The problem of subjective righteousness

I am watching a programme about the Northern Irish funeral murders. My two particular specialist areas of academic interest are Northern Irish Loyalism and Evangelicalism in the region. I have done some work on the vanishingly small crossover between the two.

The first part of the programme focused on Michael Stone and the Milltown Cemetery killings. The second part of the programme focused on the subsequent corporals killings of two British army officers who were embroiled in the funeral of one of Stone’s victims.

As is typical in these things, the Loyalist Michael Stone was portrayed as a nutjob attempting to batter the innocent Republican community (not a totally unreasonable inference). By contrast, the lynching of two British army servicemen was portrayed as a wrong, but a somewhat understandable response to the events days earlier. The RUC were portrayed as either stupid or up to something (probably the latter but likely not the something being implied). The whole thing ended with a Republican(!) suggesting that, in response to the question ‘who should we believe?’, you simply listen to all perspectives. How magnanimous. Not least since he had put his own particular perspective quite clearly throughout the programme.

What was striking were the admissions on the part of the Loyalists. First, whilst denying that Michael Stone had been sanctioned by any paramilitary top brass, they admitted that – despite not ordering the action – most saw Stone as something of a community hero and many happily celebrated his actions. Second, they acknowledged – particularly with respect to the corporals killings – if their community believed that two Republicans had wandered into a Loyalist funeral, they would have responded in almost exactly the same way. This was in stark contrast to the Republican defence of their own actions which were largely justified by one means or another. It was quite striking that one Loyalist stated that Loyalists are very poor at propaganda whilst Republicans are much better at it. Leaving aside one’s particular views of either side, I would agree with that assessment.

Throughout the programme ran a rich seam of self-justification. Everybody believed that their actions were justified for one reason or another. It was a potent reminder of the truth of Total Depravity. As anyone who has ever gone into prisons will tell you, murderers justify themselves as ‘not as bad as the paedos’ whilst the paedophiles will venture ‘at least I’ve not killed anyone’. As human beings, we are specialists at self-justification and righteousness by subjective reasoning.

It’s easy to watch such programmes as an English outsider, judge the behaviour of the two communities and congratulate ourselves that we aren’t nearly that bad. How ridiculous, we think, that anybody could justify such behaviour. But the fruit of that same reasoning is awash in our churches.

I have had direct conversations with individuals engaged in open and unrepentant sin who have sought to justify themselves and, subsequently, blamed the church for daring to suggest that their behaviour is not appropriate for a disciple of Christ. It would seem Jesus’ comment to ‘judge not’ is particularly pertinent when you’re in sin; his comments those who keep his commandments being his friends and that if we love him we will keep his commandments rarely seem to come up. Apparently ‘judging’ – by which they mean suggesting their behaviour is contrary to Jesus’ own clearly stated commands – is the worst possible sin. Daring to honour the Lord by loving his law and exercising church discipline, as he tells us we must if we love him, is deemed abusive.

The finger can’t point at others – as an old friend was fond of saying – without four pointing back at ourselves. Whilst our lives may not warrant formal church discipline, how often do we slide seamlessly into self-justification? We so quickly leap to justification by comparison. It wasn’t ideal, we think, but nobody died.

Only, somebody did though, didn’t they? Unless you take the Muslim view on the matter – or the roundly debunked view that hasn’t been upheld in the academy by anyone for around 150 years – Jesus did, in fact, die because of whatever particular sin we indulged. You may not have killed anyone today, you may not even have done much that the world would consider very serious at all, but Christ certainly died for it, however you cut it.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a Northern Irish Republican or Loyalist guilty of murder, a paedophile in prison, an adulterer in a church or indulging the kind of ‘little sins’ (such that any such thing exists in reality) that we simply overlook. We may be able to justify ourselves subjectively but before the ultimate holiness of God not one of us may stand. All of us have fallen short of the glory of the Lord thus each of us needs the atoning work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

The question each of us must ask is this: if we are justifying ourselves subjectively, how do we hope to stand when faced with somebody better than ourselves? If you know somebody better than yourself, that mode of reasoning surely puts you in great trouble. The problem for all of us is that, on such terms, only the best person in the world can be considered good. Worse, God entered our world as a man and lived as the only perfect human being. On a subjective measure, only Jesus Christ is getting into Heaven whilst, by comparison to him, the rest of us are condemned already.

But John 3:17 says, ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’. Jesus came into the world not so that we would be condemned by comparison but so that we might be made right with God and enter into a relationship with him. Though we have all fallen short of God’s glory, the Lord has made a means of being made right with him so that we might enjoy him forever.

Self-justifying subjective righteousness is self-condemnatory. By our own reckoning, only the very best person makes the grade. But acknowledging our own unrighteousness means that we are caused to look to the only way of salvation. When we recognise that we are not good, and nothing we can do will change that fact, we might throw ourselves on God’s mercy. When we realise that his mercy has been made manifest in Jesus Christ, then we might turn in repentance and faith to him and grasp hold of it.