Ever since the September 11th terrorist attacks fifteen years ago, radio stations often play Lee Greenwood’s poignant song, “Proud to be an American.” Now, it’s a nice song, but I’m not much of a country music fan. (Just too many heart-breaking stories about unfaithful relationships and deceased dogs—or is it deceased relationships and unfaithful dogs?)
Long before 2001, the word “pride” was being bandied about by a multitude of groups: gay pride, black pride, plumber’s union pride, Notre Dame pride, nursery school pride, under-achiever pride, etc. When I was in high school, a popular bumper sticker supported our school football team: “Morgan Huskies Have Pride.”
In contemporary culture, the word “pride” has lost all its negative aspects. It is entirely a good thing. In generations past, however, people were wary of pride. They were much more Bible literate and they knew the Bible clearly taught that pride is a grievous sin—in fact, the worst of all sins.
The best analysis of pride I’ve ever read is in C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece Mere Christianity. In the chapter titled “The Great Sin,” Lewis explains, “It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind….Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”
Lewis, no doubt, learned this important lesson from this week’s gospel reading, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both men went into the temple, Jesus explained, to offer up prayers. The Pharisee prayed, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.”
The tax collector, on the other hand, stood off at a distance and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Jesus concluded, “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It is critical that we are humble rather than prideful in the presence of God. The reason is simple, as Lewis points out: “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not know God at all.”
When I hear people proclaim, as Greenwood’s song says, that they’re proud to be an American, it sort of sounds like they’re saying, “We’re the best! We’re better than every other country!”
As Lewis warned, when we compare ourselves to others and think we are wonderful just because of who or what we are, we are filled with the type of pride that “comes direct from Hell.”
How many of us achieved our American citizenship? How many of us earned our way into this country? I ask myself a simple question: What caused me to be born in New Haven, Connecticut, rather than Kabul or Somalia or Bogotá? The obvious answer: Certainly nothing I did.
American citizenship should be humbling rather than prideful. We’ve been given an incredible gift. For those of us who are convinced that God has blessed this nation (although I’m worried that He’s getting rather fed up with us right about now), the one emotion we should avoid is pride. It’s the exact same attitude the pompous Pharisee displayed in this week’s gospel reading.
As I said, I’m not a big country music fan. But I think I would like Lee Greenwood’s song a little better if he altered the words of the chorus to be: “I’m BLESSED to be an American.” (Well, at least he didn’t sing about his favorite hunting dog getting run over by a pickup truck—driven by his third ex-wife. I guess that counts for something.)