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Everyone enjoys being seen to be correct or right about a contentious issue . . . . We all have within us the capacity to be like the Pharisee.

'Choose You This Day Whom You Will Signal.'

 Virtue-Signalling & Christian Identity.  Christian Bargholz

According to the Oxford English Dictionary,  virtue-signalling is ‘the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character, or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.’ Simply put, it’s the action of signalling one’s own virtuousness and drawing attention to the strength of one’s own moral standing. 

Virtue-signalling has a powerful allure owing to its low-cost social currency. It’s a trend people engage in with particular regard to social, cultural, or moral issues that dominate the social zeitgeist for a variety of complex reasons. Regardless of intentions, virtue-signalling has become a primary way people navigate the complexities and controversies of our online moral landscape. 

Given the prominence of social media in our world today, virtue-signalling provides a difficult dilemma for the Christian seeking to engage meaningfully with people online. Is the practice of virtue-signalling something that Christians should engage in? Is it something antithetical to a Christian’s identity? Is being a Christian a ‘virtue-signaller’?

In the search for answers, it’s worth reconsidering one of Jesus’ stories. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story about two relatively unknown men, but the details he gives are telling. One of these men is revered by Jewish society, the other is reviled. The former is a Pharisee, and the latter is a tax collector. The story goes that these two men go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prays first. As he stands up –  quite possibly in an area of the Temple where he knows he’s going to be seen and heard – he says:

God, I thank you that I am not like other men; extortioners, evildoers, the unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of everything I possess.’  (Luke 18:11)

Through this prayer, the Pharisee is effectively engaging in an act of virtue-signalling. By drawing attention to his piety, he’s signalling the excellence of his character. By comparing himself with those he deems reprehensible, he’s demonstrating the moral correctness of his own position. This Pharisee takes the platform of prayer – a platform intended for praising and honouring God – and uses it as an opportunity to praise and honour himself publicly (while simultaneously shaming others). By taking the moral high ground, this Pharisee becomes a virtue-signaller.

It’s at this point in the story that Jesus reintroduces the tax collector. He’s different from the Pharisee. He’s not standing where he knows he can be seen; more likely he’s where he knows he can’t be seen  (the content of his prayer suggests it’s spoken in a manner befitting a private petition). All he manages to say is:

God, be merciful to me, because I am a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13)

The tax collector uses the platform of prayer as an opportunity to humble himself and confess his need for God and his mercy.

As is the case for anyone on social media, it can often be tempting for Christians to engage in virtue-signalling. Everyone enjoys being seen to be correct or right about a contentious issue. Everyone is concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history, and the moral high ground seems to provide safe sanctuary. We all have within us the capacity to be like the Pharisee.

But at the heart of virtue-signalling is something that’s deeply at odds with Christian identity: an attitude almost completely devoid of humility. A ‘Christian virtue-signaller’ is, in essence, an oxymoron. The very act of becoming a Christian involves humbly admitting the moral bankruptcy of our own position. Therefore, to live as a Christian means living a life of humility as one who has surrendered the moral high ground. Central to the Gospel is the belief that the ground on which we stand is not built on our virtue, but on the grace of God in pardoning our sins.

Jesus concludes his story by telling us what happens to these two men as a result of their visit to the Temple. Jesus says that the one who was justified — made right — in the sight of God was not the one who signalled his own virtue, but the one who signalled his need for God.

In seeking to engage with people on the online moral landscape, Christians should seek an attitude more in line with the tax collector. Christians aren’t a people who signal their own virtue. We’re a people who signal Jesus.

InterSections editorial team: We welcome your response to Christian's article. Send your comments to:
marked to the attention of the Editor. We hope that some responses can be included in a future issue of this magazine.

Christian Bargholz is an associate editor of InterSections and a member of Eastside Church of Christ in Sydney.

InterSections editorial team: We welcome your response to Christian's article. Send your comments to:

marked to the attention of the Editor. We hope that some responses can be included in a future issue of this magazine.


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