In recent months I have felt called to consider hypocrisy more carefully than I have in the past. I think by now most of us are aware that the term employed in the New Testament describes people who act, who put on a show. In Russian, the word comes from roots meaning ‘measured faces,’ which represents to me a similar insight. But there is a sense in which hypocrisy is the enactment of religious ideals that is very difficult to distinguish from earnest aspiration. In what I consider a malignant phrase, some modern LDS recommend that people “fake it till you make it,” a phrase that misrepresents holy aspiration and that offends many who accuse LDS of hypocrisy. I think both sides generally talk past each other on this fraught topic.
The Bibles, both the Hebrew and the Christian, speak commonly of hypocrisy, though the words underlying ‘hypocrisy’ appear somewhat different between them. I think that Isaiah 32:6 provides a reasonable sense for its broad use in those traditions, particularly when we recognize that it is the juxtaposition of darkness with light, of profanity with the sacred, of baseness with sublimity, that provides the power behind the semantic complex of ‘hypocrisy.’
For the vile person will speak villany, and his heart will work iniquity, to practise hypocrisy, and to utter error against the Lord, to make empty the soul of the hungry, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail.
These are strong words, accusations against the powerful of serious sin (even if they are not strictly ‘hypocrisy’ as we think of it today, the word suggesting something more akin to profane behavior in place of righteousness). The Isaian traditions continue to resonate in our world, though they are often less explicitly economic than in the Hebrew Bible. In many of those resonances hypocrisy emphasizes people behaving in ways that are inconsistent with some external standard, whether imposed internally or externally.
In my experience the accusation of hypocrisy is often a window into the worldview of the person issuing the accusation. In some cases, the accusation of hypocrisy indicates that a vulnerable individual feels unjustly judged, maligned, or excluded. A man who feels judged for his addiction to [tobacco|alcohol|drugs|sex] may say of the striving members of a church community that they are “hypocrites” because while they attend church weekly (or more often, depending on the church community) they are still petty and selfish and unforgiving. At times the offended party may wish for the affirmation that comes from the discovery of “gross” sin among such outwardly forthright people. When such sins are discovered they tend to confirm the suspicion of the wounded that the righteousness of the critic had been false all along.
At other times ‘hypocrisy’ identifies someone who is a strident advocate of a strict behavioral code who himself (and what a legacy of our social, biological, and cultural systems that these seem largely to be men) does not obey that code. We think most often of famous evangelists or right-wing politicians committing sexual or financial indiscretions. We find these episodes galling evidence of a double standard, a double standard that strikes at the core of our notions of justice and our sometimes unspoken belief that religious enlightenment should lead to true knowledge. Such hypocrites belie the cosmic justice we intuitively believe should exist and make us to believe that religion fails humanity. These individuals are often favored strawmen for New Atheist critics of religion generally.
In many respects hypocrisy in biblical writings seems to me to represent an assault on a religious tradition. With Isaiah, there is often the complaint that pious believers within ancient Israel appeared to hold true to Yahweh’s ritual commandments but missed the essence of religion, which was justice for the poor and vulnerable. Focusing on cultic elements (cultic means related to outward or formal religion, things like liturgy and observance of particular ritual norms outside temple/synagogue) instead of the great founding story of Yahweh caring for the underdog Israel. That often neglected master narrative forced individual Israelites to consider the possibility that they were behaving like enslaving Egypt in their interactions with the weak in their community. Hypocrisy in this sense, and it is a sense that Christ and his early followers followed closely, represents a criticism of formal religion (note that formal religion is not the same as “institutional religion”) and a call to an essential religion in which God’s work of succoring the afflicted and bringing justice to the underdog takes center stage.
I remember parts of my mission quite vividly, even viscerally. I was severe and unforgiving. I did not transgress the behavioral norms and required that others did not. Occasionally I would reprimand, brutally, errant missionaries whom I supervised. I was not guilty of any of the sins for which hypocrites are often called out. But mine was a merely formal rather than an essential religion, and I spent too much time maligning those who bore specks of dust at the base of their eyelash while the joist bulging from my forehead swept the road before me clean of trespassers. I regret what I did on my mission. I did not maintain a double standard; I did not meet those criteria for hypocrisy, but I did meet a version of the New Testament criteria. I have struggled to avoid making the same mistake twice. I was striving to be righteous but in that pursuit I had become a whitewashed tomb (‘whited sepulchre’) in the phrase of Jesus. The dark hollowness inside was not any failure to abide the behavioral norms when no one was looking (I was the same rigid judge when alone as when in public), they were my failure to understand and embrace the essence toward which the behavioral norms pointed. I had tried too hard for the wrong thing.
But, but, but.
Good things can come from our aspirations to be better, and there will be wonderful things that we do that evoke criticism from others. Some criticism should be ignored some times. Participants in formal religion do much good and many of them well recognize that they are imperfect, even as they earnestly desire to be “perfect, like [their] Father in Heaven is perfect.” To move from a current state of imperfection to a future state of perfection requires (even in the face of the overwhelming grace of Christ) some modicum of effort or striving or desire or yearning for being better. And some critics, in certain circumstances, will term that aspiration ‘hypocrisy.’ Our efforts to reach toward Christ will sometimes, maybe often, be clumsy. They will produce unintended and sometimes undesired effects. But these expressions of our yearning for Christ are not therefore wrong.
Is there an ideal balance, a way to honor the yearnings of some for greater proximity to Christ while remaining sensitive to the needs of God’s favored people, the ones who inhabit the margins of society? I think there is, but it requires substantial work and is not the native state of humans. We who believe there is beauty and power in formal religion must aspire, but we must have Jesus on one shoulder and Isaiah on the other, whispering to us (or sometimes shouting to us) that our formal religion is designed to save the whole sorry lot of us that even in that seemingly most personal endeavor of salvation, it is never just about us.
This does not mean that Latter-day Saints will necessarily adopt the language of moral neutrality or ‘relativism’, that the aspiring Saint will endorse the utter irrelevance of a commitment to godly behaviors. It does mean, I think, that Latter-day Saints will remember that formal religion is a tool that God can use to make of us what we are not yet, and that this tool, along with the many other available to God in his eternal caring for us, is intended to save not just individual human atoms, but the entire human kindred.
Apologies for the unpolished state of this post; I’m trying to continue with the Fast Sunday posts despite a grueling travel schedule.