The Blinding Qualities of Moral Superiority

A few days ago, The Washington Post printed a fascinating article by Michelle Boorstein about the uproar and severe fractures within a local synagogue community created by the presence and subsequent demanded departure of a registered sex offender and pedophile in its midst.

But the substance of the story was not the only aspect that fascinated me. What caught my attention even more was a sentence buried within, attributed to the head of the synagogue board who, “said some [synagogue members] thought the pariah status created by sex offender registry lists should be a civil rights issue, like that of gays, women and hunger.” The reason this sentence stuck in my craw is the premise behind such a statement: the suggestion that women, gays, and hunger belong under the same umbrella as sexual offenders ignores the fact that of those four “criteria,” only one involves an active choice. The offender chooses to act. People don’t choose to be women or gay or hungry; further, to equate these groups with an inherent pariah status that society accords sexual predators makes no sense to me.

I understand that shame has a long, painful, historical association with homosexuality and poverty, and (I suppose) in some cultures, being born female is shameful as well, but this is not anything I believe. So, I found it shocking to read this presumption of pariah status merited equal weight for these various “groups” by members of a self-proclaimed “progressive” religious organization. To me, advocating for legal changes in terms of matters directly related to women or gay rights is completely different from the “pariah status” of sexual offenders who have served their time in prison but who may present an ongoing threat to their communities. The fact that a group which prizes, publicizes, and celebrates their “inclusivity” would lump these issues together indicates to me the sort of blindness that can, all too often, accompany moral superiority of any type.

There is lots to be said and debated about the topics of repentance and redemption, compassion and tolerance, fear and suspicion, forgiveness, common sense and hystericism. The Post article highlights a searing example of a group of people who assert that they are “inclusive,” and yet prove themselves unable to include the most reviled of sinners in their midst. I don’t envy them their struggle.

Righteous Indignation is a plague throughout the world and we’re seeing more and more strident forms of this on both the right and left sides of the political aisle—it’s another version of the fire and brimstone tenor that has seeped into our daily political and religious debates. But, as the presidential election approaches, and the nation closely split, with good people vehemently and aggressively declaring anyone who disagrees with them as evil, corrupt, wicked, greedy, or just plain stupid while priding themselves on their own brilliance, courage, and moral rectitude, I see the blindness that accompanies righteous indignation.

What about the tolerance and compassion required to respect another’s widely differing view? What about the courtesy and discipline needed to see past the politics and into the humanity of another? What about the self-congratulatory pride that seeps into any strongly held opinion? The Post article went on to explain that in the aftermath of asking the sexual offender to leave, the rabbi who had initially welcomed the him into the fold gave a sermon entitled, “Hold Your Position Humbly” and told the congregation to quit feeling self-righteous about their view of the matter which has led to departures from the synagogue and years’ long friendships destroyed.

Answers to this particular scenario are not easy or straightforward. Each day we make judgments—we have to—this is not a world where thinking people can go through their lives equivocating about everything. But this article, and the ignorant reference to grouping women, homosexuals, hunger, and sex offenders into the same umbrella category of civil rights causes, illuminates a dramatic example of the blindness that can accompany those who pride themselves on the very qualities they say they embrace.

The point of this post is simply to get you thinking. What value do you hold dear and wish to inculcate in your children and community? How far are you willing to go to live out these principles? And, once that line is crossed, what then? Do you see things in a different light?

It is dangerously easy to lose sight of the very principles we hold dear when confronted by its mirror image.


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