Hypocrisy. According to Google, it’s “The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.” It’s a dirty word; the worst of insults in religious circles. Why, then, do those who consider themselves clean of heart, hand and tongue seem to so relish the taste of it in their mouths?
Recently, I came across a conversation in the vortex of Facebook that inspired this reflection. It began with a link to an article for the latest pop aggrandizement of abusive relationships, “Fifty Shades Darker.” The person who posted it had commented “I can’t help but wonder how many who claimed to march for women turn around and support this as healthy entertainment. Shaking my head!” Her expression of disgust led to a comment from one of her friends who replied, “How many of these women who either read the book(s) or saw or will see these movies are also the ones so outraged by comments made by Trump? The hypocrisy is amazing!”
My gut reaction was to devise ways in which I might remind this woman, whom I’ve never met, of her own potential conflicting ideologies. It’s easy to make assumptions and I’m quite adept. I quickly conjured up a litany of instances in which this person, completely unknown to me, may herself be “claiming to have moral standards or beliefs” to which her behavior did not conform. They were harsh and pointed and quite possibly accurate. But then, an intervening thought: What would be my motivation in crafting this comment? Would I not be mirroring the very practice of generalized accusation that had triggered my own anger? Even if what I was saying was true, would I be speaking truth in love? Was my goal mutual clarification and conversion, or self-defense and condemnation? St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have not love, I am nothing.” Intent matters. However right or pure we may be, what attitude toward that other person and outcome are we desiring–for ourselves–as we slap others with our truth?
It strikes me that implicit in the use of the words “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” is a reflexive attempt to discredit ideas and actions of those who differ from, challenge, disgust, or in other ways stimulate discomfort. Denigrating the other allows those of us who do so to prop up our own fragile sense of righteousness while simultaneously freeing ourselves from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to listen or understand. In doing so we are rejecting the call to love or, at the very least, to respect the dignity of the other.
Trying to understand would require the mindfulness to overcome impulsive, emotional reaction and look more deeply at the words, actions or images that have triggered such reactive response. Trying to understand would mean developing an awareness of our own tendency toward generalizations and assumptions and to willfully discard such tools as they inhibit our capacity to think creatively, compassionately and clearly–very hard work but necessary if what we genuinely desire is to create love and peace in our hearts and in the world. If that is not what we desire, an examination of conscience is in order.
Recently, during the Gospel reading at Mass, Jesus said, “I tell you unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:21).” The following week; “Be perfect, as your heavenly father (a.k.a. the God of All Things!) is perfect.” These can be felt as discouraging, improbable, even impossible exhortations. But if we consider the lens through which Jesus was gazing as he spoke, it may change how we receive the words.
I have been slowly reading Henri Nouwen’s “The Life of the Beloved,” a short, sweet book that articulates in simple and profound language how deeply loved we each are by God. As Nouwen emphatically asserts the belovedness of the individual, he indicates how an awareness and embrace of one’s own condition as beloved can transform the way in which that person engages with the world. A perception of ourselves as foundationally beloved would fill us with such a sense of confidence, gratitude, grace and generosity that we would manifest these qualities as we related to others and the world we share.
“How different our life would be,” he writes, “if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply … Imagine your kindness to your friends and your generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds can build their nests … Imagine that you’re trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles.”
How different indeed, but what hard work to be ever mindful, ever transforming! Much easier to point out someone else’s hypocrisy! And yet, what purpose does such labeling serve, accusing others of what we would excuse in ourselves? Does it bring assurance or peace or joy? Does it create positive change? I find that the time I’m most ready to cast judgment tends to coincide with when I am most insecure and serves only–ultimately–to exacerbate my own insecurity and anxiety.
No doubt there are times when the hard and loving work we have to do is indeed to name sin when it rears its ugly head, or to get in the way of someone who is causing harm to another either with words or actions or both. But let us be vigilantly mindful of our motivation and carefully conscious of what we hope will grow from the seeds planted by our every word and deed. Let us remember that when Jesus said “Be perfect,” it wasn’t a condemnation, but a vote of confidence.
“I know that you can do better. I love you, no matter what.”
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.