I never considered my father to be a very psychologically minded individual. By that I mean he never seemed prone to self-reflection and objective consideration of his various moods and feelings. A rare exception to this pattern occurred early in my adolescents, when one day, my father volunteered that he believed he had an “inferiority complex.” Given that my father had not been formally educated beyond high school and certainly did not read psychological texts, this surprised me. But it also made sense, to the extent I understood the term, and understood my father, who, though successful by many measures, was often restless, discontented and irritable.
The term “inferiority complex crept into the popular culture in the 1950’s and 60’s. It comes from the early development of psychoanalytic psychology, specifically credited to Alfred Adler, one of the first followers of Freud. He was describing what was considered to be a neurotic condition which today we might more readily refer to as “low self-esteem” of “low feelings of self-worth.” It can amount to a stubborn self-assessment which focuses on perceived short-comings or feelings of self-doubt, which almost always results from a distorted sensitivity and harsh experiences in early life. Often, those who suffer from this situation readily acknowledge it, yet it can be very painful, sometimes causing a kind of a flip where the person develops an exaggerated sense of superiority as a defense against feelings of low self-worth. Because this sense of badness is so intolerable, the sense of inferiority must be denied and projected out onto others. We all seem to need a scape goat once and a while.
I have sometimes thought of Christianity as struggling with its own kind of inferiority complex. This may seem to be an odd conclusion given the boundless assertion of the victory of the Resurrection and the amazing and muscular acts of the first disciples as documented in the stories we have been hearing since Easter. But Christianity was born in a difficult environment and faced daunting challenges in attaining a place of security and respect within the cultural landscape. Remember that Christians were literally mocked for worshiping a leader who not only laid claim to be the Son of God but died on the cross. Relatively few Jews were enthusiastic about abandoning their deeply held traditions and expectations from their own religious beliefs, which is probably why Christianity found more fertile ground among the Greeks, Roman and other so-called pagans of the time. By the time the Gospel of John was written, the Jews had gotten so fed up with these upstart Christians that they had excluded them from the synagogue and generally made their lives miserable. This is part of the reason John seems particularly eager to vilify the Jews, place responsibility for the death of Jesus almost entirely in their hands, equating them with all “unbelievers” who were representative of “the world” beyond those who believed in Jesus as the Christ; those who were seen as hating the Christians. In fact, Christianity had bigger problems by the end of the first century, as did the Jews. Rome was pressing its power and opposing these independent and uncooperative religious groups who threatened Rome’s agenda of absolute control. As usual, those with the power win in the short run, though Christianity continued to spread and, to some extent, flourish in an underground form for more than two centuries. Christians undoubtedly took pride and received some consolation in their status as persecuted outcasts, and certainly looked to the words and example of Jesus for solace and support.
By the beginning of the fourth century, the fortunate adoption of the Roman Emperor Constantine of the Christian faith (allegedly due in no small part to the intercession of his mother, Helena—a shout out to mothers here), meant that the pathetic and despised Christians were suddenly considered “cool,” and Christianity became the presumed identification of all in the realm. Now, this may be rightly understood as good news! At last, Christians were free to express their faith openly and the Church began to thrive. The rest, as they say, is history! Christians who once experienced themselves at the margins of society were not basically in charge. And it didn’t take all that long for this once inferior movement to assume a grand superiority, not always with happy results. The Roman Church soon became the biggest empire in town, with all the problems that accompany any position of power.
How then, do we hear Jesus’ encouragement for Christians to see ourselves as not really a part of the world? Being “in the world” but not “of the world” has a very different meaning if you are a part of a persecuted minority than if you have become a dominant cultural institution. There seems to be the assumption that Christians are called to recognize the kind of special privilege which stems from our identification in Christ. But the sense of privilege is a tricky thing, as we have come to understand more within our contemporary culture. The Church,in its many manifestations, has often used its privilege to literally lord it over others: to engage in antisemitism and support the segregation of Jews within society, to impose Christian beliefs rather forcefully on indigenous cultures; to condone slavery and sanction aspects of white superiority; to reinforce misogynist presumptions and undercut the equality of women, to exploit the environment for the benefit of the few, and to vilify and condemn people of variant sexualities and gender identifications; to remain silent when we should speak up. Of course, this is only the dark side of Christianity’s “contribution” to human society. I’m actually quite proud of Christianity and believe, on the whole, that it’s been the source of great good in the world. But we dare not turn away from the whole truth. Most of these outcomes were supported by the inflation of the sense of superiority and power which took root in many quarters of the Christian community.
We hear from groups of evangelical Christians in this nation that they are being persecuted for their beliefs. But Christians are not persecuted in the United States. Indeed, Christians are being persecuted in many countries of the world, most notably North Korea, our latest BBF despot, and many other authoritarian regimes. Persecution means you are imprisoned or killed or significantly limited for your religious identification. Being asked to bake a cake for a gay wedding is not persecution. Nor is it being in a pluralistic democratic society seeks to advance certain social conditions that don’t fit with your own political agenda. I suspect that much of the energy fueling the resurgence of far-right ideology is in fact a matter of the inferiority complex of members of these groups who once were or believed themselves to be identified with the superior culture. Many have been distressed by economic frustration and the sense that the complexion of our nation is changing. But rather than see diversity as a gift and opportunity, as did the early Church represented in the Acts of the Apostles, many retreats into an inflated sense of superiority and the belief that privilege is their God-given right.
Many would say that the worst aspect of the assumption of any privilege is when you are blind to actually having it, and therefore blind to the consequences to those who are not in the privileged, dominant group. Perhaps therefore Jesus was so insistent on rejecting the allure of worldly power and instructed his followers to do the same. The “privilege” of Christianity stems from its close bond to the suffering and risen Christ, the one who surrendered privilege in order to achieve a greater transformation and transparency as God’s holy presence manifest in the world. When we read John’s Gospel as appearing to condone a kind of splitting between Christians and “the others,” or when we hear subsequent generations of Christians presenting this apostolic faith as something which seeks to achieve a superior position, we might counter these tendencies with what Jesus modeled as true humility. Humility is the only way out of either a neurotic sense of inferiority—though that may seem counter-intuitive—as well as the escape from defensive superiority which requires others to assume a “less than” position.
Authentic humility is not self-deprecating. It rejects the distortion that we are either beneath or above the love of God. Regardless of our faults or exceptionalities, we are fundamentally equal in Christ. This may make us sorrowful recognition of how complicit even the well-meaning have been in the injury of others, but it also opens us to the ongoing conversion of minds and hearts which I believe is constitutive of living life in Christ, It’s never a done deal. We can neither crawl into the comforting cocoon of false helpless nor climb to the perch of being above it all. Christians are always living in a rather precarious position like the first followers of Jesus, making our way despite obstacles and questions, often completely unsure of what the game plan is. The reason Jesus prays to hard for his disciples in John was because he knew they would have a rough time and would have to figure out a lot of things on the fly. Yet, he promised that through belief in him, we would be “sanctified.” That’s a quaint term which we often translate as “purified,” but that misses the mark. Rather, it means to be made holy, not merely in preparation for the next world, but particularly so that we may be helped to navigate this one. We are sanctified only by being together in a life with Christ, inspired by the Spirit of God who so loved the world that they gave everything so that all might experience the privilege of abundant life.