Back in the heady days of 2006, the world was introduced to the Toyota Prius, one of the first affordable and popular hybrid cars. Needless to say, as soon as it became a popular thing, the show South Park was quick to mock it.
I am not an avid fan of South Park to be sure, but I will admit that when they nail something, they nail it good. Early adopters of any cool technology can often have an air of arrogance about them, and since California is often a hotbed of anything new, tech savvy, and environmentally friendly, South Park set their sights on the state and the drivers of the Prius. The cartoon, excelling in the art of absurd exaggeration, posited that since the release and popularity of the Prius began, the state of California was plagued with deadly “Smug” pollution. Because of the pride in themselves, so many people had such smug faces they couldn’t even see the road they were driving. Thus, an environmental disaster was created in the attempt to curb environmental disasters.
South Park is not exactly known for their subtlety. Often the “lessons” it has to teach have all the subtlety of an anvil dropped from a skyscraper. However, because I am fond of puns, the Smug pollution metaphor tickled my fancy, if for nothing else than it seemed so very familiar in my home environment the church.
People of the church, I have no doubt, do not intend to cause harm, nor do they ever set out to do evil to other people. However, I say this realizing that, as John Milton said ever so eloquently said in Paradise Lost, “Easy is the descent into hell, for paved with good intentions.” Though we may not intend to do harm, we are often easily tempted to take on a rather imperious and overly prideful attitude when it comes to those on the outside of the Christian community.
There’s a good reason for this. Though it was Christ’s intention to turn our focus outward, and to do good in the name of love and light in the Holy Spirit, there is a definite impulse in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to close ourselves off. Over and over, we are reminded or implored to not mix with outsiders, despite Jesus’s ministry was devoted almost entirely to caring for the outsiders. That gets somewhat lost when we are told not avoid the wicked and ungodly, lest we stray from the path.
As with many things in Christianity, at the heart of this tension is a paradox. Don’t be tainted with the evil of the world, yet be willing to share the good news with those who don’t know it. Be open to others, but not too open.
I’ll be honest: it’s a lot easier to just stick to people who are like me, who think like me, who act like me, and believe like me. If we do this, though, we risk appearing disdainful of others.
People in the church like to focus on words like these found in 1 Peter 3:14-15: 14 But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them.15 Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.
Defend your faith. Be righteous, even if you suffer for it. These are not bad ideas in and of themselves. However, if they get out of hand, “defense” can easily turn into “offense,” and “righteousness” can transform into “self-righteousness.” In other words, we are drawn to our own Smug Pollution.
So how do we get rid of this Smug Pollution? Keep reading: 16 Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you.
Temper your righteousness with humility. Be mindful of your actions, and don’t do anything that can be misconstrued as not aspiring to the abundant love of God.
We have a Smug Pollution problem. But in the example of Christ’s humility, we are given the ability to get past it.