Sunday, February 8, 2015


Humility


The Polish parliament adopted a European convention opposed to family violence, which includes recommendations for what children should be taught about equality between men and women. In a very bitter debate many parliamentarians objected that teaching children the equality of men and women goes against traditional family values, against established ideas about the different roles of men and women. Many of these objections were based on what were thought to be Catholic values. Equality between the sexes was seen to violate religious teachings.
I thought that was really interesting because it showed that Islam has no special place in the war of men against women. Catholicism can hold its own. It made me wonder whether newspapers in Yemen or in Pakistan constantly reported about priestly child abuse, as our papers continue to report so-called "honor killings."
If you are a Protestant this story may reinforce your detestation of Catholicism. But thinking about that reminded me of the slave castles on the Atlantic coast of Ghana. There slave traders erected massive stone buildings to hold black men and women for shipment to the New World. The ground floor was taken up by a large dungeon crowded with future slaves. On the first floor, right above the dungeon, was the chapel where the Dutch Reformed slave traders sang their hymns in praise of God and thanked him for purging them of sin.
Secularists may want to bolster their case from all these narratives. But the Soviet governments that committed genocide against their own people were devoted secularists. Cruelty to other groups of human beings is not limited to practitioners of different religions. The Nazis had no religious commitments.
Can we learn anything from these horror stories?
It seems to me that male chauvinism, child abuse, vicious racial prejudice, and genocide all are committed by people who are self-righteous, consider themselves better than others, privileged and deserving their privilege – in short people deficient in humility. Men are lacking in humility who believe that it is their role to be the dominant force in the family and in the world, to control resources, make decisions, lay down the law and, where necessary, enforce it violently. Many different religions suffer from the same shortcoming. Secularists are notorious for believing that they are superior to religious persons.
We must understand what humility is.
The humble are prepared to recognize their limits and shortcomings. They can admit those because they have a good sense of what they know and what their competences are. We should not confuse that clear-eyed awareness of what one is and is not able to do of the humble with people who are constantly apologizing, often for what they are not responsible for. Humility is quite different from low self-esteem.
Humility thinks critically. Not for them the credulity of those who consistently distrust themselves. Many people believe what they hear on Fox News, or in other places that promote distrust of established wisdom. The humble trust their own intelligence and use it to form their own opinions. They well know that they may make mistakes but trust themselves to repair those.
Humility respects outstanding accomplishments. But, unlike many people, it does not automatically salute persons in authority – elected officials, doctors, law enforcement, military authorities, ministers. Humility requires both trust in oneself and the willingness to incur responsibility for making mistakes.
Humility is different from the false modesty of many people who secretly believe that they are as good as human beings come, they work hard, they are sexually continent, they are never loud, or drink to excess. They do their duty day-in, day-out-- all the while quietly congratulating themselves for not being like those people – African-Americans in the US, Irishmen in Britain, Greeks and Turks in Germany, Palestinians in Israel, etc.
Aware of what they are good at and where they tend to fail, the humble do not need to bolster their self-respect by looking down on other groups, usually stereotyped.
Humility is especially in short supply in the US. Our position in the world is that of the richest and most powerful people the world has ever seen. Our leaders keep telling us that we must maintain our position of superior power. We are the leaders of the first world. We look down on "old Europe," not to mention on the "developing world," while we marvel at their incompetence.
But that attitude, as the controversy in the Polish parliament illustrates, produces terrible injustices. The attitude that we know what's right, that we do what's right, and therefore can lord it over others, has for long done great harm to women, to children, to Africans destined to be sold as slaves, to Armenians or Jews. Lack of humility, a prominent characteristic of citizens of the US, is the cover for a good deal of brutality in this world.