Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Making the world safe for hypocrisy

Hypocrisy doesn’t get much respect. The word carries an undeniably odious connotation.

“Hypocrisy” is one of the all-time favorite charges that unbelievers hurl against Christians.

This is rather odd since I’ve never seen any statistical evidence that Christians are hypocritical at higher rates of commission than their unbelieving critics.

But I wish, instead, to focus on another oddity.

What’s so bad about hypocrisy?

How did hypocrisy acquire such a disreputable reputation, anyway?

You know Santayana’s line about how a fanatic is someone who’s forgotten his aim while redoubling his efforts to get there?

Unbelievers bandy the word “hypocrisy” after it’s being drained of its all original force.

Remember that it was Jesus who put the sin of hypocrisy on the map. It’s his denunciations that popularized this value-judgment as the imprecation of choice.

Now, why did Jesus condemn the Pharisees for hypocrisy? Was this for the sake of argument?

Did he condemn them for mere inconsistency? For leading a double life or failing to do what they said?

Would he have been satisfied if they dropped the pose of piety and were openly dissolute?

No, he condemned hypocrisy because hypocrisy was a sin, and what made it a sin was the fact that God’s law is true. To break God’s law is sin. And hypocrisy is a form of law-breaking.

Now, unbelievers have picked up on the usage of Jesus, and they fling the charge very freely.

This, of itself, is rather odd. Why would an unbeliever care what Jesus said? After all, they don’t share his scale of values.

But I digress.

Unbelievers who revel in this allegaton come in two varieties.

There are unbelievers who say they believe in right and wrong. And they deem Christianity to be wrong. Terribly wrong.

But, in that event, why do they take offense at hypocrisy in the church?

If they think that Christianity is false, then why should a Christian be true to a false belief-system?

Shouldn’t they rather applaud and encourage his hypocrisy?

I mean, would they be happier if a Christian were true to a false belief-system?

If anything, they should wish the Christian to be even more impious rather than a paragon of piety.

Suppose I were a Jew. And suppose a Nazi were about to torture me to death.

But, at the last moment, he loses his nerve. Suppose I’m the brother of his girlfriend.

As a Nazi, he’s not supposed to have a Jewish girlfriend. That makes him a hypocrite.

(Why, you might ask, would a nice Jewish girl be dating a Nazi? Maybe she’s a member of the Resistance. This is her way of infiltrating the party and securing actionable intel to use against the Axis.)

Be that as it may, he decides not to torture me after all. Perhaps he’s afraid I’ll denounce him to his fellow interrogator once he breaks in that nice new set of thumbscrews.

Or maybe he makes an exception because his girlfriend would hate him if she ever found out that he tortured her brother to death.

Of course, he’s now piling hypocrisy upon hypocrisy. He’s hypocritical for having a Jewish girlfriend when he wears a Nazi uniform. Indeed, he's hypocritical twice or thrice-over having the affair, concealing the affair, and exempting me from the usual treatment accorded to Jews.

Now then, what should I do? Should I quiver with rage and shame him for his hypocrisy? Should I exhort him to remain true to his false ideology and get on with the business of skinning me alive?

Well, I can’t speak for the average unbeliever, but if I were in the position of a Jewish captive at the mercy of a Nazi interrogator, I’d regard his hypocrisy as downright virtuous.

If he’s too hypocritical to boil me in oil, then I’d view his hypocrisy as a decidedly praiseworthy turn of events.

Perhaps, though, a scrupulous unbeliever would consider our Jewish prisoner to be—you know—a hypocrite for refusing to challenge his captor’s hypocrisy.

No doubt if the unbeliever were in the same position, he’d insist on his sacred right to be dismembered and disemboweled rather than endure the ignominious stigma of having compromised his high-minded principles on the seedy altar of self-preservation.

Even if no one else ever knew, he couldn’t live with himself.

Yes, better by far to suffer the excruciating pain of torture than having to suffer the indignity of a hypocrite in one’s midst.

But there’s an even curiouser kind of unbeliever.

And that’s the moral relativist who is morally outraged at Christian hypocrisy. Although he doesn’t believe in right and wrong himself, he waxes indignant that anyone else should believe in right and wrong—especially if the individual in question is a hypocrite.

The moral relativist is tolerant of all other vices in all other unbelievers, but if he should catch the slightest whiff of hypocrisy among the faithful, it would be difficult to distinguish his fervid strictures from the solemn anathemas of Torquemada.

Indeed, if I were inclined to be uncharitable, I’d almost venture to suggest that the hiatus between his relativistic philosophy and his absolutist invective borders on—dare I say?—hypocrisy!


  1. LOL, good point! Either way, atheists are definitely bigger hypocrites than Christians. They say they're moral relativists but act like moral absolutists when judging Christians.

  2. "For some, integrity is attractive because we have given up on the notion of objectively correct moral positions and seek only consistency within a single person. (This idea can often be seen in the contemporary media where it is assumed that values are relative and actual assessments of good and evil impossible. In such a world the only way to sin, is to fall short of a standard that one has set oneself; thus hypocrisy and cover-up become the ultimate sins.)"

    James Boyle (1999) “Anachronism of the Moral Sentiments? Integrity, Post-Modernism and Justice," 51(3) Stanford Law Review (February 1999) 493-528, rep at (p 514).

  3. Amen, Bro. Tom!

    That is, as they say, a darned good point. 'To thine own self be true' is the creed of many atheists, for what other creed can there be?

  4. May I equally be bold enough to suggest that hypocrisy must be judged morally and does not invalidate the belief system held.

    1. Clearly there is good and bad hypocrisy. If one follows an evil system (like your nazi), but does good, this is clearly praiseworthy. If one follows a good system and does evil, that is bad hypocrisy.

    2. The latter example leads to another point. In fact, the hypocrisy charge simply discredits the messenger. For example, say a Minister turns out to be an adulterer or fraudster. How does that make Christianity untrue? Surely all it does is make the messenger flawed?

    If a man speaks truth, does that truth exist independent on the motives of the man's heart? Do atheists believe, in a Roman Catholic-type fashion, that the message is dependent on the character of the messenger?

    Does that mean that Civil Rights ought to have been ignored because Martin Luther King was an adulterer? Should John F. Kennedy have lost to Nixon in 1960 because Kennedy was an adulterer? A man's hypocrisy can only invalidate the man, not the message, even if it does harm the message.

    Equally, when Christians are called down for our inconsistency, this is hardly an argument for the untruth of Christianity, rather it is a call for all we Christians to pull our socks up, buck our ideas up and realise that the world is watching us.

  5. That was an enjoyable read and I like the way you presented it. I was thinking of Paul and his appealing to Rome. Was he a hypocrite for not wanting the lash again? Of course not.

    Much Grace

  6. “Hypocrisy” is one of the all-time favorite charges that unbelievers hurl against Christians.

    >>> Why don't these unbelievers become Christians, thus reducing the percentage of hypocritical Christians?

  7. Wow... I came across your blog while searching for something else on google, and I am impressed- not the typical bloggish I expected to encounter. *adds to favorites*