Antigay zealots once placed a billboard in downtown Toronto that they intended for marchers in a Gay Pride parade. The billboard was a Bible quote: “This was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, Pride.”
The idea that pride is the worst of all sins is a common notion. Saint Augustine called pride “the beginning of all sin.”
Today, the religious right sees the depravity of gays not only in our sexual behavior but also in our “prideful” failure to acknowledge our own sinfulness. They call us egotists, narcissists and hedonists. However, our response to the religious right does not have to be as categorical and knee-jerk as their attacks. Gays need not reject religion altogether just because a group uses its theology as a weapon against us. Instead, we can take an open-minded look at pride to glean wisdom that we can claim for our own.
Judeo-Christianity is hardly the only tradition to condemn pride. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and other wisdom traditions also have teachings that condemn egotism and arrogance. The Greeks understood pride as hubris, the exaggerated self-confidence of being foolish enough to ignore the gods.
Unfortunately, the spiritual wisdom about pride is frequently distorted by religion. Religions may go beyond condemning arrogance to actually teaching that human nature is corrupt, wicked, vile, wretched, and fundamentally sinful. In recent decades, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered have suffered some of their greatest humiliations at the hands of religion.
Traditional religion relentlessly condemns pride but seldom condemns low self-esteem with the same conviction. Authentic spirituality teaches that both arrogant pride and low self-esteem are equally important distortions of self-worth.
In Christian ways of thinking, arrogant pride is tantamount to playing God; effectively one is pretending to be one’s own savior. By the same token, Christians can think of low self-esteem as a failure to honor one’s dignity as a creation of God by effectively playing God and damning oneself.
Christianity’s remedy for the dual sins of pride and low self-esteem is right relation with God. In other words, it’s not thinking so highly of oneself that you don’t see your own need for salvation. But it’s also not thinking too lowly of oneself, because your sense of esteem comes from recognizing your sacred worth as a child of God.
In Taking a Chance on God, John J. McNeil discusses the sin of low self-esteem: “In my 20 years as a pastoral counselor and psychotherapist to lesbians and gays, I have found that the chief threat to the psychological and spiritual health of most gay people, especially those who come from a strong Christian background, is guilt with its companions shame and low self-esteem, which can in turn develop into self-hate.”
McNeil points to therapy, coming out of the closet, and developing a healthy spirituality as the three most important steps for gays to take in healing low self-esteem.
Pride isn’t a sin when it’s an expression of healthy self-esteem. Celebrating gay pride is an essential affirmation of our human dignity, whether that takes the form of marching in a parade or being more honest with our friends and family about who we are.
Pride can surely elevate the gay spirit, but what about the gay soul? Feeding the spirit requires that we envision our ideals, put our philosophy of life into action, and have a strong sense that we are a woman or man with dignity and integrity. Positive self-esteem is vital for these endeavors. In contrast, soulfulness does not care about what’s healthy or unhealthy, or whether an experience is joyful or melancholy. Soulfulness insists on being true to what’s real without pretense or apology. Being soulfully gay means not using false pride as a shield over our pain, shame, and guilt.
Authenticity demands that we allow a place for all our feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones that we’d rather cover over with denial, secrecy, and rigid thinking.
For everything in life there is a time under the sun, says the book of Ecclesiastes. There are times for celebrating gay pride and times for acknowledging our doubts and lack of wholeness. For every man and woman marching gleefully in the parade, there are others who aren’t yet ready to celebrate, at least not until they’ve done their soul work.
The point of doing soul work is not to wallow in misery but to enter deeply and courageously into our pain. Soul work requires us to break down the falseness of our sense of gay pride so that we can eventually emerge from the other side into an authentic form of gay pride. But the soul’s first step down can be a rough and tumbling one: humility.
Note: This article is reprinted from Soulfully Gay.
(Feb. 14, 2004)