nations quickly come to think of how they are better than other nations. It’s hard sometime to recognize one’s own jingoistic prejudice, but when we encounter them in nationals from other countries…
Our claims to superiority often spawn cultural norms and structures that reinforce where we locate our sense of value. And further the disrespecting or oppression of others.
As an example, in school days, one found one’s place and one’s pride with one’s group: there were the smart kids, the jocks, the pretty people and various groups of outsiders. Most of those groupings have to do with claiming a value that doesn’t always have to be, but often is about a claim of superiority. Intelligence. Athletic prowess or strength. Beauty. And for the outsiders, a variety of “countercultural values.” Each superiority group creates its own subcultures, customs and practices to build up their values (and often put down their “inferiors”).
Humans are so good at these “I am better than you” maneuvers, we can even turn negatives into superiority. When I was a kid, family life was chaotic; we often didn’t eat dinner until later than made sense for a family with young children. Instead of recognizing an unsettledness of schedule resulting from some real difficulties in our lives, I worked it into a sign that our family was more interesting — unconstrained by middle American conventions! — than families that ate at a reasonable hour. (Years later when I had a family of my own, I still could feel the impulse to mess up the family early evening schedule and push dinner late to show we were better than boring families.)
I’m not sure our constructions of superiority actually quell our fears and self-doubts. Perhaps they give us some fortress or hideout from which to defend ourselves from them. But I believe we should aim for “identity” and groupings where we fit in and find company that aren’t created by putting others down.
Jesus lived in a society not unlike ours in this regard. Populated by real people and their insecurities and self-doubts, it was criss-crossed and divided by claims to superiority — all these lines of demarcation and inequality.
Men were more important than women. The powerful mattered more than peasants. Tax collectors were as inferior as the Roman Empire in whose service they worked. Leprosy, blindness and other illness were also labeled as a sign of someone’s guilt or undeserving. The negatives identified in prostitution, drunkenness or adultery — they may have served more in making “the innocent” feel superior, rather than identifying the problems of people actually suffering from the condition (reminds me of straight folks claiming gay marriage is a threat to their unions!).
Religion likewise often served to provide means and material for this or that group’s feeling superior to others. Jews were closer to “right religion” and God’s care than Samaritans (at least from the Jewish perspective). Within Judaism, chief priests, Pharisees, Elders, Herodians, scribes, Sadducees, Zealots… all had some “better than others” claim that fashioned their group. It’s always a struggle for religion– is it about something deeper than affirming saints at the expense of sinners?
Jesus broke through all of these social conventions and self-defensive constructions. He spoke to women in public. He showed a preference for the poor. He critiqued the powerful. He reached across the divides — lifting up Samaritans, recognizing the humanity of Roman soldiers, learning from a Syrophonecian woman. He undercut the etiology between illness and sin.
Finally, grace tears down the divide between saint and sinner. At its best, the faith that bears his names encourages, teaches us and enables us to do the same. Read John 4:5-42. Jesus offers grace and freedom. But often us religious folk are too busy being right and self-important to hear, much less respond. But in the humility of not having ways to feel superior — the Samaritan woman with too many husbands heard, understood and responded.
God doesn’t care about all the artificial lines we draw to feel superior. But letting go of them can be difficult. Scary. Read John 13:1-17. Jesus offers a way past seeing ourselves better than others. Whether your foot washing is literal or figurative, it can help you past some of your status symbols and judgmental attitudes…
See you in church,