As Lent began this week, I think I heard one of the Bible’s strongest critiques of virtue-signaling. The Gospel reading during the Mass on Ash Wednesday, from Matthew 6:1-6, said this:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
Jesus went on to give the same advice about praying and fasting. It might be desirable that, amid the current phenomena of pandemic, polarization, and the cascading popularity of policy pronouncements (which may or may not reflect individuals’ personal values based on long discernment and commitment), any attempt to virtue-signal by displaying ashes on one’s forehead has been made more difficult and less common. (In past years, it had already prompted occasional comments of scorn and marginalization from strangers.)
The cautionary note about virtue-signaling is all the more authentic because the Bible advises us not only to question the strategy of signaling, which may be used to make us feel better about ourselves or may be weaponized to make others feel worse about themselves, but also to avoid complacent confidence that we possess all the virtue we are signaling.
The reading from Psalm 51 which precedes Ash Wednesday’s Gospel tells us we are flawed and falling short of the authentic virtue to which we are called as followers of Jesus:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness, in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always.
In the absence of a belief in God, and in our need for forgiveness, and in the compassion of God that can indeed wipe out our sinfulness if we truly repent, our claim on any particular virtue and our desire to demonstrate it to others can be seen as embarrassingly shallow.
I’m reminded of a commentary written by Jamil Zaki and Mina Cikara and published on June 25, 2020, in Time magazine. The title was, “Don’t Be Afraid to Virtue Signal — It Can Be a Powerful Tool to Change People’s Minds.” I have no reason to doubt the good values and intentions of these authors, but I notice that their praise at that time for a recent wave of corporate statements in social media, the toppling of derided statues, and the cancellation of a television program described these developments as necessary tactics using “social information” to drive “social change.”
They invoked psychology and political strategy to argue that “people look to each other when deciding how to express themselves.” As social norms shift, they said, “individuals shift with them: adopting popular opinions and behaviors and dropping ones that fall out of style.” The authors continued;
Conformity can seem spineless, but in fact it reflects an ancient yearning to be part of something greater than ourselves–a smart yearning, given the many social advantages of coordinating and cooperating with others. It goes deeper than words, sometimes changing what we see, what we value, and how we behave, even privately.”
This commentary approached its conclusion:
“But no matter their motives, when many people speak out, their voices have a powerful effect on receivers…. Collective outrage has become a social norm; coupled with the leadership of local organizers, it has yielded a phenomenal groundswell of action.”
The authors acknowledged that “signaling and conformity are not inherently positive,” but when the signal being communicated is inherently virtuous, people “can and should use their signals as anchors, holding them accountable for acting accordingly. But we should also realize the power signals have in and of themselves, in helping people locate each other–in this case, on the path to change.”
Again, I am not arguing at all against the virtuous quality of a cause–in this case, it was about a “demand to acknowledge and redress centuries-old inequality and violence” in the pursuit of racial justice, a moral imperative, as you can read in the entire article. But in light of the Bible’s messages heard at the launching of Lent, I fear that the exclusion of God’s own demands for a panorama of justice dislocates deep discernment about the whole story of our widespread hunger for authentic, lasting, peace-making change.
The ashes are meant to inspire a personal humility that acknowledges accountability to a loving and just God who has created every human being with immense, inviolable dignity; this accountability, shown by words and deeds but also by intent and pursuits of goodness in heart and mind, must be based on the individual’s journey toward a perfection of virtue. This journey will be assessed–and mercifully, contextually, humanely judged–by a God who shaped all of us from dust, with earthly flaws built in, and who leads us back to dust with a noble aftermath in mind.
Earthly death represents the ultimate equity of outcome for us all and allows for a holistically wise reckoning about our entire journey. This can lead us to eternal fellowship in God’s love or a tragic realization that fearful, manipulative, or hypocritical conformity to the pressures and perspectives of this world steered us too far off the path toward a heavenly destiny. No human being or well-intentioned campaign of messaging about justice can stand in for our creator in informing, then judging, our lifelong trek and its constituent steps. Secular outrage can short-circuit the ongoing transcendent dialogue whose effects may move more slowly but allow for more comprehensive, enduring penance that truly converts society. I sense we were finding this trajectory in recent decades when a gentler consensus prevailed.
Our sin is before us always; at least we might want to think twice about whether we citizens should be the only ones to judge the righteousness of anyone’s journey at a moment in time. Instead, we could freely ponder, and dialogue about, our choices of suitable course through complex circumstances. As believers fully aware of the dusty roads we must travel, perhaps the best we can do is act and express ourselves as authentically compassionate role models–and to humbly monitor our own roadmaps and our collective migration toward u-turns or broadways promising virtue. Our sense of shared pain and stain, rather than imposed guilt, might make us wiser navigators over time.
As I see it, that’s the guidance from the “prayer over the people” which concludes the Ash Wednesday Mass:
“Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty, and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise to those who do penance.”