“Is self-promotion sinful?” Author Marlena Graves asked this question on Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics blog back in 2010. Reflecting on her experience of having a manuscript rejected by publishers for being a “no name” and not having a big enough platform, she wrestles with questions like “how much of what we do as Christians and churches is about promoting ourselves?” and “are we using the church as a vehicle to make a name for ourselves?”
Graves never directly answers the question but she imples that most of the time self-promotion is sinful. She concludes that when we are presented with platform-building opportunities, most of the time the most righteous path is to for us to take a step back in order to revaluate and humble ourselves. But, other than turning down opportunities to grow our professional presence, what does humbling ourselves mean?
Last week I was listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Tiffany Shlain on the On Being podcast when the subject of humility came up. Both women agreed humility is a beautiful virtue, but that in common use the term is often gendered and terribly troublesome. How do we live into humility in ways that do not cause us to be ineffective or self-deprecating? How do we push back on the idea that women ought to give up their seats at the table in the aspiration of Christ-like humility? Ms. Tippett gave an alternative understanding of humility from her own close reading the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and it resonated with me deeply:
Spiritual humility is actually not about making yourself small or about debasing yourself. It’s about having a proper awe before everything else and everyone else.
The opposite of humility isn’t necessarily self-promotion. To fail to have humility is to lack the perspective of one’s self in a larger context, to fail to appreciate and stand in awe of the sacredness of other beings.
Last week I had a troubling experience that has stuck with me longer than I’d like to admit. I received a nomination for an award that recognized my work in the field of global reproductive health advocacy, and I was reaching out to colleagues, friends, and families to ask if they would support me by casting a vote. Although overwhelmingly the response was positive, I got one reply from a minister in my denomination that took me aback. She said that my request for votes was self-promoting, obnoxious, rude, and if that weren’t enough to drive the point home, she ended with an accusation that I was “pimping out” my network.
My stomach dropped. Logically I knew that this negative response had more to do with the sender than with me, but it stung. The response was so vitriolic that for some time I wondered if I had in fact crossed an ethical line by asking people to support me. My inner critic had a field day with this one. What if I really was being obnoxious by daring to ask for people to take time out of their day to cast a vote to support me? What if I really was just out for myself?
Truly the answer to whether or not self-promotion is a virtue or a sin depends on the gender of the person engaging in it. A few months ago there was a meme running through my social media feeds that said, “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.” For white men exuding confidence, even when it is unearned, is expected and accepted, but similar behavior in women is criticized as aggressive. Even women who have made it to the top of their organizations struggle with this. But women are caught in a double bind because without self-promotion, they are viewed as less confident. Oh, the frustration!
What happens if we apply Ms. Tippett’s definition of spiritual humility to this dilemma? Instead of minimizing our gifts and successes, what if we did with the recognition that our contributions are pieces of a larger context—but that our pieces are essential to the well-being of the community? And if we choose instead to cower from recognition in pursuit of self-sacrificial anonymity, we withhold our talents and experiences from those who need them for their own work and lives.
I would much rather live in a world in which our efforts focused on celebrating the gifts of one another rather than denigrating our own.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer, and educator who inspires intentional communities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good. She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Find her on Twitter at @ktzeh or on her website www.kateyzeh.com.