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Angela Tilby: The West’s besetting sin is self-pity

17 September 2021


President Trump delivers a speech in the Pentagon, in January 2019

President Trump delivers a speech in the Pentagon, in January 2019

WHEN the prophet Isaiah cried “Woe is me, for I am undone,” it was because his eyes had seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Terrible as it was to see God, it was as terrible to be seen. As we might say in our contemporary argot, he was “othered” by God himself, and so othered to himself, realising that he was small, weak, sinful, “a man of unclean lips”, living “in the midst of a people of unclean lips”.

The vision of Isaiah stands for a vital thread in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The holy is not inside us. Our salvation, our message, and our mission begin not in self-affirmation, but self-negation. God confronts, judges, and purifies before he calls and sends. It is the divine rebuke that saves, because it is only on the basis of understanding that God is not us that we can recognise Emmanuel: God with us and for us. Only the genuinely humble get this, and they are rare.

Forgive my semi-Barthian musings, but the revisiting of 9/11 last weekend, so soon after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, has been a sobering moment. What we call “The West” is very much the product of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, however much this is now questioned, challenged, and sometimes disowned. The rise of the West to global and cultural dominance was fuelled by an undeniable energy, curiosity, and sense of mission and responsibility — virtues that always carried the possibility of corruption into brutality and exploitation.

We now, perhaps, realise that we are not as exceptional as we once believed. We are, like all the nations, as Isaiah might have seen it, mired in idolatry, which for us means the worship of money, comfort, and personal choice. Our flawed response to 9/11, together with our subsequent failure to carry through on our promises, suggests that we have gradually succumbed to that most enervating of the destructive passions: sloth, in the form of self-pity.

Sometimes, the world seems to be drowning in self-pity. You can see it in the faces of both President Biden and Donald Trump. In Trump, it is a snarl that has generated a mass of conspiracy theories, all aimed at keeping his supporters from that moment of truth: “I am undone.” In Biden, it comes weeping with empathy and sincerity — and also calculated support — for any who could feel disadvantaged.

Indulging self-pity is to join the dark side. Violent Islamism is born of self-pity. Self-pity saps hope and energy for everything except violence, if not towards others, then towards ourselves. There is a lot of it about, and, while the discourse of victimhood dominates our lives, we will never hear the voice of God. “Woe is me” is the cry not of a victim, but of a penitent.

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