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“‘This century…I say the next 80 years, I think is gonna be the defining period for humanity. Twenty-first century, make humanity great again, the coming of age of humanity,” says Eddy Izzard, pointing a rosy but sharp, well-manicured nail into the camera. He is clad in a somber, dark, feminine suit, and his coiffure — always a perfect reflection of the age — long, blond, and lifelessly lack-luster, suggests “homeschool mom” more than chichi. As usual, he has on pink lipstick, but now it is muted, tasteful even. His campaign is called — as the quote intimates — Make Humanity Great Again.1 This new venture is built upon the idea that humanity ought to put aside all its divisions and embrace the truthiness of every religion, viz., the deepest and purest hope is that we should all “treat others as one would like to be treated.” He has devoted himself to this project in three ways — coming out as transgender, running marathons to raise money for charity, and doing stand-up comedy in four different languages.2
I watched entranced because I’ve always been a secret Eddie Izzard fan. I know it isn’t seemly for a Christian to watch such subversive comedy — especially Izzard brand, which is full of foul language — but his “Cake or Death” routine is, though profane, very funny, and his knowledge of history makes him a gracefully fluid communicator.3 Back when it was really shocking for men to dress up as women, he wore platform heels, a kimono-styled top, the aforementioned bright lipstick, and an air of defiance.
But that is what feels like a lifetime ago. Somewhere in the past two decades, edgy, offending humor went the way of all flesh and now Izzard looks not only tame, but conservative — virtuous even. If he weren’t a man dressed up as a woman, he would fit in on the evangelical Christian conference circuit. What happened? One big, totally predictable cultural twist happened — virtue signaling.4
Why Do You Call Me Good?
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked, directing His divine gaze on the young ruler trying to figure out how to muscle his way into the kingdom of God without having to rely on anybody but himself, “No one is good except God alone.”5 This was one of those disappointing moments in the Bible where Jesus sees past all the hubris of the human spirit and points out the obvious. “You know the commandments,” He carries on, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steel, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.”6 Some commentators think that the rich young man breathed a sigh of relief at this point, given that Jesus had left off the first table of the law, the bit about loving God and not committing idolatry. But I rather think the young man smiled placidly. His original question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”7 was not so different from Eddie Izzard’s apparently novel Make-Humanity-Great-Again scheme. Surely if we are just kind to each other, our goodness will become manifest even to God. What’s so hard about that? Though Izzard does admit that at least half of humanity doesn’t want to follow the golden rule, and that therefore the project will be “impossible.”8 Impossible — the very word hovering on the lips of Jesus as He helps the rich young man out of his darkness.
Jesus’ repost, “Why do you call me good?” must have confused His young interlocutor as much as it confuses each of us. Obviously, Jesus was a good teacher, just as the young man was a decent and “good” person, and Eddie Izzard is a good comedian. If you don’t murder anyone and don’t steal and aren’t “bad,” then you, by process of elimination, are “good.”
Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, works through the secular psychological research that propels each person toward the defense of personal goodness. In a series of interviews with people from differently stratified class, gender, and ethnic categories, Haidt and his assistants discovered that the internalized moral compass that guides human behavior first and foremost works to justify the behavior of the individual. Both intuitive “feeling” moral judgments and the rationalizing efforts of the mind together work overtime to preserve the virtue of the individual. Haidt likens the mind to a man riding, and serving, an enormous elephant — the emotional reasoning of the person. The two work together not toward truth, but toward the beliefs that the person already has about him or herself, and about other people.9
Haidt unwittingly illustrates, through an atheistic exercise of social science and philosophy, Ashley Null’s pithy summation of Thomas Cranmer’s theology: “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”10 The heart wants what it wants, which is why we all go up to God and ask Him what we have to “do” to enter the kingdom of God. We haven’t even noticed the first table of the law, the part about who God is and how we were meant to relate to Him. It is that first table that brings about the shipwreck of the human person on the shoals of self-love, the “righteous mind.” We worship and adore ourselves so completely that we cannot even see the apparent goodness of another person, never mind the real goodness of God.
Putting the Signal Back in Virtue
But something has changed in the last couple of years. To demonstrate that change, it is necessary to stress the reality that virtue is a crucial ingredient in an ordered society, but more than that, seeing that virtue is of the essence. Being able to basically trust people is the way the world goes around. When I stop by the shops to buy a rosy pink piece of salmon, you as the shop owner must feel the necessity of signaling your virtuous economic habits to me. You will heap up ice under the fish. You will adorn the fillet with watercress. When I sidle up diffidently to your counter, you will smile and greet me. Your apron will be bright and clean and your hair well back from all the fish under the display. Because you desire me to buy fish from you again the following Thursday, you will count my change back to me aloud. If you are thinking about falsifying your scales, you will try very hard to conceal that desire, or the reality, so that I won’t be able to stop along in the street and say nasty (if true) things about you.
Signaling virtue, or goodness, is the very core of human community. The good must be sorted out from the bad. The bad must conceal their vice. This deep-rooted common grace keeps most of us trudging along in basically a good direction, trying to, in the same moment, advance our own interests and win the approval of others.
The new signaling of virtue, however, constitutes a sharp, some might say malign, departure from the old. The virtue itself has come to require the signal — the signal itself is the virtue. Whereas, in years past, virtue required that the signal be disguised, hidden, or cloaked under a mantel of that old, tired idea of humility, the new virtue cries out for itself by its own name. “I am good,” says each person both in person and online, “and the way that you’ll know is by virtue of the signal itself.”
This came to me in a flash of insight watching Eddie Izzard try to make humanity great again. Self-effacing humor had to give way to the bold, and one might note, awkward declaration of all one’s good works in public. That oldest of efforts — to be good on one’s own terms — has returned to its pre-Christian throne. Humility as a basic social good has been left for dead by the wayside. Meanwhile, every “morally upright” comedian, politician, and social-media aficionado rushes by on the other side of the road.
Don’t Be Taken In
Haidt argues that the only way out for people caught in the trap of their own righteousness is the interference of other people. He recommends organizing society in such a way that we see each other in all our disagreeableness.11 On our own, we are isolated in our own goodness. But when we come together to argue — especially with light shining in in the form of institutional accountability — we might have our minds changed and begin to think that ways other than our own might be good.
As a Christian I couldn’t agree more. We need so much help, mostly from God, to discover that we are not actually good. The first help we receive is the external knowledge — told to us by God Himself by His own words in Scripture — that people are not basically good. Indeed, the apostle Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory,”12 and he calls us “children of wrath.”13 And all the works that we do apart from God’s perfect grace are called “filthy rags,”14 which, frankly, feels about as nice as it sounds. But part of God’s goodness is that, when we are able to see our own efforts for what they are — idolatrous, misguided, proud, ruinous — He gives us His perfect work as an exchange. His perfection — the blood of Christ’s cross — covers the horrified sinner who stares at his own sin, admitting it for what it is. Humility is the obvious characteristic of the sinner who has been saved from all his own “virtue.” It comes as an alien gift, as the eternal hope of a wide and merciful and, one might even say, flamboyant love.
Make Virtue Great Again
As an iniquitous treat for myself, several years ago I started a file of “virtue-signaling tweets,” as I labeled it. Christians have had as hard a time as anyone resisting the culture of letting other people know all about their own goodness. These tweets differ ever so slightly from the full-throated Eddie Izzard variety of virtue signaling. There remains some vestigial idea that it is not really good to tell other people about one’s own good works. The glory, or at least part of it, must be given to God. Therefore, Christian twitter is replete with various specimens of the “humble brag.” Charity forbids me from sharing any of my private collection. Suffice it to say that there are three markers of the Christian “humble” virtue signal.
The first is to use oneself as a good example. One might begin a tweet with the words “When I,” and then pivot to some other, more honorable group of people, drawing the attention of the scroller to oneself as admirer of virtue by way of the actual virtue of the other. I might tweet, “I recently observed other people encouraging their pastors, and remembered that I should encourage my pastor, and therefore I did, Praise God!”
The second is to ask a question that, by virtue of asking it at all, illumines the goodness of the asker, as opposed to all the other people who have not remembered to ask the question. One might say something like, “How can we better love all the victims of misfortune in the world?” and then go on to remember that God Himself said that it is important to “love mercy and walk humbly with God.”15
And finally, a short listicle is always a fool proof way to let other people know you love them as much, or more, than Jesus Himself does. You might list three superficial markers that you “don’t care about,” contrasted with three deep spiritual concerns that you “do.” Other people can retweet your list, making it their own.
All joking aside, there are dangerous spiritual side-effects to the humble brag version of virtue signaling. The first is that, though not everyone will notice, it is the same pit that everyone else is digging — the look-at-me-I-am-good version of living that so tripped-up the rich young ruler. When Jesus asked that young man why he, the young man, called Him, Jesus, good, it was to illustrate the salient point that no one is good except God alone. Letting other people see your own goodness on purpose in order to establish it actually makes your goodness not good.
The second is that it isn’t very interesting. Virtue signaling is rapidly spoiling the entertainment and comedy industries. Making light of one’s own failings is a time-tested way to make other people feel comfortable and welcome in a world that is stridently anxious about trying to be good. You know what’s really funny? The idea that human people are good. Better make some jokes about the notion of human goodness rather than trying to make everyone believe in its existence.
And finally, it is too great a burden for humanity to bear — which is why Jesus came into the world to save us from ourselves, to dig us out of the pit of our own virtue that we are always digging for ourselves. Jesus said to His disciples as the rich man turned sadly away, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”16 God Himself, if we ask Him, will make us good, will make our virtue real and true — but only if we stop talking about it.
Anne Kennedy has an MDiv and is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People. She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.
- Eddie Izzard, “Eddie Izzard: Make Humanity Great Again,” YouTube Video, November 20, 2020, https://youtu.be/MannE9-eV0A.
- Izzard’s Make Humanity Great Again has its own website: https://www.eddieizzard.com/en/make-humanity-great-again. He encourages visitors to buy a hat or just make a contribution.
- Eddie Izzard, “Eddie Izzard’s ‘Cake or Death’ Routine from Dressed to Kill,” YouTube Video, March 30, 2010, https://youtu.be/PVH0gZO5lq0. Warning: Language and offensive material.
- The Cambridge Dictionary provides this definition: “Virtue signalling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favour for certain political ideas or cultural happenings.” Cambridge Dictionary Online, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/virtue-signalling.
- Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19. All biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- Luke 18:20.
- Luke 18:18.
- Izzard, “Eddie Izzard: Make Humanity Great Again,” https://youtu.be/MannE9-eV0A.
- Jonathon Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2012), Kindle Edition.
- For a very brief summation of Ashley Null’s work, see Jason Valendy, “What the Heart Loves, the Will Chooses, and the Mind Justifies,” Be the Change, April 25, 2017, http://www.jasonvalendy.net/blog/2017/4/25/what-the-heart-loves-the-will-chooses-and-the-mind-justifies.
- Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 105–106.
- Romans 3:13.
- Ephesians 2:3–5.
- Isaiah 64:6.
- Micah 6:8.
- Luke 18:27.