Last fall many commemorated Martin Luther’s sparking of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago when, in his 95 Theses posted on October 31, 1517, he attacked “works-righteousness.” Luther confidently expected that rejecting “works-righteousness” in favor of grateful trust in God would actually free Christians to do more and truer good works.
Imagine what would happen if Christians in the U.S. really believed with Luther that God loves them, that Christ’s saving work is sufficient, and they need not prove themselves in God’s eyes? It may be hard to learn from the Reformer’s insights, however, if we no longer recognize works-righteousness when we see it. That may be especially hard if, as I think, works-righteousness is taking a different shape than it did during Luther’s day. Let’s call it justification by team loyalty—a bedeviling hybrid of empty works and ideological belief.
I write as a Catholic who concurs with Luther’s core arguments about our utter need for God’s grace, and who teaches him appreciatively each year to college students, so I do not want to invite misunderstanding. If I name an ambiguity in his thought, it is one that Protestant theologians themselves can easily acknowledge.
Countering critics who immediately worried that his teaching of “justification by faith alone” would gut all motivation to do good works, Luther sometimes made a brilliant rhetorical move. “You want to do good works?” he retorted. “Then start with the one and only authentically good work that can issue in other ones: Do the work of putting your faith in Christ.”
So far, so good. But “faith” has always had a double meaning – both trust and belief. As the Protestant Reformation consolidated, and successive generations of theologians sought to realign Christian doctrine, Luther’s initial existential passion, to call Christians back to trust in God’s saving work for them through Christ’s faithfulness, often devolved into something else. Christians were instructed that above all they need to have the right beliefs about how God saves you. The Protestant scholasticism of later centuries sometimes seemed to propose a kind of justification neither by active works nor by trusting faith, but rather the mental work of believing the right things.
Fast forward to the age of social media. I feel the temptation myself. I want to feel good about myself and to assure both myself and others that I am on the right side of every possible issue. Tribalism is nothing new of course. But now, self-justification is only a tweet away.
For example, I may not be any more certain than anyone else about how to stop the killing in Syria or Yemen or Myanmar, but hey, if I “share” today’s New York Times article, everyone will know I care. Time named courageous women who have been “silence breakers” as the 2017 Persons of the Year, so if I post the magazine’s cover as my profile picture on Facebook, I can say “me too” in a way, and broadcast that I’m not that kind of man. Oh, and what a delightful burst of self-righteous dopamine if I can find just the right snarky take-down to expose the hypocrisy of family-values voters who were rationalizing the pedophilia of their candidate in Alabama.
The new name for this no-cost “work” is “virtue signaling.” Alt-right bloggers on the other team are probably quicker to cast this particular slur against my team – “social justice warriors” they call us. But it is indeed a thing.
And now my instinct is to defend myself by listing examples of how they do it, too. But that’s another device –whataboutism. “What about that Alabama candidate for Senate, Roy Moore?” I ask. “Well, what about that donor to liberal causes Harvey Weinstein, or progressive Senator Al Franken?” they respond I shoot back, “Yeah, but what about the gropester in the Oval Office accused by his own words?”
How about we all look at ourselves instead? Yes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All of us have used double standards to build up “our” teams and tear down “theirs.” Lord help us, even if we bracket the Lord for a moment, we’re falling way short of the glory of fair-minded, reasoned civil discourse. I’m sure that everyone thinks that the “other” side is more guilty of justification by team loyalty alone than “our” side is. But that doesn’t absolve “our” side, whatever side that may be. Self-righteousness is tricky business, after all.
So I ask again: Let’s imagine what would happen if more Christians in the U.S. really believed that God loves them, that Christ’s saving work is sufficient, and they need not prove themselves in God’s eyes?
In other words, justification by faith alone shouldn’t just bring us into right relationship with God. It should help us restore right relationship with each other. Divided as it is by so many culture wars, the body of Christ is always a place to start. But recognizing our own drives to self-justify will surely improve discourse in the body politic as well.
What can happen if I am clear that I never really can justify myself? I become that much freer to put aside my defenses. What can happen if I trust in God’s grace and expect justification by faith alone? I can be that much freer to listen across the boundaries of team affiliation.
There will still be work to do – hard work. I think here of the monthly men’s Bible study I attend in my interracial parish. Refreshingly, it breaks many stereotypes, but crossing the boundaries of team affiliation is still stressful. Some of the African-Americans around the table seem to be avid consumers of Fox News. And never mind that we are Catholics; as they strive to interpret the Bible some in the group default to a style of decoding supposed prophecies about the end times that is more at home among Protestant fundamentalists. I strain to offer the resources of my Ph.D. in theology in gentle and receptive ways.
Often the conversations are grace-filled and miraculous. But sometimes they are hard work, and really quite tiring. Putting a Black Lives Matter sign on my lawn would be so much easier. Around this table I have to get real about both my white privilege and my class privilege. Oh, but even as I write this, do I also have to get real and wonder whether telling the story I’ve just told amounts to another round of virtue signaling? Sigh.
All I know is this: I need God’s grace. “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Indeed, we can do no other except to trust God enough that we are able to lower our defenses and notice our self-righteousness. At least if we hope for redemption – ultimate redemption and civil redemption alike.