“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)
The goods of this world, though they remain good, can be deceptive when you are a member of a fallen race. In certain moods of rude good health and the flush of adolescent insolence, it is all too easy to speak as though we can live on bread alone and that (as postmodern professors never tire of saying), “Everything is about power.” But when the buffets and battering pains of real life rip away the veneer of consumerist comfort in which we enwrap ourselves, we seek love and hope in the end, not power–if we are wise and listen to the better angels of our nature. We discover again that things like meaning, truth, beauty, goodness, and love is for our souls what bread is for our stomachs. We sicken of the empty calories of what passes for wisdom in this world. We find indeed that it is more vital to our life to know why we are alive than it is to merely extend life. We discover that we are desperate to know that there is goodness in the world and that we can know it, live it, and give it to our grandchildren. We find, in short, that we hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Simply discovering that is to grow up in ways that philosophers and academics in the antique bastions of clever postmodernism called “American Universities” have yet to discover. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you find that you stop being afraid of and intimidated by the clever fool. You discover that you are not stupid for ceasing to fear him. You find, to your surprise, that you are a grownup and a human being, not a talking head parroting what the Chattering Classes tell you should be thought by Correct-Thinking People.
Of course, when you make this break with what people tell you to think and begin trying to think with Christ and his Church, one of the results will be that you will receive (as a sort of badge of honor) the title of “self-righteous”. It is, by far and away, the most common term of abuse thrown at any person who defends some principle that makes people uncomfortable. So, for instance, prolifers are “self-righteous” according to abortion supporters. Anti-torture folk are “self-righteous” according to torture defenders. Teatotalers are “self-righteous” according to drinkers, tobacco opponents are “self-righteous” according to smokers, opponents of gay marriage are “self-righteous” according to supporters of gay rights.
But what does “self-righteous” actually mean? For most speakers of modern English, it means “I don’t like you and the principle you express belief in makes me very uncomfortable and angry.” Indeed, in postmodern culture, there is basically no difference between calling somebody “self-righteous” and calling them “righteous”. The words are functionally synonymous and they both mean “Pharisaic” or simply “full of yourself”.
Now this is a major change from biblical thinking. “Self-righteousness” is 180 degrees opposite to the biblical notion of “righteousness”. To be called “righteous” in Scripture is a compliment, not an insult. It means something much closer to what modern English speakers mean by “a great guy” or “salt of the earth” or even “genuine hero” than the crabbed teatotaller, icy snob, or self-regarding gasbag we think of when we hear the word “righteous” today. When Matthew calls Joseph a righteous man, he means that as a very good thing indeed, not as an implication that he’s a rulebound unfeeling moral calculating unit unable to sympathize with human frailty in his persecuting zeal to maintain his status as Holier Than Thou.
So what’s the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness? The word “self”. A person who upholds a moral system (especially a difficult one) is not automatically self-righteous. He is only self-righteous if he maintains that he has the power to uphold his moral system on his own steam or because he is That Sort of Chap.
The proof is in Scripture itself. We have it from Scripture that the apostles and evangelists upheld an extremely high moral standard: one that the Pharisees themselves could not possibly hope to keep (Matthew 5:20). But they were not self-righteous in doing so, even when they carefully (and quite obnoxiously, to their Jewish audience) repeated the denunciations their Master had uttered against the Pharisees as “blind guides” and “whited sepulchers” (Matthew 23). Why were these obnoxious and annoying people not self-righteous? Because they emphatically insisted that their righteousness came from Christ, not from themselves. Indeed, they carefully recorded the fact that, apart from Christ, they could do nothing; that left to themselves, they betrayed and abandoned Christ in his most desperate hour; and that they were quite capable of doing it again if they rejected the saving grace he offered them.
A Christian moralist who upholds some unpopular principle or denounces some popular evil is not, therefore, automatically self-righteous for doing so, even if he is annoying and shrill. Indeed, no small part of his shrillness may well be due to the fact that he fears his weakness. Calling such a one self-righteous is as silly as saying that an alcoholic who loudly and belligerently refuses the blandishments of his friends to go to the pub is self-righteous. In such a case, the Christian moralist is basically saying (as C.S. Lewis remarked about his own writings on Christian morality), “My heart (I need no other) sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly.” His shrillness in such a case is a reflection of his acute awareness of his own weakness, not a boast of his superior and self-sufficient virtue.
I suspect about 99% of the people in the world who are declared to be “self-righteous” by opponents in moral debates in fact carry in their souls a deep dread (and, often, a bitter memory) of some moral lapse which drives them to strongly emphasize the point of morality under discussion. Their emphasis may well be muddle-headed (as, for instance, in the case of the prohibitionist, or the person identifies smoking, cards, dancing or TV with sin). But unless you can demonstrate that a person is making a moral argument that really is predicated on congratulating themselves for being without the need of divine grace due to their intrinsic goodness, there’s really no sense in calling such a person “self-righteous”. Obnoxious, shrill, irritating, loveless, hostile, and rude, quite possibly. But not self-righteous.
Having distinguished self-righteousness (that’s bad) from righteousness (that’s good) there remains the question of how we get this righteousness Jesus wishes us to hunger and thirst for. The Christian tradition has hashed over three basic answers to that question: two of them false and one of them apostolic. The first false answer is that of Pelagius, who said, “We are sinners because we sin.” His prescription more or less amounted to saying “Stop it!” and assuring us that all we had to do was pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, imitate Jesus (who was only sent as a model, not as the source of righteousness) and we could be perfectly righteous on our own steam. This happy theory, unfortunately contradicted by the experience every single human being who has ever lived (even the Blessed Virgin, who certainly never claimed to be righteous on her own steam) was stomped into the dust by Augustine, who maintained the profound wisdom of St. Paul in pointing out that, in fact, we sin because we are sinners, fallen in Adam and unable to save ourselves apart from the grace of Christ.
Many sectors of the Reformation, following bits of Augustine’s thought, offered us another false choice. They agreed with Augustine that Pelagius was wrong about making ourselves righteous by grit, determination, and hard work. But they concluded from this that righteousness was fundamentally impossible for us to incarnate. They adopted a theory of “imputed righteousness” in which, as the classic image put it, salvation proceeded by God covering the dunghill of our everlastingly corrupt humanity with the snow of Christ’s righteousness. We remain the rotten bastards we always have been and always will be, but God “sees Jesus” not us and so pretends that we are righteous. The problem with this theory is, well, what a crappy sort of salvation that is! If that’s the righteousness that satisfies, then I’m a Hottentot.
And there’s a reason for that intuition: it’s not really biblical. Christ comes to transform us: to make us participants in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), not mere dunghills covered with snow. True, part of the salvation process involves “imputed righteousness”, but that’s not the whole story. As C.S. Lewis points out, this is how we also raise our children: by treating them as kinder, more generous, more polite and less self-centered than they really are until, as in Beauty and the Beast, the face become beautiful in response to the love showered on it. Grace is out to transform us, not merely put lipstick on a pig.
The fundamental insight of the Catholic tradition is that, ultimately, righteousness is not a concept. It is not a legal fiction. It is not an abstraction. It is not a moral state. It is not an ideal. It is not a rule, law, or command. Righteousness is a Person named Jesus Christ. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is, in the end of ends, to hunger and thirst for him and for transformation into the fullness of his image and likeness. Jesus knew this and gives us the Eucharist, his Body and Blood, which he has multiplied into food for a billion or so people and which still satisfies. It is a foretaste of the full satisfaction of Heaven, when we shall sit at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, not as everlastingly selfish children whose unreconstructed swinishness God pretends not to see, but as creatures who have really been completely cleansed of sin and made free and full participants in the perfect and glorious charity of the Trinity.
(For more on the Beatitudes, go here to order Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes and a Joyful Life.)