Recently, President Obama was criticized for being critical of BP, the oil company ultimately responsible for the horrendous ecological disaster that is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. The President’s critic felt that, for some reason, leveling criticism at a business like BP was “un-American”. Though, I must confess, I don’t quite see how. This is surely not the first time, however, that a public figure has been labeled as un-American or unpatriotic for being critical of this country, or for admitting that America has made a mistake. For some (many?) people, admitting that as a nation we are less than perfect seems equivalent to treason or giving aid and comfort to our enemies.
In the Christian tradition, along with most other spiritual traditions, the kind of self-criticism that arises from a healthy and reasonable self-reflection is considered critical in terms of one’s spiritual progress. Jesus pointed to this very clearly when he counseled his followers to take the log out of their own eyes before presuming to take the speck out of another’s eye. In other words, judgment begins at home, and self-reflection and self-examination should be part of everyone’s spiritual practice. It is common advice, for example, that near the end of the day, we take some quiet time to think about the day that is ending, to reflect on our experiences of the day and to try to see those moments where we could have done better, where we could have responded out of a centeredness in God’s love rather than react instinctively, where we could have offered a word or an action that could have built up another person rather than tearing that person down.
To adopt a consistent practice of self-reflection should not lead us into a sense of worthlessness or self-loathing, but rather into a sense of humility and a realization that along with our strengths come areas where more growth is necessary, and that along with our successes come mistakes. Far from making us weaker, such self-reflection has the power to make us stronger and better able to act positively in the world.
If such a practice is good for us as individuals, it is surely good for us as a nation. No individual human being is perfect, and neither are collections of human beings, whether those are countries, churches or other organizations. We do make mistakes, and our nation has made plenty of them. A healthy sense of national self-reflection does not mean we are unpatriotic, but that we care enough to want to honestly see how our country could do better. Far from giving aid and comfort to our enemies, it shows that our national character is strong enough to look in the mirror with honesty and integrity. Admitting faults and failures gives more integrity to our successes, and fosters a sense of humility rather than arrogance. And nations that become arrogant, who believe that they can do no wrong, are nations that inevitably overstep and get themselves into trouble. One could argue (though certainly not everyone would agree) that a better national practice of self-reflection might have avoided the wars in which we have found ourselves over the past several years, and one could even more easily argue that the lack of self-reflection at the highest levels of our financial firms led to the economic crisis which has impacted us all.
When asked by his disciples how they should pray, Jesus told them to avoid long public prayers that were designed primarily to impress onlookers and God (one might call it the prayer of the arrogant) and instead to go into the privacy of their innermost rooms and there humbly place themselves before God honestly and simply. And, I think he would have certainly expected that in that private place, we would spend some time honestly and simply pulling the logs out of our own eyes, that we might better see ourselves and others. Such a regular practice will make us better human beings, and that will improve the quality of our national life and the decisions we make that effect the lives of so many around the world.