Pride Month and proud nations

The difference between dignity and arrogance

by Ken Sehested

       Nearly a year ago I wrote a close friend who pastors in Texas, attaching a photo of seven of our congregation’s teenagers arrayed in baptism robes, standing on the bank of a lake.

        My note said simply, “Is it OK to brag about this?”

        He and I both knew well that the Bible takes a dim view of pride. Dozens of texts warn against it, associating it with injustice (“Your doom has come, injustice has blossomed, pride has budded.” Ezekiel 7:10) and violence (“Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment.” Psalm 73:6).

        But a synonym of pride, “delight,” can function as an antonym: “I am the LORD who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight" (Jeremiah 9:24). In fact, delight may be the first emotion of the Bible. In Genesis, at the end of creation’s six stages, Scripture says God saw everything that was made, and it was very good. That’s a tame rendering of the Hebrew—more precisely, it was “utterly delightful.”

        When we lived in Memphis, a middle-aged man asked for a meeting with our pastor. Harold wanted to transfer his membership from a large, traditional Southern Baptist church. As Nancy always does to inquirers, she asked why would you want to be part of this church? (Not many pastors try to talk potential members out of joining.)

        “Because I’m living with AIDS,” he said, “I know I’m going to die before long; and I need a community of people to accompany me.” (This was well before antiretroviral therapy medications.)

        Which is exactly what we did—though, tragically, and despite our best efforts, Harold could never imagine his being a delight in the eyes of God. To live without a sense of dignity is a special kind of hell.

        How I wish he had lived long enough to march in a Pride Month parade, and, especially, to hear a much larger chorus of people of faith assuring him of being included in creation’s delightfulness.

        On this 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, it is stunning to reflect on how much progress has been made in welcoming the queer community to the public stage as well as to the communion table. Four decades ago, when I first began (timidly) pushing back against the vitriol of homophobia, I thought it would take another century before a significant number of church doors would be open to sexual minorities. It’s worth celebrating the gains made.

        Yet we have so far to go. Still today, nearly one-in-five LGBTQ young people have attempted suicide in the last year. [1] Our festering public discourse still generates contagion in the form of self-contempt. The colonizing of the mind is in some respects more insidious than cultural or judicial discrimination.

        The good news, according to the recently released Trevor Project, [2] is that “just one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt by 40%.”

        Creating a culture of affirmation—boldly declaring creation’s delightful pride in queerfolk—is still a major hurdle in society and in communities of faith. But you can be one of those people mentioned in the Trevor Project.

        Needless to say, there is Pride, and then there’s arrogance. Discernment is crucial.

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“The Statue of Liberty is no longer saying,
Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.
She’s got a baseball bat and yelling ‘You want a piece of me?’”
—comedian Robin Williams

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        No other season on our calendar is more sensitive to the demands of distinguishing between dignity and arrogance—between delightfulness and hubris—as we transition at the end of Pride Month to the week of our premier occasion for national genuflecting, the US Independence Day revelry on 4 July.

        The majority of US citizens have been reared to confidently proclaim our nation as a “shining city on a hill,” a lighthouse to the nations, illuminating the path to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a stalwart defender of freedom against all manner of despotism.

        Alas, much of the world does not share this generous assessment. In a 2018 poll, the Pew Research Center [3] revealed that 70% of citizens of other countries think the US does not take into account the interests of other nations. [4]

        In a separate study, when Pew researchers examined voter turnout of wealthier democracies in the world, they found the US ranks 26th out of 32. [5] And when the three richest Americans hold more wealth than the bottom 50% in the country, does democracy mean anything? [6] Given the unbridled role of money in electoral politics, former President Jimmy Carter believes the US is now an oligarchy rather than a democracy. [7]

        It is undoubtedly true that our nation’s founding documents set forth a breathtaking vision of liberty for its era. What is not acknowledged is the implementation of those values required violent repression and near-annihilation of the land’s indigenous people, the importation of millions of African slaves, and the limitation of voting to white, male, property-owning men.

        “All men are created equal” was profound in its promise but defective in its delivery. This has been true from the beginning; but the current administration’s “Make America Great Again” policies have escalated our descent into villainy.

        Take for example this statement by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In the early months of the Trump Administration, Tillerson addressed the Department’s diplomats and other staff to explain the president’s “America First” policy implications.

        “I think it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values. . . . Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated—those are our values. Those are not our policies.” [8]

        What most citizens do not understand is that, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, our political values have always been mugged by our economic/security interests. Tillerson is bluntly owning up to what has always been the case. When it comes to matching economic interests with spiritual values, Jesus was very blunt in his analysis: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

        Scripture articulates a blistering critique of national arrogance: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

        In the coming days many will be singing “America! America! God shed his grace on thee.” When doing so, remember that the second verse says “America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw.”

        Grace cannot be segregated from mending. We live with severe tears in our nation’s moral fabric. Repair begins with truth telling, humbling as it may be. Only then can we undertake the work of disentangling our values from our disordered desires and exploitative policies.

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For more on the topic of patriotism, see the special issue of Signs of the Times, 28 June 2017, No. 125


[1] Lindsay Holmes HuffPost



[4] Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter, Laura Silver, Janell Fetterolf & Kat Devlin

[5] Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times

[6] Noah Kirsch, Forbes

[7] Eric Zuesse, huffpost

[8] Julian Borger, “Rex Tillerson: ‘America first” means divorcing our policy from our values,” The Guardian

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