I’m thinking of the crackpot preacher in Gainesville, Florida, Pastor Terry Jones (and I use the word “pastor” with his name advisedly), and what a travesty he has made of his so-called ministry and his sense of “rightness.” I also think of the other purveyors of religion and “rightness” like popes, archbishops and priests, who have rendered their judgments on people and devastated lives and entire societies over the centuries.
I’ve observed since I was a young child that one can be right and wrong at the same time. You can be right in terms of your evaluation of something – a person, an event, a thing like a rule, protocol or law – and still be wrong in terms of the way that you wield your being right. You can wield your rightness without compassion and mercy and be so very wrong in the harm that you levy upon the ones you’ve judged. An example is how I, as a young manager, couldn’t resist identifying the mistakes made by a subordinate supervisor on a Friday afternoon, ruining her weekend by not providing her with any chance for further conversation until the following week, when I could have waited until Monday to talk with her, a better choice for both of us.
The problem with harming others with your rightness is that undoing the harm is almost impossible. You can’t take the harm back. You can only ameliorate it, and then, sometimes not well or enough. You can’t turn back the clock on having said judgmental words, causing others to think poorly of someone you’ve judged publicly or causing a loss of reputation, job or friends. You don’t even get to feel the satisfaction of being right if you are at all a moral being after you’ve seen the harm that your rightness has done.
Even worst than being right and wrong at the same time is feeling right and wronged simultaneously. I remember a man I once knew who was brilliant intellectually but truncated emotionally. He often was right in terms of his evaluation of people, events and things, but he then took a crooked turn and somehow became the victim in the scheme of things, feeling burdened by the way others responded to his judgments. That’s a tragic self-absorption to live with, to create your own psychic prison.
Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly with God is an admonition in Micah 6:8. Being right can be about doing justice, which is a good thing. But doing justice without mercy is hollow. I asked a confirmation class this past weekend what they thought mercy meant and heard answers like kindness, compassion and forgiveness. I think mercy is all of those answers and that it also encompasses a sense of extending God’s grace, which is about the gift of boundless love without deserving it. Mercy means that you get a response that is kinder, more compassionate and forgiving than you could possibly earn on your own merits.
Walking humbly with God is an admonition to focus on God and to focus less on yourself. That’s why being right should be held lightly – humbly. When you have right judgment about people, events and things, it shouldn’t be all about you. And if you hold your right judgment lightly, you will not be one who crows about it from the rooftops or who clubs others with your words. When you hold a flower in your hand, it is best to hold it in your open hand, careful not to close your fingers tightly around the fragile flower and crush it, destroying its beauty that gives pleasure to all who observe it. Likewise, when you hold being right in your being, it is best to hold it lightly with an open heart, so that others come to see it at their own pace, without being harmed by the weight, power or anger of your words or judgment.
Being right and holding it lightly is about self-restraint. It is about a self-image that resists any sense of superiority or privilege, regardless of the rightness you feel coursing inside yourself, an exercise in living in a conundrum. Self-restraint places your ego in a just relationship with others, where there is expression of mutual interest, cooperation and care.
In our church liturgies we are often reminded of the Summary of the Law given by Jesus, which says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ [Luke 10:27] However, it is important to remember the new commandment given by Jesus, which says, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’[John 13:34-35].
Loving one another as Jesus loves us is a higher calling than loving our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus' standard is higher than any we can hope to set or achieve on our own. Jesus said repeatedly in his earthly ministry, "Follow me." And in John 13:35, he tells us how we can measure ourselves as his followers - by our love for one another.