On Hypocrisy

A week ago I published a post calling for kindness, and in the days that followed I’ve made some comments here that left other participants in the thread wondering whether I really meant it. Today I’m less interested in defending those comments than in exploring the dilemma and trying to inch toward doing better. Kindness is very important to me, but, to be honest, I can feel pretty lost when I try to figure out how exactly to be kind in any given moment.

Jesus saved some of his harshest words for hypocrites. The fiercest chapter in the gospels is easily Matthew 23, where Jesus rails against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. To me, the most damning of the many damning things he says there comes near the beginning of the chapter: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:2-4, NRSV).

Have I, in calling for kindness, laid upon others a burden that I am unwilling to take up myself? I think that the answer, to some degree, has to be yes.

In Greek the word hypocrite refers to a play-actor, someone who literally puts on a show of being someone other than who they really are—or who they really ought to be. The trouble is that to some degree we all run afoul of this standard. As Paul wrote to the Romans, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.

So we’re all hypocrites. I’m definitely one, in so many ways.

From another perspective, though, our shared hypocrisy simply means that we’re all in a state of becoming. None of us is yet who we ought to be.

Now, here’s the part of the post where I try to argue that Jesus is being kind in Matthew 23.* He is most certainly not being nice—calling people whited sepulchers definitely crosses that line—but being nice and being kind are two different things. Being nice means carefully avoiding saying anything that might offend or upset someone else, and Jesus failed that test big time. I mean, the authorities killed him for a reason, and it wasn’t because they wanted to help God’s plan move along or anything like that. They killed him because he wasn’t nice to them, and that made them angry.

Kindness is different, though, because kindness demands justice. In the case of hypocrites, justice means being who you ought to be instead of just putting on a show. Since we’re all hypocrites, kindness means calling forward in each other who we ought to be and puncturing any shows of piety that happen to stand in the way. Jesus is kind in Matthew 23 because he gives hypocrisy no quarter. He wants those of us who read his words to be kind, instead of just writing lovely blog posts about kindness. He sees us in our state of becoming and calls us, well, to become.

The dilemma, then, for those of us who aren’t Jesus, is that kindness always implicates us in our own hypocrisy. If I, in kindness, call you to be better than you are, the call always bounces back and hits me with the same force. In trying to be kind, I always end up mowing myself with my own scythe.

But kindness has a soft edge in addition to the sharper one I’ve been emphasizing. Fiery as Matthew 23 may be, Jesus is not interested in burning the targets of his speech down to ashes with all of the trash in Gehenna. He just wants them to be who they ought to be: actually religious, instead of just religious for show. And by “actually religious” he just means what the Hebrew scriptures consistently taught: care for the poor, the parentless, the widow, the stranger. That care is kindness, too, because it makes sure that these marginalized and disadvantaged people don’t get shoved out of the beloved community, where Paul tells us (in 1 Cor. 12) that they have a prominent place.

Invoking the beloved community (especially in light of this month’s commemoration of the 1978 revelation) means invoking Martin Luther King, jr., and it also means invoking James Cone’s reminder that achieving the beloved community requires white theologians to address white supremacy head-on, with much more frequency and gusto than we have. Cone, may he rest in peace, was kind in calling us out, just as King was before him. King and Cone were kind because they called us, as a nation and as a small-c church, to be kind in the way that we always ought to have been, but far too rarely were.

Both men had their flaws, of course. Cone’s early work, as Delores S. Williams pointed out, marginalized the plight of black women. To Cone’s credit, he listened, acknowledged his failing, and tried to do better. In this sense, kindness is all about community. Flawed as we are, we need each other.

Kindness, then, isn’t a matter of individual righteousness alone. The Greek word dikaiosyne can be translated as both “righteousness” and as “justice”: it always points out to the societies we live in even as it points directly back at us as individuals. In this light, repentance isn’t really something I can do alone, because it involves all of us, even though I absolutely need to do my part.

Kindness, I’m arguing, is central to that project of repentance. Kindness simultaneously names where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.

But kindness is hard. I fail at it with some regularity. To those of you who have been on the receiving end of my failures: I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better.

If kindness is the way forward, though, that also includes kindness to ourselves. I suspect that Matthew-23 Jesus wouldn’t have very nice things to say about public self-flagellation as a display of piety. So, I’m not beating myself up here; instead, I’m just calling myself to get back in the saddle and try again. Who wants to join me?

*This claim needs a historical-critical caveat. The Gospel of Matthew was written decades after Jesus’ life, in a period when what we now call Christianity and Judaism were locked in a messy process of disambiguating themselves from each other. The New Testament thus turns out to be, shall we say, less than fair in its depiction of Pharisees. Without getting into the whole vexed question of which are and which are not Jesus’ ipsissima verba, I’m just going to sprinkle a little doubt on the idea that this chapter’s treatment of Pharisees per se counts as kind. Its treatment of hypocrites totally is, though.


  1. J Stuart says:

    Thanks, Jason. As always, you articulate something I’ve been wrestling with for awhile in far clearer language than I could.

  2. Jason, I appreciate the handwringing over kindness and hypocrisy. I agree that anybody dipping into this topic will find it boomerang.
    On the other hand, Jason, you are really too nice (intentional) to be working this beat.

  3. Thanks, Chris (I think :)). Your comment calls Hopkins to my mind: “What I do is me: for that I came.” But I suppose that I have Hopkins on the brain, since “My own heart let me more have pity on” has been bouncing around my head all morning.

    And it’s also the case that by blogging about it I mean to give my own personal handwringing some shot at being helpful for others.

  4. Happy Hubby says:

    I agree with christiankimball. Realizing that we are all hypocrites at times and the best we can do is hope we can see it in ourselves and/or be willing to consider it when it is pointed out to us. And then we try to do better after considering it. Life can be messy even when trying our best. In fact replace, “can be” with “is”. Life is messy. Best not to be a human suffering from a fear of ataxphobia (the phobia of disorder/chaos).

  5. Jason, I really appreciate and like this post.

    There was one thing you said, though, that was jarring to me: “Being nice means carefully avoiding saying anything that might offend or upset someone else, and Jesus failed that test big time. I mean, the authorities killed him for a reason, and it wasn’t because they wanted to help God’s plan move along or anything like that. They killed him because he wasn’t nice to them, and that made them angry.” I don’t accept that the authorities of the day killed Jesus because he wasn’t nice. I believe they killed him because he threatened their power and position. This seems to be a motivating factor (maintaining power and position) today in our very divided country, when even things that “both sides” agree on can’t be actualized because that agreement must be used as a chip in getting concessions from the “other side.”

    Anyway, I found your ideas thought provoking. Thank you!

  6. Thanks, Eileen. I think we’re on the same page about Jesus, fwiw.

  7. Emily U says:

    If only perfect people could preach then we’d never hear a single sermon. But we need sermons, we need reminders. Keep preaching, Jason!

  8. Interesting play on the word “kindness”. Kindness in the sense of rebuke…would follow the order stewardship.

  9. “Kindness is different, though, because kindness demands justice”

    That’s a leap I don’t follow. Kindness does not differentiate itself from niceness by demanding justice. In fact, often being kind requires setting aside or at least delaying the demands of justice. I feel like there’s a tendency to want to roll all virtues into one great whole, which is fine, but words matter because they frame how we think. Virtues can sometimes be contradictory and which takes precedence varies depending on our hierarchy of values for the given situation. Kindness puts the comfort and sense of well-wishing of its subject as the highest priority, and that’s not always the best choice. For example, I’ve heard it said that it’s better to be kind than right (the idea being that better not to hurt somebody’s feelings than it is to win an argument), but that’s clearly not the case if you’re talking about the surgeons discussing what to do next when something unexpected comes up during surgery. You don’t always have the time or margin for error to allow a kind argument to work its uncertain transformation on somebody’s opinion. Jesus wasn’t giving the Pharisees the “benefit of the doubt” because He wanted to make sure everybody understood there was no doubt, and that understanding was a higher priority than being kind to Pharisees.

    From a practical perspective, it rarely makes sense to be unkind in a blog comment, because there rarely any urgency that can justify it. Also, it’s generally counter-productive, which is why we have scriptural verses about “soft answers turning away wrath”. You can be kind while calling somebody out, but it seems like a bit of a stretch to say that being kind requires you to do it. Very often, it’s being kind to someone over an extended time that eventually makes them receptive to being called out.

  10. I think that the last paragraph of your comment captures the dilemma nicely, Martin.

  11. I’ve often scoffed when someone who posts some meme about being kind is the same person who often posts rude comments about people on the other side of an issue. But I’ve also reflected that they may like the meme because it speaks to them, not because they are trying to preach to others.

    In the last few months I’ve come across the statement from people on both sides of the aisle that “We’ve already tried being nice. It didn’t work. This is war, and it’s time to take the gloves off.” Both sides have this impression that they are justified in being jerks. That scares me. It’s true that there have always been jerks on both sides. But I love a cartoon I’ve seen where there’s one person yelling, “Libtard pussy” and another yelling, “Racist!” but everyone in the middle is yelling, “Shut up!”

    I get nervous when we start using Jesus correcting the Pharisees to justify our behavior. I’ve seen it (and the driving-out-the-moneychangers story) used too much to rationalize being a self-righteous a-hole. We’ve got to be careful. I’ve debated internally how “kind” it is to call people out for being unkind. I was debating with a friend about how useful it is to argue on Facebook. His position that it is largely worthless because you won’t change the mind of the person you’re arguing with, but he allowed that there might be some benefit to a person reading the exchange. I’ve been thanked before for by person whose people I was sticking up for, and it made me feel like I’d done the right/kind thing.

    But I’m sometimes indignant about comments made about people or types of people who aren’t present. It would be kind to the absent person to defend them, but not nice to the person who’s actually there. If the person isn’t present to be hurt by their words, is it really helping them to be defended? Or at least, is it worth it to be unkind to the disparaging person to be “kind” to a person who won’t actually benefit from the kindness? (I’m not talking about stopping malicious gossip about a mutual acquaintance; more like defending, say, a figure in the news, or a type of person.) I had an experience where my friend posted condescending remarks about the grieving family of our deceased mutual friend — something to the effect of, that’s (grieving) what happens when you’re not Mormon and don’t understand the Atonement. I was disgusted and began composing a response to her. I called my sister, who also knew our deceased friend, to run my response by her to make sure it was polite enough. Although she agreed the post was rotten, she asked me, “Would Ana” (our deceased friend) “really want you fighting over her?” And that hit me hard. I think of that experience sometimes when I’m about to “fight for right.” I ask myself if I am fighting FOR or OVER God; is it one of the justified, defensive battles in the BoM, or is it a self-righteous, self-serving Crusade? I can’t always tell the difference.

    I am a strong believer in respectability politics. We might win some battles and even the war by sheer force, but we can’t convince someone our ideas are good if we don’t act like good guys.

  12. Laurel: I appreciate your comment. I think it illuminates some of the real difficulties here. There’s lots of wisdom in your penultimate paragraph, I think.

    I agree that Matthew 23 is a dangerous scripture when used to justify our behavior, but I think that the primary danger lies in our ever believing that we’ve escaped its censure. I could have said this better in the post, but the idea that we’re all hypocrites pretty powerfully authorizes both sides of kindness. If we’re going to become our best selves, we need people who love us enough to call us on our crap sometimes. And sometimes that means that we’ll be in the position of calling people we love on their crap. But on the other hand, if we’re all hypocrites, we should have pretty visceral compassion for each other in our shortcomings–including when we misjudge the wisdom of calling someone out. Kindness is hard because we all operate in the gray space occasioned by our hypocrisy, and so Jesus’ words in that chapter keep pulling us back in: “No, I meant you, too.”

    And in keeping with that penultimate paragraph of yours, and Martin’s last, it’s probably borderline impossible to call out someone we don’t really know in kindness. I’ve been starting to think this last while that maybe only the supportive aspect of kindness is possible on the internet. As the classic XKCD captured, though, the gravitational pull of “someone is wrong on the internet” is pretty strong, and maybe the real question here is how far Christianity calls us to resist that pull.

  13. I remember when I was an obnoxious teenager my dad and I got into an argument one Sunday morning. He gave a talk in church later that day and then later that afternoon when we were all home he thanked me for “not standing up and yelling ‘hypocrite!'” I’ve always remembered that as an example to me of taking Jesus’ condemnation of hypocrites as directed at oneself, not at others, but letting it drive one to repentance instead of to silence.

  14. That sounds right, JKC.

  15. jaxjensen says:

    “If we’re going to become our best selves, we need people who love us enough to call us on our crap sometimes.” So seems like it relates to the mote and the beam story… people say that I shouldn’t comment about someone’s mote, because I can’t see the beam in my own eye, right? Well, if I can’t see the beam in my eye, I won’t be able to remove/change/fix it unless someone else tells me it is there. I won’t see my shortcomings until I’m aware of them, and someone pointing them out is the easiest way. If we all stand around not helping each other pull those motes and beams out, we’ll all have them in our eyes permanently.

    Just pull gently, please.

  16. Well said, Jax.

  17. Some scriptures advise/command us to warn our neighbors, proclaim the gospel from our rooftops, and cry repentance; at the same time other scriptures warn us about getting the mote out of our brothers eye, and not offending others. What is a believer in Christ supposed to do? Sometimes we need to press the accelerator and other times we need to press the brakes. We need to learn how to do both. Philippians 4:12 is a good example on it.

  18. It is not hypocritical to believe in something and fail in living it perfectly. It is mortality struggling toward immortality. It is beginning to recognize your failings so you work on correcting them.

  19. I have always had trouble with the whited sepulchre statement. Because it is Jesus it cannot be unkind but I hope it was mistranslated. I know the scribes and Pharisees were the very definition of corrupt but I just hate that statement. Statements like that never motivate me to change. Why should they motivate anyone. Only love has ever changed people.

  20. “The primary danger lies in our ever believing we’ve escaped its censure.” Mic drop.

  21. Jax: I’m not sure that you’ve got it right. When telling us about motes and beams I believe that Jesus was calling us to both humility and some self examination. A mote is tiny and can only be seen by means of intense scrutiny. A beam can be seen at 50 feet. By staying focused on our own beams which can’t be missed we don’t have time or interest in subjecting others to our scrutiny.

%d bloggers like this: