Saturday, October 06, 2007

Christians and hypocrisy

Progressive U asks* the big question:
Are we all a little bit hypocritical?

It depends on one's definition of hypocritical... According to the Collins English Gem Dictionary, hypocrisy is "assuming of false appearance of virtue; insincerity." If one chooses to follow the latter, then realilistically everyone is a bit hypocrytical.

I, however, don't define hypocrisy as insincerity. I think it's more along the lines of saying one thing yet doing the other... Contradicting your own beliefs or values.

But hypocracy, to me, isn't always easy to combat. For instance, and this is something I don't love about myself and something that not many people know, I'm a self-proclaimed agnostic but I'm the youth representitive on my Presbyterian church's session. I'm aware that this is possibly the epitome of hypocracy and I'm aware that it's kind of disgusting, but it's a difficult situation. I'm not going to go into all the details because that's not the point of this blog, but I enjoy the community. I don't belive in "God" but I find the community of my church comforting. I grew up there.

In the long run, is it considered hypocritical if you're aware of the hypocracy in the situation? I belive that it is, but it's difficult to deal with nonetheless.
Progressive U's dual definition takes two parts, but I must defend the one that he finds universal: saying one thing and doing another.

Imagine if you will, a wide receiver on a football team: it is his primary job to catch the ball**. Catching the ball is his "good" and there are no ifs, ands, or buts and no gray areas when it comes to his performance: he catches the ball or he does not. Either he lives up to the demands of his position or he does not.

On one play he is wide open and the ball is perfectly thrown to him, but he does what so many other receivers do: he runs before he has the ball. It bounces off his fingers and falls incomplete. He has no excuses, he simply failed to live up to his calling. Is he a hypocrite? We would all say he is not, even though he did not do what he was supposed to. He failed and it's his own fault, but he is not a hypocrite.

Now, let's take that from a game to real life. The same man has a religious belief that he ought not have sex with someone he's not married to, but he finds within himself a desire for whatever reason to do so. Or maybe it's to steal. Or to lie. Or whatever other sins he is wholly against. He does them anyway. He has said one thing and done another. Is he a hypocrite? Most of us would say that he is.

We excuse the receiver because he did not mean to drop the ball; he simply made a choice - to look downfield just for a second - that resulted in him not catching it, and we do not excuse him in the field of morality because we assume that he has more control of himself in that field than he had on the football field.

Because of that assumption we conclude that if he does X, then he must think X is alright for him. And if he's saying X is wrong for everyone else, he's a hypocrite. But what if he does not think X is alright for him? What if he knows it's wrong and does it anyway? Is he still a hypocrite?

Therein lies a significant problem for the Christian***. The underlying base assumption of Christianity (and to be honest, its main accusation against men), is that there exists an external code of morality and that none of us can live up to it. And we don't even have an excuse, because Paul states in 1Cor 10:13 that God, in every temptation, offers us a way out. If we believe that, then we have no excuse for sin: if we sin then we rejected God's way out. And yet as Paul, the author of 1Cor, wrote in Romans 7:15, "what I hate, that is what I do." The need for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ arises from the fact that all men sin, even when we have the power not to.

So is failure to live up to an external code that I know I cannot meet to be counted as hypocrisy? If it is, then as Progressive U notes we are all hypocrites****, but if we are all hypocrites then the word has lost its sting: you might as well accuse a man for sleeping. Therefore I think we have to set that aside, Progressive U's plea notwithstanding: the only way to avoid hypocrisy in that case is to jettison any morality I cannot live up to. Since it is not in my power as a Christian to jettison that, I must conclude that all, especially me, are simply sinners rather than hypocrites. We fail to live up to our morality like the receiver fails to catch the ball.

That drives us inexorably back to Progressive U's first definition, the one he rejected, as the real hypocrisy. If I pretend that I am not a sinner when I am, if I cultivate some moral reputation that does not belong to me or that I have not earned, then I am a hypocrite. It is not saying one thing and doing another that makes me a hypocrite, it is looking down my nose at a man who struggles with a temptation while ignoring my own moral failures that makes me such*****.

"Pride goes before destruction," Solomon said, "and a haughty spirit before a fall." If I am condemning sin, even though I'm a sinner, then I convict myself. Even so, I must condemn sin, for it is what it is. But if I am condemning the sinner while presuming that I, through my superior moral qualities, am exempt from such condemnation, then I am branded a hypocrite by my own words.

Hypocrisy is one of those accusations that is easy to level, because as soon as men set up an objective standard of behavior we will fail to live up to it. In that sense we are all hypocrites, it is simply part of the nature of what we are. But true hypocrisy arises when we convince ourselves that it is only others who fail, when we tell ourselves and then begin to believe that sin is something the other man has to deal with and that we are somehow exempt from the foibles common to man, then that our actions are uniquely pleasing to God, and finally that God ought to be proud to have chaps like us hanging around him.

Hypocrisy arises when we begin to believe that we are better than our fellow man - not that we have a superior moral code, but that we are morally superior. And we ought not be surprised at the fall that follows closely behind such pride.

* Spelling errors in original. I thought about correcting them but a whole bunch of "sic"s might come off as hypocritical, since I make such (and don't apologize for them) myself.

** Sure, he may block on occasion, but no one would define a wide receiver as a person who is on the field to block.

*** It is also a significant problem for the Jew, the Muslim, and anyone else who has a moral code that is defined by someone other than himself. I'm concentrating on Christians here because our religion tells us flat out that we don't live up to our own rules.

**** There is one specific exception even to this definition: people who define their morality as simply what they desire to do. One who has no external code of morality can be criticized for many things, but never for hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is unique to people who promote externally-defined ideals.

***** which is why the word Jesus uses to describe such is 'hupokrites,' "actors," or "stage players." A hypocrite is first and foremost not a failure, but a pretender.

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