Saturday, September 5, 2009

What's a Hypocrite to Do?

Not long ago, a Facebook friend expressed a desire to see hypocrites just shut up. Last week, the weekday mass readings from the Lectionary featured the woes that Jesus declared to the Pharisees in chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel. This past Sunday’s Gospel featured a parallel condemnation from chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. These passages have led to the term Pharisee being listed at as a synonym for hypocrite. It’s impossible (for me, at least) to read these passages without a degree of introspection.

My actions are not always in accord with what I say. By most measures, that makes me a hypocrite. Nobody likes a hypocrite. The typical attitude was given voice by the Beastie Boys when they rapped, “Your dad caught you smokin’ and he said, ‘No way!’ That hypocrite smokes two packs a day!” What’s a hypocrite like me to do?

Option 1: Shut up. That seems to be what my Facebook friend and the Beastie Boys would have us do. The problem with this approach is that it seems to say that only canonized saints are allowed to speak against sin. Since the rest of us (including the Pope!) have fallen natures which incline us toward sin, we would be automatically disqualified from pointing out that sin ruins lives, and we are called to something greater. Admittedly, our sinfulness varies by degree; but the Church teaches that anger (not the righteous sort) is a violation of the fifth commandment (thou shalt not kill). If anger and murder are violations of the same commandment, but to different degrees, does that make the angry man who denounces murder a hypocrite? Do we really mean to suggest that the nicotine-addicted smoker who wants to quit but can’t is not able to urge others not to smoke without being labeled a hypocrite?

Option 2: Embrace hypocrisy. If I say one thing and do another, so what? A variation on this option would be to argue that most people have to live a certain way in order for us to have a society that doesn’t implode into chaos, but society won’t collapse if I don’t follow the rules. The rules apply to other people, not to me. This option has roots in pride and relativism. The only logical conclusion is that morality is for other people, not for me.

Option 3: Change what I say. If I am unable to make my actions match my rhetoric, then I should make my rhetoric match my actions. The family man with a mistress should promote the benefits of infidelity, even if it hurts his political career and destroys his family. Whatever I want to do is moral, and I’ll be happy to tell you why: because I want to do it. This option can’t possibly work because of all the contradictions that pile up on themselves.

Option 4: Change what I do. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. If I am going to say that the moral thing to do is X, then I should do X and not Y. At the very least, I should want to do X and try to do X. Thus, the smoker from Option 1 should want to quit smoking and try to quit smoking, even if he finds the addiction overpowering.

Clearly, we can’t let accusations of hypocrisy cow us into silence regarding moral obligations. At the same time, we can’t hold ourselves up as the standard. The standards for virtue and morality are absolute and external to ourselves. None of us on this side of heaven is going to meet the standard. However, our inability to meet the standard doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to try or to encourage others to strive for the ideal. While we can’t perfectly meet the standard, we can get reasonably close (but again, only if we try).

Being told to do something by a hypocrite galls us. The actions of the hypocrite are scandalous and tempt us to dismiss what they say. Our own weakness tempts us to refrain from rebuking the sins of others. Jesus, though, neither told the Pharisees to stop teaching, nor did he tell people to ignore their teachings. To the contrary he acknowledged their authority and told the crowds to do what they say.

Just because something is said by a hypocrite doesn’t make it wrong, and just because I might not measure up to the standards I set for myself and others doesn’t mean that those standard need to be compromised.

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