In season six of Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine happen to see George’s father (Frank) talking to a man wearing a cape. Naturally they think this is odd so they mention it to George, who in turn meets his dad for lunch so he can ask about the mysterious cape wearer.
George: Jerry and Elaine saw you [the other day].
Frank: They didn’t say hello?
George: Well, they were in a rush.
Frank: They couldn’t just say hello? Ah, the hell with them.
George: They said you were with some guy who was wearing a cape.
Frank: Elaine, I can see not saying hello. She’s very… what’s the word? Supercilious.
~ Seinfeld, S6, E4: ‘The Chinese Woman’
Sadly, we never learn why the man was wearing a cape and worse, we are never told the meaning of ‘supercilious’.
too common a theme
I subscribe to a variety of christian news letters, blogs, and social media because keeping an eye on religious culture is my primary occupation now. Like my previous jobs, I still operate at a deficit.
Anyway, the U.S is well into its election year and much of the discussion still surrounds evangelical support for presidential wannabes. One such pastor appeared on a news network and was asked to explain why he was supporting a notably unsavoury candidate.
He began his answer by assuring the viewers that he would never allow any of the candidates to teach Sunday School in his church. Hmm… The pastor then went on to say that he was campaigning for the person he believed would enforce the values that were most important to he and his congregation.
Translation: Godliness isn’t practical in the real world so we need ungodly people to enforce our strict brand of morality.
That pastor sure does sound supercilious. Oh, I almost forgot: supercilious means pompous, smug, unbending, preachy.
It is an easy temptation for christians to take their righteousness so seriously that they become unseeing, unhearing, and unfeeling. Like Frank in the Seinfeld episode, they think others are supercilious when in fact they themselves are.
There is a proverb that “Empty vessels make the most noise”.
I thought of that last June during PRIDE month. I recognize there are still differing opinions on the subject in the Christian community but a well known evangelical evangelist took it on himself to declare that God hates our pride, and God hates PRIDE.
Why would a high profile christian leader feel the need to say backhandedly that the LGBTQ community are ‘hated’ by God? Why had he not learned that 60% of gay people already experience discrimination? And are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide? I mean, why leave the word ‘hate’ hanging in the air?
On a broader scale, why do the people of God continue to promote conversion therapy when we have learned it more than doubles suicide attempts? Why do they ignore the statistics showing that an affirming adult in a gay or trans person’s life reduces self-harm by nearly 40%?
Do they know? Do they care? Or is superciliousness at the core of their religion?
The supercilious among us have a high aptitude for legalism and disagreement but a low aptitude for humility and kindness. They prefer to speak without critical thought, wrapping their frustrations in the broad labels and selective truths their friends and followers want to hear.
Oh, but look at me. I’m being all supercilious…
Jesus wasn’t supercilious. I mean, God coming to earth as a human says it more than anything could. He spent time with those who were being scapegoated and dehumanized: tax collectors, lepers, women, religious people, even sinners. The crowds of people flocked to hear him because his sermons were truthful and refreshing.
Issues didn’t matter; people did.
Jesus’ observation of the Pharisees in Luke 18 was that their idea of thankfulness was based on “great confidence in their own righteousness” and their scorn for everyone else. The problem with supercilious christians is the energy they spend on others leaves them ill equipped to examine the dangers within themselves.
Tolstoy got to the core of it: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
love and acceptance
Testimonials show that one of the most powerful benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous is acceptance from a group of people who know you by name, aren’t fooled by you, yet refuse to judge you. We all want to live in a world where we care for each other rather than pointing fingers. This isn’t about ignoring sin, it’s about wisely loving others.
Brian Zahnd recently said on X: ” The biblical test case for love of God is love of neighbour; and the biblical test case for love of neighbour is love of enemy … This is the rigorous demand of being a disciple of Jesus.”
As always, we should look to Jesus. He didn’t fit any of the categories of the culture around him. He had strong values but he didn’t apply them with force or fear, and he didn’t belittle or sneer in the process.
When enemies tried to trap him with controversial issues he would answer with unexpected, probing insights into their own hearts and motives. Instead of salting the ground with criticism, Jesus planted the good news that God’s empire of love was now among them. He challenged them to live in that truth.
We occasionally play background music through the day and one of the sources is a cable TV channel which shares bits of light jazz, soft rock, adult pop, and gentle show tunes. Boring but nicely mellow.
One day my ears picked out a melody that sounded like a religious hymn from my past. I waited for some foreign notes to confirm it was something else but the familiar sounds persisted. A glance at the monitor confirmed that Softly and Tenderly was filling our living space with softness and tenderness.
It’s composition was irresistible. I melded with the strings, silently mouthing the lyrics as memory allowed, throat clenching, eyes brimming. It stayed with me for days: Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling … Come home, come home…
In those moments I was reminded that I had never reached for Jesus because of a rule, a doctrine, a brusque voice, a church service, a forceful argument, a preached sermon. A cable music channel reminded me of the patience and love that had drawn me in the first place.
We all have to return home once in a while, even if it doesn’t feel like we’ve left. But if we don’t return to the tenderness of Jesus, we become dangerously supercilious.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to look at others, he invites us to join him in looking inside ourselves.
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