The Problem of Arrogance

Arrogance is a swaggering, brutal word. It suggests someone with a loud voice, an overbearing manner and probably a florid complexion into the bargain. Unfortunately, arrogance can come in rather more humdrum form — not so much overweening self-confidence as complete disregard of others, an almost risible inability to register what others are thinking or feeling. From time to time I delve into the spam folder on this blog and find comments spluttering expletives and self-righteous denunciations, so bound up in the writer’s own views as to be incapable of taking on board anyone else’s. I suspect these writers have very few friends if they converse like that offline!

The problem with arrogance is that it makes claims for itself at the expense of others. It is selfish; and because it is selfish, it can be destructive. It is suspicious of others’ motives, grudging of others’ success. The contempt it shows is simply a mark of its being turned in on itself. The best image I can think of is not the lip curled into a snarl but the clenched fist, ready to pound a table or another’s nose, the hand that will neither give nor receive. Maybe that is why the prophet Isaiah said that when the Messiah came, he would uncurl the clenched fist; why, as evening comes, we sing the Magnificat, with its bright promise that the arrogant and powerful are cast down and the humble raised up.

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Why is Everyone so Angry?

I often ask myself why everyone is so angry. Read the comments section of any online newspaper and you’ll find as much bile and invective as thoughtful argument. The media themselves certainly don’t help, always looking for the victim impact statement whenever there is a tragedy or pouncing on people while they are still in a state of shock and unbelief. (As an aside, did reporters really need to interview those children caught up in the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School yesterday, or am I being ludicrously squeamish?) We have made tragedy into a spectacle and anger is, apparently, a legitimate response to any imperfect situation and a marker of our own righteousness. We get angry in order to feel good.

The trouble is, anger doesn’t get us anywhere and it doesn’t make us feel good for very long. It just intensifies the misery and compounds the negativity. When Jacintha Saldhana died, the Australian presenters responsible for the hoax telephone call received death threats from people who had no connection with Mrs Saldhana or her family. What was going on there? The presenters behaved foolishly, then compounded their folly by parading their regret for all the world to see; but who were those people who felt they had the right to punish others for what they had done? Did their anger help Mrs Saldhana’s family? No. It made a deeply sad situation even sadder. When the pope started tweeting, many used the opportunity to fill his twitterstream with dismissive and hostile remarks. Accusing the pope of bigotry or reviling him personally for the sins of his co-religionists may not sound very bad, but anyone who has been on the receiving end of false accusations knows how wounding they can be, and not only to oneself. Did berating the pope achieve anything? No. It merely made some people give up on Twitter altogether.

Yesterday, on Facebook, people misidentified the killer at Sandy Hook and started a campaign against someone completely innocent. Was that simply a collective howl of pain, feelings of revulsion and horror needing an outlet which in blind fury lashed out, or was there something uglier and more sinister at work? I don’t know, but it did nothing to assuage the grief of the bereaved or make the world a safer place to be. Instead, it made one person and his family feel very vulnerable indeed.

I think anger of the kind I am talking about is very often an inverse form of what it is ostensibly condemning, and it is deeply worrying. Regular readers know I am a great admirer of René Girard and have been profoundly influenced by some of his reflections on the nature of violence and the Christian response thereto. Passing the poison on has to stop, and it has to stop with us. Yes, we need to address situations that are wrong, but knee-jerk reactions are rarely the best even if they provide some temporary relief to our feelings.

Isaiah has a beautiful image for what the coming reign of God will achieve in our lives. He speaks of doing away with the clenched fist and the wicked word (Isaiah 58). That is precisely what our prayer during Advent aims at: a transformation of heart and mind that will allow Jesus our Messiah to unfurl our fists and open our hands to receive the gifts he wishes to give us. Sometimes those gifts are painful and costly, but he knows our pain and shares it with us. That is what the Incarnation means. This morning, in Newtown, Connecticut, people do not need our anger. They need our prayer.

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Still Thinking About Integrity

You must have noticed how often the the prophet Isaiah mentions integrity. Today’s first Mass reading, taken from chapter 48, is regretful about the integrity we haven’t practised and the happiness we have thereby forfeited:

Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,
I lead you in the way that you must go.
If only you had been alert to my commandments,
your happiness would have been like a river,
your integrity like the waves of the sea.
Your children would have been numbered like the sand,
your descendants as many as its grains.
Never would your name have been cut off or blotted out before me.

Still that word ‘integrity’ tugs at me endlessly. John the Baptist lived with integrity; so did St John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today; so, above all, did our Lord Jesus Christ. We’ve all known people of integrity and how difficult they can be to live with, even as we admire their courage, honesty and so on. That is because integrity has a way of transforming the lives of those who come into contact with it, often in ways that could not have been foreseen and might not have been welcomed if they had.

I like Isaiah’s image of the waves of the sea. That is exactly how the integrity of others frequently affects us: it topples us over, keeps coming back at us, won’t let go, swamps us at times, because it has an energy and force that its inconsequential appearance may belie. Four inches of water is enough to sweep a grown man off his feet. In the same way, it takes only a very little integrity to change things. Perhaps we should remember that and think about the presence or absence of integrity in our own lives.

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A Voice Crying

Isaiah’s image of a voice crying in the wilderness is one of the most evocative in scripture. No wonder that John the Baptist allowed himself to be merely the voice that precedes the Word. I often think that a blogger must also be just a voice: the message to be proclaimed, the essential Word, comes from the Holy Spirit. Our business is not to get in the way of that Word, not to falsify it, not to shrink it to our own comfortable assumptions about how things should be.

Reading again Isaiah chapter 40 this morning, I was reminded how the tenderness of God is not inconsistent with a wilderness experience, with huge efforts, much patience and uncertainty about results. We are called to make a highway for God in our hearts, and that means some exhausting labour to level the mountains of pride and fill in the valleys of fear. Those of us who blog from our Christian experience must expect it to involve us in hard work, misunderstandings at time, results quite the opposite of what we intended or hoped for: a kind of be-wilderment in fact. But we know that it was in the wilderness that Israel found God; that being a voice is important because we have the greatest of all messages to proclaim, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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