Hypocrisy and Fool’s Talk

Os Guinness’ books, like Shrek or onons have layers… So many layers. Haha

A prime example of the many layers to Guinness’ art of Christian persuasion is his chapter on hypocrisy, from Fool’s Talk:

The Unanswerable Objection?

Exploiting Christian hypocrisy to damage the Christian faith? Julian’s strategy was a refined and subtle version of what is more commonly an open, angry and disgusted attack on the Christian faith for its hypocrisy. Christians are hypocrites, it is said, vile hypocrites. They do not practice what they preach. They do not walk the talk. And no one likes a hypocrite. They talk such fine ideals, and they make such superior judgments. Indeed they brandish their judgments on others and force people to wear the scarlet letter of their disapproval, but once they themselves are exposed, shame is what they get and what they deserve. They are hoist by their own petard. In short, Christians are some of the worst hypocrites in the world, and that in itself is reason enough to reject the Christian faith. History proves beyond a shadow of doubt, the conclusion runs, that the Christian faith is simply hypocrisy incarnate.
Such attacks sting, and in the acrid atmosphere of outrage or mockery, hypocrisy can appear to be the unanswerable objection to faith. How can anyone defend the indefensible? Christian hypocrites violate their own faith in a flagrant contradiction of everything they claim, so who need take their claims seriously? In fact there is no need to attack hypocrisy with heavy artillery. Expose a Christian hypocrite and he will be seen to have falsified his own faith. Better still, have a whole community to be hypocrites together, and others can walk away and leave the faith to die.
Plainly, hypocrisy is a massive challenge for the Christian faith and for all of us as Christians. Jesus said to his disciples what the Lord had said to his people the Jews in the Old Testament: “You are my witnesses” (Is 43:10, 12; 44:8; Jn 3:28). In other words, before we are asked to preach, proclaim or try to persuade people of the claims of Jesus and his Father, we are asked simply to be witnesses for him—to provide an honest and factual account of what we have seen and heard objectively, and what we ourselves have experienced (“Once I was blind, but now I can see”)—and to live lives that support what we say.
Hypocrisy is therefore damaging because it squarely undercuts our testimony before we may have said a single word. Our lives contradict our words. It is therefore one of the worst charges thrown against us as followers of Jesus—we are not living the way of Jesus, and other people can see it. In my view, hypocrisy is second only to the problem of evil and suffering that is the so-called rock of atheism.4 Hypocrisy is also one of the easiest reasons for ducking the challenge of the gospel. If Christians are hypocrites, who need consider the Christian faith? Haven’t we all heard remarks such as “Christians are all a bunch of hypocrites”? Or the common excuse, “I may not be that great, but at least I’m not a hypocrite”? Or the easy dismissal, “How on earth can Christians contribute anything when they are such hypocrites themselves?”
Such responses have been heard down the ages and across many cultures. They have also been underscored by thinkers with varying degrees of animosity toward the faith. “Every Stoic was a Stoic,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “but in Christendom, where is the Christian?” “In truth there was only one Christian, and he died upon the cross,” Nietzsche wrote. “Christianity might be a good thing,” George Bernard Shaw used to say, “if anyone ever tried it.” “For God’s sake,” C. E. M. Joad quipped, “don’t touch the Church of England. It is the only thing that stands between us and Christianity.”
Not surprisingly, Christians themselves have echoed the same charge, though with sorrow rather than anger. “If we would bring the Turks to Christianity,” Erasmus wrote in The Complaint of Peace, “we must first be Christians.” “Millions of Christians down the centuries,” Kierkegaard protested, “have succeeded in making Christianity exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament.” “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,” Archbishop William Temple lamented, “and I only regret it does not exist.”
Hypocrisy is therefore a very serious problem for defenders of the faith. But what exactly is hypocrisy? Why is it so serious, and in what sense does it count against faith? Are Christians the only hypocrites, or perhaps only the worst? How are we to counter hypocrisy and achieve some measure of true authenticity? And what are the special dangers for apologists in countering charges of hypocrisy?
There are particular dangers for apologists, for example, when the church becomes worldly—when it has been assimilated to its surrounding culture, so that the faith and culture are confused. An extreme form of this happened after the Revolution in France, for example, when the Catholic Church and the political Right colluded in what became known as “the Sabre and the Font,” and the same thing has happened more recently in the United States in a milder form with the convergence of the Republican party and the religious Right. Such moments give birth to powerful anti-Christian forces, but only after the heat and battle are over does it become clear that they are not so much opposed to the Christian faith itself as to the political and social uses to which the faith is being put.
Advocates for the faith have to be very careful how they respond at such times, for the temptation is to confuse the culture with the faith. As historian Henry Chadwick commented on apologetic responses to the militant anti-Christian movements in France:
Defenders of Christian orthodoxy looked to their gates, lowered the portcullis, raised the drawbridge and boiled the oil. They had too little consciousness that part of the assault rose out of some of their own principles. . . . “Who among us would be a freethinker,” asked Nietzsche, with his characteristic excess, “were it not for the church?”5
But there is another point that must be raised here too. As I am sure some people are thinking, The very style of apologetics advocated here invites the accusation of hypocrisy. Surely, then, there is a serious flaw in the approach I am suggesting. It lays the Christian faith open to an obvious attack. As one person said to me after I had spoken on the need to push people to see the logic of the positions that they have chosen over against God: “It’s all very well to push people to be consistent to their unbelief. But as you’ve said, all arguments cut both ways. What happens if they push us back, and we do not and cannot live up to what we say? Will we not be shown up as failures at best and hypocrites at worst?”
The answer to that question is simple, though challenging. If unbelievers are pressed to be consistent to their beliefs and worldviews, and shown up when they cannot be (because their faiths are not finally true), Christians should welcome being pressed in the same way. The boomerang returns and hits us. Where unbelievers cannot be consistent, we should be. If the Christian faith is true and we are shown up for failing to live consistently to it, we must put that right. We are called to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. So if we are inconsistent to what we believe, it is we who are wrong and not the faith. We must therefore work to close the gap between our talk and our walk. The charge of hypocrisy is painful but bracing. It is positive if it spurs us to repentance and then to growth. In short, where unbelievers cannot finally be true to what they believe, because their faiths are not fully and finally true, we should be true to what we believe, and we must be. In this life we will never be perfect, but Christian growth is a matter of growing closer to our Lord and closer in our alignment with his truth and his way of life.

Step One: We Are All Hypocrites Now

Much more could be said about hypocrisy, but it is obvious that thinking through an answer to the charge of hypocrisy is a crucial part of apologetics. Such an answer may be set out in six steps, the first of which is to recognize the point at which the Christian faith and modern thinking agree without any equivocation: deception is endemic to humanity. We are all hypocrites now.
As we saw in chapter five, common to both the biblical worldview and the thinking of modern philosophy and psychology is the assertion that deception and self-deception are fundamental and pervasive in human experience. A striking feature of modern as well as postmodern thinking about humanity is that there is a gap between the inner self and the outer self, and between reality and appearance. Karl Marx spoke of “ideology,” not just as a set of ideas but a set of ideas that served as weapons for social interests. Similarly, Nietzsche and Michel Foucault analyzed the “genealogy of morals” in terms of power, interests and agendas masquerading as virtues, Sigmund Freud described “rationalizing” as giving reasons other than the real reasons, and Albert Camus always talked of motives and “ulterior motives.” And for the discipline of the sociology of knowledge, the gap between the inner and the outer, and between appearance and reality, is precisely why it is a commonplace truth that “nothing is ever what it appears to be.” In short, what the Bible calls the “deceitful heart” and Plato called the “double game” are alive and strongly confirmed by modern thinking.
To be sure, it is fashionable today to prattle on about “transparency,” “authenticity,” “accountability” and “sincerity” as if these were easily attainable, and as if the younger generation prizes them and no one in history did earlier. But nothing is that easy and straightforward. Camus warned against the delusion of sincerity: “Above all, don’t believe your friends when they ask you to be sincere with them. They merely hope you will encourage them in the good opinion they have of themselves by providing them with additional assurance they find in your promise of sincerity.”6
Most people’s notions of these ideals are naive, and none of the ideals is that simple. Complete transparency is impossible, true authenticity is harder than ever, real accountability is easier to avoid than before—if only because of the link between modern mobility and anonymity—and sincerity can be dangerous when it is allowed to take the place of truth. To anyone with their eyes and ears open, it is also obvious that the very same people who talk of these ideals also thrive on a robust diet of cynicism, the art of mistrust, the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and the need to have a keen “nose for BS.”
As well they might, for as the Yale philosopher Harry Frankfurt writes, “One of the salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”7 (BS, Frankfurt notes, is an apt term, combining the Old English word bull, or hot air, with the word for human waste, from which all nutritional content has been removed.)
We must not hurry past such contradictions in hypocrisy too quickly. For example, it has always been true that the same people who are fashionably skeptical and careless about truth are almost never skeptical or blasé about lying, especially when they themselves are lied to. Yet the plain fact is that a lie is a claim about reality that is stated with the express intention of misdirecting the truth and deceiving someone. A lie assumes a knowledge of the truth, and it has to. If a speaker does not know the truth, his false claim would not be a lie but an error.
Postmodern thinking is an exaggerated case of this contradiction. We might say that it is inherently hypocritical because it can only raise the charge of hypocrisy by an accusation that it cannot itself substantiate without objective truth. But the practical effect is more important. Postmoderns have a problem when they stand up against hypocrisy—they are impotent to remedy it. If hypocrisy in its essence is a violation of truth, which it is, postmodernism has no concept of truth with which to remedy the problem. And if hypocrisy violates justice, which it does, postmodernism has no concept of objective justice either. If, as postmoderns say, “truth” is merely the compliment we pay to claims and ideas that we agree with, then “lies” are only the insult we level at claims and ideas that differ from our own. Seen that way, there are only relativities to counter relativities, supposed lies to counter supposed lies, and of course power to counter power.
Fyodor Dostoevsky foresaw this problem in the nineteenth century. In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zossima warns, “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and others.”8
No one appreciated and explored this point more excruciatingly than Camus. In his novel The Fall, his protagonist Clamence expresses his fear that if lies are left unconfessed and distortions of reality are left uncorrected, they would mount exponentially from generation to generation to create a grand edifice of falsehood and unreality. Just as ongoing, careless waste leaves the earth environmentally polluted, lies and distortions of reality would gather pace until “the absolute murder of truth” created a world that was impossibly polluted morally and philosophically. As Clamence admits,
A ridiculous fear pursued me in fact: one could not die without having confessed all one’s lies. Not to God or one of his representatives: I was above all that as you can imagine. No, it was a matter of confessing to men, to a woman, for example. Otherwise, were there but one lie hidden in a life, death made it definitive. No one, ever again, would know the truth on this point, since the only one to know it was precisely the dead man sleeping on his secret. That absolute murder of truth made me dizzy.9
The modern world therefore faces a dilemma. Either we must find a way to counter hypocrisy, starting with a search for a standard by which to judge it and a solution by which to remedy it. Or we must follow the logic of our situation in which there is no God, no objective truth and a toxic pollution of truth, and respond to the lethal environment we have created with the only response possible: cynicism. We are all hypocrites now, so let it be. There is nothing we can do about deception and self-deception, and if we can’t solve the problem, we should make the best of a bad situation and join the cynics’ game. Life would then be only a dirty game to be played with dirty hands, and won with all the tricks of truthless power and manipulation.

Step Two: Clarify the Issues

It follows from this first point that if we are all hypocrites now, and not just Christians, and if much modern and postmodern thinking is quite deficient in providing any remedy, we need to think through the issue of hypocrisy at a much greater depth for all our sakes—starting by clarifying the issues.
Here is a place where the street-level understanding is entirely correct. Hypocrisy is all about the gap between truth and lies, integrity and falsehood, and justice and injustice. At its heart are gaps that are covered by a pretense that is false and a pose that is a cover. Expressed more precisely, hypocrisy involves a triple violation. It is a violation of truth because the content of what it appears to say is untrue. It is a violation of justice because the claim it appears to show is unjust. And it is a violation of honesty because the communication through which it appears to speak is dishonest. If a lie is an attempt to deceive others without their consent, hypocrisy is a lie told in deeds rather than words.
Once when the great slaver turned abolitionist John Newton was praised for what he had achieved, he responded quickly: “Sir, the devil already told me that.” In a similar situation, when the eminent Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne was congratulated by a parishioner for his saintliness, he replied sharply, “Madame, if you could see in my heart, you would spit in my face.” In each case, they refused to let others think that they were what they weren’t. They resisted hypocrisy by exposing the gap that was its essence—the gap between the inner and the outer, appearance and reality.
Needless to say, such humility and candor can be taken too far, to the point where people who know they are hypocrites are reluctant to say anything affirmative at all. W. H. Auden liked to paraphrase the command of Jesus as “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.”10 “Those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians,” W. H. Auden said in a sermon, “will do well to be extremely reticent on the subject. Indeed it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals.”11
Scholars can add further subtleties to this discussion, but the heart of the issue remains the same. Philosophers, for example, have identified the “genetic fallacy.” There is an important difference between the source of a truth claim and the standard by which it should be assessed. It is therefore wrong to reject a claim just because of the character and condition of its source.
Uncomfortable though it can be, avoiding the genetic fallacy reminds us of the important notion of “truth baggage.” Just as a parent throws out the bathwater and not the baby, and a woman wears a pearl around her neck and not the oyster, so a truth claim needs to be distinguished from the baggage carried by those who affirm the claim. Naturally, this point cuts both ways. Those more educated need to remember that a belief may be true even if it is believed by the “irredeemably uncouth,” just as those less educated need to remember that something may be true even if one of the “elite” advocates it. The issue is always truth, and truth is not a matter of where someone is “coming from” or how oddly or shabbily they have behaved in the past before making the claim.
Sociologists point to another helpful distinction—the difference between credibility and plausibility. Credibility is a matter of whether a belief is or is not true, and therefore an issue for philosophy to discuss. Plausibility, on the other hand, is a matter of whether a belief seems or does not seem to be true, and is therefore an issue for sociology to explore, regardless of the merits of the truth claims. What passes for truth is all that then matters. Understood in the light of this distinction, it is obvious that hypocrisy damages plausibility but not credibility. It is certainly harder to believe what “a bunch of hypocrites” say they believe, but what hypocrites believe must be examined as either true or false, regardless of their hypocrisy. As we must say again and again, and in answer to many different kinds of objections: If the Christian faith is true, it would still be true even if no one believed it, or if all who did were hypocrites; and if it is false, would still be false even if everyone believed it and there was no apparent hypocrisy in their behavior. For the question of credibility, the issue is always and only truth.

Step Three: Appreciate the Social Benefits of Hypocrisy

It may sound odd, and perhaps it is even dangerous for people who take virtue seriously and do so in an age that doesn’t, to admit that hypocrisy has its benefits. Yet it does, or at least it does under the conditions of our fallen world so that vice can play a vital part in the successful running of society. Take for instance the celebrated maxims of the seventeenth-century French aristocrat and author the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. “Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers,” he wrote, as if expounding the biblical anatomy of unbelief. And his view of hypocrisy was equally astute—“If we had no faults, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others.” But in his attempt to see life without either a rose-tinted or a jaundiced eye, he also pointed to the qualified benefit of hypocrisy: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”
Rochefoucauld’s maxim was far more than a clever saying of his own. It echoes the profound teaching of St. Augustine that evil always imitates the good and vice mimics virtue, which in turn gave rise to the paradoxical idea that private vices can make for public benefits. This happens, as we saw earlier, when the appearance and effects of love are mistaken for the cause of love, and people are then praised for a virtuous motive that is actually a mask for a vice, and therefore hypocritical. This idea was picked up from St. Augustine by the little known Pierre Nicole, the seventeenth-century French writer and Jansenist theologian, and then developed more provocatively by Bernard Mandeville in The Fable of the Bees. It led to the eighteenth-century idea of “enlightened self-love” and later to Adam Smith’s famous exposition of the “invisible hand” that orders the free market and even mysteriously rights its wrongs.
As underscored earlier, prideful self-love slavishly copies true self-love out of self-interest. It seeks the approval of others, but disguises itself because it knows it would be distasteful to others if it were seen openly as self-love. Self-love therefore masks its real motive and mimics true love, and in doing so creates the paradoxical effect that private vices may work for the public good. For example, a good deal of what appears as generous philanthropy is really the fruit of prideful self-love disguised as generosity and reaching out for the validation of public approval and social esteem—and in the process creating enormous social benefits.12 It “gives to get” as a matter of an unspoken contract, rather than “giving because given to,” which is the expression of true charity. But in the world as it is, this motive is only natural. Expressed Christianly, it would be utopian to think that any society can remove sin and make all citizens good. Better then, people say, to be realistic and recognize a system that encourages most citizens, however good or bad, to behave as good, even if they are not or they are not as good as they aspire to be seen.
In Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street, Michael Douglas, as the trader Gordon Gekko, argues famously that “Greed, for want of a better term, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” He sets out his claim as the consequence of his Darwinian philosophy of the struggle for the survival of the fittest, but it can also be made to fit in with the Christian understanding of the social benefits of hypocrisy. In a fallen world, greed may be seen as both a vice in its motive and a virtue in its consequences. As Nicole argues, “There is virtually no deed inspired by charity for the sake of pleasing God that self-love could not perform for the sake of pleasing men.”13
Plainly, this understanding of the social benefits of hypocrisy turns on a subtle revaluation of the vices in general and pride in particular. And like Machiavelli’s advocacy of open hypocrisy as policy for the prince, this view has an obvious and strict limit. Machiavelli forgot that his system of deception would not work if everyone operated deceitfully as the prince did—as, say, in a postmodern world of truthless lies, hype and spin. And Nicole was wrong to think that a society would run just as well if everything was “driven only by self-love,” yet society would still “see everywhere only the forms and the outward marks of charity.”14
Nicole went too far, and the limit on his system is plain and unforgiving. Politics as the art of managing vice is a dangerous game to play, and many have ruined their societies in trying to play it. In Augustine’s biblical view, only God can manage the subtleties of the process, and the theological term for God’s management of the world is providence. By contrast, all would-be human providences will fail in the end, whether Hobbes’s false providence of the “Leviathan” of the political state or Adam Smith’s false providence of “the invisible hand” of the commercial market. Today’s liberal democracy, with its culture of transgression, its drive to liberate anything and everything done by and between consenting adults, and its mania for management by metrics, appears bent on adding to history’s examples of societies that failed to manage vice and the crooked timber of our humanity.
The plain fact is that vice will always mimic virtue to gain the approval it seeks to validate itself and its prideful self-love. But it will do so only so long as virtue is esteemed as virtue, and virtue is therefore fashionable and worth flattering. If the day ever comes that virtue is no longer fashionable, self-love and vice can drop their mask and be open about their interests and their agendas. The result will be a rapid descent to the state of nature when vice openly fights vice and the outcome is a Hobbesian war of all against all. In short, the process contains a moral and social tipping point when there is no need for pretense, when vice can show its real face as vice and society will reap the consequences of its own chosen decadence.
Quite apart from the subtleties of this understanding of the social benefits of hypocrisy, the same point can be stated more straightforwardly. It is realistic rather than cynical to observe that in a fallen world there are degrees of virtue in relation to what is right, and good and just. These are important in our human judgments of others, even though they may be blown to the winds by the grace of God. To “do good because we know it is good” is different from “doing good only because we know we are seen,” and this in turn is different from “doing good only because we are afraid of being thought to be bad,” which in turn is different again from “the complete abandonment of any pretense of caring about being good or being seen.” The first type of action springs from what we call morality, the second respectability, the third hypocrisy, and the fourth sheer wickedness.
This means that, bad though it is and dangerous though its slipway may prove, there is a sense in which hypocrisy may be preferable to wickedness. Hypocrisy still cares enough about virtue to want to pretend to be virtuous, or at least it recognizes that the society around still prizes virtue enough to make it worth flattering. When neither of those conditions can be assumed, as in times of open Sodom-and-Gomorrah decadence, the world is in deep trouble. In that limited sense Rochefoucauld is right. “Hypocrisy is the homage that that vice pays to virtue.”
There is yet another way into seeing the “benefits” of hypocrisy. If the charge of hypocrisy stems from our failure to practice what we preach, at least it turns on the fact that other people know the standards by which it can be judged hypocrisy. In other words, they know enough of what we preach for our practice to be seen as a contradiction and therefore hypocritical. We are followers of Jesus, and they know enough about Jesus to know that we are not living up to the way Jesus called us to live. That is bad enough, but there is something even worse. The situation becomes dangerously toxic when other people do not know how Christians should behave, and therefore confuse the way Christians are thinking and living with the way Christians should think and live. Our lax, corrupt or brazenly anti-Christian ways of life are taken to be the Christian way of life—and therefore easily rejected.
That in fact is a prime way through which people have rejected the gospel in history. And we must face the humbling fact that again and again the major defections from the church are the result of vehement rejections of unfaithful and corrupt expressions of the Christian faith in different periods of history. The spread of atheism in the West, for example, is rooted historically in the corruptions of Christendom—the “politics of dissimulation” mentioned earlier was the rotten fruit of the way Christians had corrupted themselves and oppressed others through the abuse of state power. (Consider the blatant logic of the Jacobin cry in the French revolution: “We must strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.”) There are striking examples of the same thing in our own day. For example, the multiple angry assaults on the “traditional family” are the rotten fruit of Christians corrupting the beauty and strength of the “covenantal family” of the Bible into the hated “hierarchical family” of the stereotypes so loved by feminists and others.
Still more needs to be said about this trend, of course, and there must be no misunderstanding. It is not an argument for hypocrisy, but only for an understanding of its effects. Hypocrisy is absolutely wrong, always and everywhere, and there are ineradicable problems with it. Once it is exposed, disillusionment is inevitable and its “benefits” evaporate. And if everyone plays the hypocrite and there is no virtue to flatter, hypocrisy becomes pointless and society collapses into general wickedness. But it still stands true that in a limited way and for a limited time, hypocrisy does offer some benefits. For one thing, what a hypocrite models (if falsely) is virtue. So long as he or she is not found out, a hypocrite models and therefore helps to reinforce the behavior that he or she is pretending to live. For another thing, hypocrites may affect others by preaching what they do not practice themselves. And for yet another thing, even the outrage at hypocrisy when it is exposed challenges everyone to a useful self-examination. Just as a counterfeit implies the worth of what it imitates, so the instinctive anger we level at hypocrisy can trigger helpful questions. What does hypocrisy say of the importance and the place of the virtue it betrays? Where might we ourselves be equally guilty of hypocrisy? Do we who are outraged by hypocrisy have the standards of truth or justice that alone can provide the remedy for hypocrisy, or are we inconsistent too?

Step Four: Remember Where Moral Seriousness Came From

Quite apart from the reinforcements of hypocrisy in modern and postmodern thinking, much of our modern world provides a lifetime of schooling in hypocrisy. Indeed the advanced modern world is so perfectly suited to hypocrisy that what is striking is not hypocrisy but our continuing outrage at it. After all, we have moved from face-to-face communities to abstract global societies, from small towns to large cities, and from the experience of being known by most people to being mostly unknown. Through our restless mobility, we modern people are more anonymous in more situations than any generation in history. Not surprisingly, these trends have created parallel trends in the rise of public relations, image consultants, spin, hype, makeovers, plastic surgery, Botox and the like. The inner, the real and the unseen are irrelevant in today’s world. All that counts is appearance, and the world of consumerism has lost no time in catering to every need, and then creating even more, in this burgeoning market of the appearance.
It was not always so. The Bible insists that God does not see as humans see, for “man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Plato raises the same point in his parable of Gyges the shepherd, who was able to make himself invisible. Nothing could be further from the modern view, for in the biblical and classical view, character is who we are when no one sees. Before the searching eye of God, image, spin and PR are utterly irrelevant—flimsy and no more effective then picking up a feather to ward off a blowtorch.
This tough biblical view is what gave hypocrisy its deep moral seriousness. God hates hypocrisy. He is especially outraged by religious hypocrisy, when religion itself is used as a cover. And God is never deceived. He is angry, Isaiah declared,
Because this people draw near with their words
And honor me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me. (Is 29:13)
It is this radical critique of the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus sharpened even further. He used a straightforward and descriptive word that was the Greek word for “acting or playing a part on a stage,” but gave it the explosively charged moral meaning that it has had in the Western world ever since—thanks to him.
Jesus opened his withering fire on three kinds of hypocrisy. The first is the hypocrisy of pretense, when we put up the front of being better than we really are. (“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, so that they may be honored by men” [Mt 6:2].) The second is the hypocrisy of blame and judgmentalism, when we criticize others despite moral faults of our own. (“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” [Mt 7:3].) And the third is the hypocrisy of inconsistency, when we lay down moral requirements for others that we do not apply to ourselves. (“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in themselves” [Mt 23:13].)
Can any of us walk scot-free and claim we are innocent of all these hypocrisies? What is as clear as the noonday sun is that Jesus was far harder on hypocrites than he was on sinners, and he was especially hard on those who used religion as a mask to cover their actions and their real motives. His scathing attacks put into perspective the earlier point made about the benefit of hypocrisy. Whatever limited benefit hypocrisy may hold for society, there are clearly no alibis or excuses for individual hypocrites. God himself is not deceived. Better to know the shame of exposure that leads to confession and forgiveness than be allowed to maintain the mask that hides a reality that one day will be judged sternly.

Step Five: Say No to Retaliation, and Dare to Confess

Whenever we are attacked, the oldest response in the human book is to say, “You too!” From a small child’s “Tit for tat,” to a lawyer’s tu quoque defense, to the viciousness of a Corsican blood feud, the easiest answer to insult or injury is always to retaliate, especially when the accusation itself is unfair or unjust. I have stressed that all arguments cut both ways, which is an important advice for the world of rhetoric. And I have urged a form of it earlier—“relativizing the relativizers,” for example. But if such a response is carried out in a spirit of retaliation, it will most certainly backfire. To accuse someone of the very charge they have leveled against us ducks their point and introduces into the conversation more heat than light.
A skillful rejoinder with humor and love is different from retaliation. More importantly, retaliation in kind was never the way of Jesus. He called us as his followers to live his way and to love our enemies, forgiving without limit, returning good to those who wrong us, and taking into ourselves the wrong they do to us—as he himself did on the cross. And of course, Jesus called us to confess our wrongs and therefore to admit our opponents’ charges when they are right.
Confession is under a cloud in many circles today, partly because our modern culture is swinging undecided between the memory of the once predominant Jewish and Christian culture of guilt and the new modern culture of shame (as in the trials by the media and the social media). Some people think confession is dubious because it must surely always have been coerced—perhaps by some guilt-inducing authority pressuring someone on the couch or in the confessional, or perhaps by some politically correct court of public opinion before which those who sin against the currently fashionable sin must grovel and make amends. Others simply consider confession weak—running up a white flag when we are no longer strong enough or brazen enough to keep up the stonewalling and “plausible deniability” that are key tactics in the art of damage control and of surviving public scandals.
The truth is that, properly understood, confession is a key strength of the Christian faith and a vital part of countering hypocrisy. For a start, open, voluntary confession is part and parcel of a strong and comprehensive view of truth, and therefore of realism and responsibility. Whatever we do and have done, whether right or wrong, is a matter of record and reality. Responsibly owning up to it therefore aligns us to reality and to truth in a way that liberates. And far from being weak or an act of surrender, confession is the expression of rare moral courage, for in confessing a person demonstrates the strength of character to go on record against himself or herself.
Again, the result of free confession is freedom. By contrast, deception is self-serving in the short run but disastrous in the long run, as Walter Scott captured so brilliantly in his poem “Marmion”: “O, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive.” Lies entangle us in a thickening web of unreality. But when we confess, we face the truth, shoulder the responsibility for what we have done, and walk forward without the complicating clutter created by lies or the fear of exposure. If we get back in line with truth and reality, there are no more shoes to fall and no more truthful witnesses to contradict us. Making a clean breast of things clears the air and opens the way forward. On the other hand, without confession, there is no freedom, only a groping along a tortuous path through a thicket of lies and distortions, which one day will hold us fast and from which there will be no escape.
Such open confession is essential in countering charges of Christian hypocrisy for three reasons. First, things have been done that are unequivocally evil or wrong. Second, these things have been carried out by Christians, and often in the very name of Christ. And third, the things done wrong have been flagrant contradictions of the teaching and example of Jesus. We or other Christians have not practiced what we preached, and what we or they have done has left a terrible stain on the Christian church and on the name of Jesus. Read for example Christopher Hitchens’s compendium of readings, The Portable Atheist. A sorry but unmistakable feature leaps out. Atheists gain their main emotive force not by setting out the purported glories of their worldview, which in the end is in fact extremely bleak, but in attacking the evils and excesses of Christians and Christendom. Something has surely gone terribly wrong when Christians are the best atheist arguments against the Christian faith and Christendom their best argument for atheism.
Needless to say, our confession of hypocrisies has to be specific, and we each have to fill in our own sins, the wrongs of other Christians, the failures of the churches that we know or the crimes of the church down the ages that bear closely on those to whom we are talking—the darkness of anti-Semitism and of the pogroms to our Jewish friends, for example, or the excesses of the Crusades to Muslims and the errors of the Inquisition to scientists, and so on.
Pope John Paul II demonstrated this moral courage when he openly confessed the sins of the Roman Catholic Church more than one hundred times in various settings. Needless to say, even this was never enough for some of his critics, and for some of these nothing would ever have been enough—not even if he apologized for being Catholic. In other words, we do not confess for effect. Rather, confession always has its eye toward the truth, and it addresses the Lord first and foremost, as well as the victims. Bystanders are not our primary concern. It is against the Lord and our victims that we have sinned, and it is supremely to the Lord and then our victims that we confess. Bystanders come into the picture only to confirm the integrity of the forgiveness and its consequences.
Even before Pope John Paul, C. S. Lewis understood the crucial importance of confession as he argued for the Christian faith.
If ever the book which I am not going to write is written, it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty. Large areas of the world will not hear us until we have publicly disowned much of our Christian past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch. To be sure, the pogroms, the Crusades and the Inquisition were long ago and far away, and therefore easy to confess for most of us. We were not involved. What hurts our witness today is often things that are far smaller and much closer to home. We may have demeaned our spouses and treated our children with anger, modeling a view of God that bears no resemblance to our Lord. We may have indulged in juicy gossip and degraded a rival, and contradicted any notion of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We may have lost our cool under challenge and defended the faith with a haughty disdain for the arguments of others, betraying our insecurity rather than the assurance that comes with truth. In sum, we may have been hypocrites. In which case we have not practiced what we preach. We have become the sharpest rebuttal to our own arguments and the most damning objection to our own faith. As followers of Jesus, we must not duck the enormity of a simple but shattering fact: with relatively few exceptions, such as some branches of Buddhism, almost all the most militantly secularist societies in history have been the product of Christian societies. The church is a leading spawning ground for atheists.
We have pointed to the way of Jesus, and then through our behavior we have stood squarely in the path of anyone who might like to join it. Plainly, there is a time in our arguments to confess, and confession and changed lives have to be a key part of our arguments. When it comes our responding to hypocrisy, words will never be enough.

Step Six: Submit to the Toughest Counter-hypocrisy Program Ever

There is a common impression today that, with the collapse of the former Christian consensus in the West, Christians are undone by hypocrisy and disconcerted by relativism. In other words, we are thought to be simpletons who are comfortable only with absolutes and with the clear categories of black and white thinking.
Far from it. As we saw in an earlier chapter, the biblical view offers not only the deepest grounding for truth under the very God of truth, it also provides the most radical understanding of relativism. The ultimate distortion of truth comes not from gender, race, class, culture or generation, but from sin. “It’s a gender thing / a race thing / a class thing / a cultural thing / a generational thing. You wouldn’t understand” has been given a far deeper level of relativism because of sin. It’s as if Paul says, “It’s a sin thing. They will not understand.” Because of creation, we and all other humans are essentially, though only partly, truth seekers still. But because of the fall and our continuing active disobedience, we and all other humans are also essentially and willfully truth twisters.
That insight reenters the discussion here, but to serve a different point. Earlier, it served to throw light on our understanding of the biblical anatomy of unbelief. Here it throws light on how we can work to escape hypocrisy through the way of Jesus. If unbelievers seek to suppress the truth in order to avoid God, and in the process become truth twisters, we who by grace are now believers seek to be true to the truth in every area of our lives, and so to become truth seekers and truth livers—those who walk in the light and are committed to live in the truth.

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