Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On Avoiding Hypocrisy

No one wants to be a hypocrite. Jesus tended to reserve His harshest condemnations for that particular sin. Adulterers, prostitutes, thieves, and so on got quiet disappointment and admonitions not to do it anymore. Hypocrites got shouted and sneered at and told flat out that they were going to Hell (Jesus was "meek and humble of heart," but He wasn't 'nice' or 'tolerant' as we think of it; He was brutal in His honesty).

Here's the danger, though; hypocrisy is also the easiest thing to accuse someone of, because the truly sincere and integrated man is a very rare beast indeed. Almost all of us fall short of our own principles and find ourselves in the position to say "do as I say, not as I do" at some point. All of us, to some degree, are hypocrites. That's why we're warned not to pass judgment; because the standard by which we judge others will be used to judge us.

This warning against judgment makes the accusation "hypocrite!" a very dangerous one indeed. Because if he is a hypocrite, well, that probably makes me one as well, much as I like to fancy otherwise. St. Paul himself said "I do what would not," declaring himself a hypocrite of sorts; who, exactly, am I to be exempt form that label?

In order to escape the trap of hypocrisy, most people these days fly into the comfort of moral relativism. Relativsm, though, is false security at best. For one thing, most self-described relativists (and people who hold similar views without going the whole-hog) don't really mean that all morality is man-made and subjective; they mean "all the morality that I  personally object to is relative; the principles that I hold are non-negotiable." Thus you'll find the same people who sagely declare that its wrong to criticize someone else for their lifestyle flying into a rage at the least sign of 'intolerance.'

The other big problem with relativism is that, if you actually follow through on the principle, there's no point to it. The only reason to embrace moral relativism is to avoid hypocrisy, but a relativist has no reason to think hypocrisy immoral. Someone else, by his view, might just as well say that it is moral to be a hypocrite, and he would have no cause to object. Indeed, even if someone claims that morality is objective, the relativist can't deny it, because that's the other person's view, which is just as valid as his own. Relativism falls into the same, rather amusing, trap as Determinism and Randian Objectivism: the very fact that you're promoting it proves you don't really believe it.

So, how do you avoid hypocrisy? By humility. By continually recalling the fact that you are a sinner and asking God's pardon like the Publican in the parable (who I believe was praying to be forgiven for swipping the vessel with the pestle). By following Confucius's advice to examine yourself whenever you see someone doing wrong. In short, by minding your own damned business (that's not profanity, it's an adjective).

This doesn't mean, of course, that you should simply ignore the sins of others. We are our brothers' keepers, after all, and admonishing the sinner is a key work of mercy. What it does mean is that your first priority needs to be putting your own house in order; cultivating your own virtues and repenting for your own sins. It's the same as in external affairs: unless you see your neighbor needs help or they are actually interfering with you, what goes on in your neighbor's house is really none of your business. Busybodies and hypocrites often go hand in hand. There's a big difference between saying "I heard you lost your job; do you guys need any help?" and "you know, that boy of yours really needs to step up his game if he wants to make the cricket team."

Basically, what defines a hypocrite of the type Jesus despised is that they are too focused on the sins of others to notice their own. Their focus is out where it should be in and in where it should be out. They gloat over their own virtues and sneer at other people's vices. We Christians are supposed to work constantly on improving our virtues and forgive other people's vices. We are not called upon to have any opinion at all about ourselves, only to go on improving as best we can. Our eyes are supposed to be turned outward to God and neighbor and inward to where we still need improvement.

 The art of the Christian is to both humble himself and admonish others; to neither lose sight of his own sins nor leave others ignorant of theirs. It's a tricky balance, but then the tricky balances are the only ones worth bothering with, aren't they? No one gives a man credit for walking down the street; only for walking across Niagra Falls on a wire.

"And if you only walk where it is easy to walk, what reward is there in that? Do not pagans do the same?"

Vive Christus Rex!

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