Pharisee-ism and Christian Dialogue: A Caution

A few mornings ago I was one of the designated readers for the Morning Prayer Service at the Berkeley Center here at Yale.  My reading was taken from Luke’s recounting of Jesus pronouncing “woes” on the Pharisees of his day for their legalistic behavior which produced in them an overblown sense of self-worth.  Now I’m setting aside the issue of how the Pharisees are portrayed in the Biblical text, which is undoubtedly with a fair amount of bias, to merely reflect on the principle of Christian practice which has emerged from that portrayal.  The idea of “Pharisee-ism” in Christianity is any activity or view or stance or attitude which produces in the person who partakes in it a sense of “moral superiority.”  We have to be a bit careful here- I’m not saying that we disregard moral progress and forget all about how we live our lives morally.  That said, Christianity has always attempted to take a path of humility- remove the plank in your eye before you attempt to remove the speck in your neighbors, judge not lest you be judged.  As someone at Berkeley summed it up this morning, Pharisee-ism is “any sort of viewing yourself as better than others” in regards to morality.
Now typically, this gets used to criticize people of a more conservative persuasion, often with a good bit of justification.  They are viewed, often rightly, as old fashioned and as arrogantly (or perhaps “colonially”) upholding a moral code that simply does not have any bearing anymore.  Or so the argument goes from those who claim to be more “inclusive.”  Recently I have come to a very ironic realization, which is that the “inclusive” side of this debate is every bit as guilty of the same sin.  After sitting in several services centered around a “journey” motif in which the leaders of the service no longer viewed themselves as on the journey but as having already arrived, after hearing quite a few conversations in which those who claim to be more “inclusive” explicitly denied fellowship to those of a more “conservative” view, I have come to the conclusion that neither side is exempt from the Pharisaic sin of exclusivity (though, ironically, the ones normally bashed for this are actually more honest in admitting their exclusivity and not masking it by “inclusive” rhetoric).  Which reinforces my typical assumption that most of the debates that rock our churches are not really debates at all but political shouting matches…
What I am saying here is not an attempt to take sides on any issue.  This is merely a caution to those who would argue that the greatest of sins is to exclude that quite often that is the very thing they do with their rhetoric.  I have been very shaped in this regard by the writings of one of my professors, Miroslav Volf, who in his book Exclusion and Embrace states what I think is a frequently forgotten, and for that reason extremely profound, statement (which I am paraphrasing):  There is no human conflict in which one side is completely innocent and another completely guilty.  In any and every conflict that divides us both sides have contributed to the problem, both sides bear some of the guilt.  Part of what is needed for restoration is for this statement to lead to an attitude of humility by both sides so that actual dialogue can occur and not persistent exclusion, even by those who claim to “include.”

What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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