Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Let's hear it for hypocrites!

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on how to connect with non-religious people. That's the new term for describing the folks we used to refer to as the unchurched. The presenter had arranged for four self-described non-religious people to form a panel for us. Curiously, to be called "non-religious," all but one attended a Christian church and the fourth followed Buddhism. In the Q&A they tried to clarify that what they meant, by calling themselves non-religious, was that they rejected the in institutions of religion, the formally-organized structures of denominationalism, and by strong implication, the basic tenets of historic Christian religion as well. Jesus, it seems, is whomever you wish him to be, rather than a first-century Jew of a particular context and religious heritage. (I wrote about that issue here.)

But at one point the panel and other attendees generally agreed that one of the main reasons the unchurched are well, unchurched is because church people are such hypocrites.

Alexius: Well, Paul, the reason I won't join your new church here in Corinth is because there are so many hypocrites in it.

Paul: We always have room for one more.

The hypocrisy excuse for staying away from church has got to be the oldest there is. Which only proves what Mark Twain observed, "When you don't want to do something, any excuse will do." And to borrow one of Yogi Berra's malapropisms, If people don't want to come to church, nobody's going to stop them.

But I say, "Hooray for hypocrites!" If you're a hypocrite, you're just my guy or gal.

"Hypocrite" is derived from the Greek, "hypókrisis," or "play acting." It was the description for actors in the Greek theater and refers even more specifically to the masks that certain actors wore to denote different roles, multiple roles being quite common in ancient Greek theater. Members of the chorus - a sort of on stage narrator group - also often wore masks to correspond with the mood, emotion or tome of what they were singing or narrating.

So a hypocrite is literally a "mask wearer," one who hides who s/he really is. It is, as the Greek denotes, play acting. Jesus had a lot to say about play actors, and none of it good.

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, part of the Western Wall of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed in 70 c.e. by the Romans. The Western Wall is all that remains of the Temple. Today, Jews of all religious convictions go there to pray. I prayed there, too, the same day I took this photo in October 2007.

One biting example,

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others."
That is, the men Jesus referred to made a show of praying in public so that they would gain the respect of others for being so pious. (Please note that public praying was quite normal in ancient Judea and is still done now in Israel. And it is the imperative practice in Islam. Christians pray in public, too, mainly at worship services, but also other occasions, say, the Indy 500.)

Jesus admonished his hearers that they should pray in private, so that God would hear them privately. His meaning, I think, was that prayer should be God directed, not human intended.

But no matter how you cut it, Jesus was pretty harsh on hypocrites. So how can I be rooting for them?

Because hypocrisy requires the hypocrite to believe in something or someone outside himself. Hypocrisy requires an aspiration to something higher or better than oneself. That is the meaning of the folk saying, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." Hypocrisy is an imperfect, deficient attempt to be better.

Thankfully I have known very few non-hypocritical people. They were insufferable. They were entirely self centered, self directed, self oriented, self focused and just plain purely selfish. They recognized no cause, entity or belief higher than themselves, their own desires, wants or needs. You can see, I'm sure, that it is impossible for such people to act hypocritically because they are always looking out for No. 1 in every situation. They never pretend they are acting in someone else's interests. They don't seek others' approval because they don't fundamentally care about others or what they think.

Very, very rarely is this kind of person to be found in a church (or a synagogue, either, I would imagine). The church-attending hypocrites over which the seminar attendees clucked-clucked so sadly are not actually hypocritical in the usual meaning of the word: "a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess." Yes, they fall short of what they intend, but their striving is real, not phony, and they try to do better. If they are hypocrites, then so was St. Paul.

It is deceit that makes hypocrisy what it is. The true hypocrite wants others to think better of him/her than is actually justified. Absent this deceit, there is no hypocrisy, just error or human frailty. That's what the hypocrisy-excuse people don't understand - or pretend not to understand - about church people. What may appear to be church people's hypocrisy is almost always just simple failure to meet the standards of our faith rather than deceit. Why? Because the standard is so high:
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28).

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... (Matthew 5:43-44).
There are many such examples. So I say that if our churches are filled with such "hypocrites," then let's have many more. Vice is easy, virtue is hard. It's no hypocrisy to fall short of a very high standard and such an excellent goal. And I would suggest that the hypocrisy-excuse people have largely chosen the easy way over the hard way, and choose to call that virtue. So who are the hypocrites? Well, we always have room for one more.

So however we fall short of the standards of our faith, and fall short we certainly often do, we nonetheless seek a "more excellent way" and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on towards the goal.

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