Hypocrisy and secular self-righteousness

First posted October 30 2011

I read an opinion piece on Rick Perry the governor of Texas and possible republican presidential candidate. The gist of the article was that Rick Perry was not a real Christian because Texas has executed so many people etc. and basically a real Christian would have different politics. So if Rick Perry is not a real Christian what is he? Clearly the author of the article thinks that he does not live up to the values he espouses by being a Christian but to the writer’s credit, or not, the writer calls Rick Perry a not-real-Christian not a hypocrite.

Boring etymology to follow
What is a hypocrite? The Greeks used the word to mean actor but even Greek words have etymology. The word originally meant someone who was under (hypo) judgment meaning the guy in the prisoner’s box at a trial. I don’t know for sure but I’ll bet that the crite part of hypocrite has the same root as our word criticize. So to the Greeks a person under judgment talked a lot so they used the word to also mean actor and then the word came to mean a person who was pretending to be someone he is not. This is how Jesus used the term. You Pharisees look to be very devout but really you are acting.

Was Jesus a hypocrite?
Jesus taught us not to judge and yet he called the Pharisees and the teachers of the law hypocrites. He did exactly what he told us not to do. Only God can judge. It is God who will separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares etc. Hmmmmmm.

There is another reason that Jesus was allowed to judge. Jesus taught that with the same measure that you judge you will also be judged. This is why Jesus picked on the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Jesus never called the Romans hypocrites or the tax collectors; they had very different values from him. Even the Sadducees, who were Jews like Jesus but did not believe in the resurrection, seemed to have got off easy. Unless they were part of teachers of the law but I don’t think so. Jesus picked on the very group who were, in theory at least, the most like him. He did this because he was an honest sort of fellow. Jesus only criticized in an area where he himself was open to criticism. The Pharisees were supposed to be the most devout of the devout – as was Jesus. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath and he criticized them for not caring for their parents. It was a fair fight and each gave as good as he got. Until the Pharisees cheated and had Jesus killed which shows that they were just pretending to be the best of the best where as Jesus ….

The other reason that Jesus was allowed to criticize the Pharisees is that he understood them very well. Jesus was not a Pharisee (as far as we know) but he was a true believing Jew. More than that Jesus was a hyper believer. Jesus knew the law and what it was really about and that gave him the right to criticize. Jesus criticized most severely when he thought the behavior of the Pharisees was keeping people away from God, and it was. There are parallels to evangelicalism today but that is grist for another mill.

The joy of self-righteousness

The best time to call someone a hypocrite is when the caller does not share the values of the callee. A good non-religious example of this is the global warming versus the warming skeptics conflict. The skeptics accuse Al Gore of being a hypocrite because he produces CO2 flying around promoting his global warming views and on top of that he lives in a big house that uses lots of fossil fuels to heat and electrify. Personally I don’t see that as hypocrisy. I’m sure that in his own mind and according to his own rules (carbon offsets – whatever) he is fine and besides that, I live in a big house that would be bigger if I could afford it and I fly when I can, so what can I say. The point is this, if you are looking for self-righteousness points the easiest way to get them is to accuse people whose values that you do not share of violating their own values. You get all the fun of criticizing without any of the pain of reciprocation. You also do not have to live up the rules upon which your criticism is based because you have already made it clear that you don’t share their values. Al Gore cannot accuse the skeptics of being hypocrites if they use tons of petroleum flying to skeptics conferences.

By the way just pay attention to how much political criticism is of this variety. It seems like almost all of it.

We already have words that mean everyone.

People who throw around the word hypocrite generally use it to mean ‘you don’t live up to your values’ not ‘you are pretending to be something that you are not’. They forget or haven’t thought about it yet that no one lives up to their values. Ask anyone and they will tell you, yes they know they should exercise more eat less, spend more time with their kids etc. Not many people really say ‘I spend 90 percent of my money on booze and loose women and the rest I waste’ and even when they do they are usually joking. The point is that we already have words that mean everyone so we don’t need the word hypocrite for that purpose.

We already have words that mean true believers

What would you call someone who does not live up to their values but when the inconsistency is pointed out they change – or try to change – their behavior. Most would call them sincere believers. It is why Christians go to church. We want to hear those corrections and admonitions.

One the other hand

One of the mistakes that true believers make is that they change what they espouse to match what they do instead of the other way. We Christians do this in spades; we change our opinion of what the bible says to match what we want to do. Don’t do it. Change your behavior to match what the Bible says and for the rest rely on forgiveness. Credit for this idea goes to my brother Jon. He says ‘you know that verse about turn the other cheek? I believe it. I can’t do it but I believe it!”

Lots of Christians I know including one I know very well (me) find it too difficult to really follow the Christ as revealed in the New Testament. The reasons/excuses are all of the nurture and nature variety but the reasons don’t matter. The result is a cognitive dissonance between belief and actions. And the result of cognitive dissonance is that we Christians bend the meaning of the Bible to mean what we want it to mean. If you want to hear a great example of justifying behavior other than what the Bible teaches ask me why a Christian does not need to tithe (which by definition is 10 percent). All of my excuses, I mean, my interpretation of the Bible may be correct but I am very suspicious that I’m making the Bible suit my personality not changing my personality to match Christ’s teaching.

This brings us to the other hand, maybe when people accuse Christians of being hypocrites this is what they mean. Maybe they can see through our interpretive gymnastics. They can see that opinions that we claim to come by honestly are actually come by dishonestly and while many of their criticisms are unfair (most criticisms are) many of them are right on. On the other hand ….

If you wanted a definite answer you should have asked me when I was younger.

Different kinds of hypocrites
1. Actors: People who do not live by the values they espouse because they are just pretending, usually for some sort of economic or social gain. These are the people who attend Church so they can sell insurance or pick-up girls because, as one girl told me, the Christian girls are too nice to tell the guys to get lost.
2. True believers: People who do not live by the values they espouse but they know it and are trying to do better. This is the case with so many Christians. Who among us really are imitators of Christ but that is not the same as being a hypocrite. This is not usually what the self-righteous mean when they call Christians hypocrites. It is usually (3) below.
3. True believers (2): People who do live by the values they espouse but are criticized unfairly by people who do not have a good understanding of those values or who just like being unfair. This is the example I started with. The writer of the article thought real Christians should not believe in capital punishment. Well a lot of them do and yes they are real Christians. They just have a different opinion from you and since you are smart enough to write opinion articles you probably know that but are counting on the people who read the article not knowing it. In other words you are acting. (forgiveness is available)
4. The gray area: People who do “practice what they preach” but only because they have changed ‘the preach’ to match what they already practice. Maybe these people really are hypocrites. Maybe all that unfair criticism that the secular self-righteous heap on us Christians is well deserved. I don’t know. If you wanted a definite answer you should have asked me when I was younger.

Love You

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2 Responses to Hypocrisy and secular self-righteousness

  1. Don Bradford says:

    Joel, I am enjoying your posts.
    Here’s a thought I got years ago on capital punishment. I heard a Mennonite minister once say that if he were a judge he would not give a judgement of the death penalty if the person was truly guilty and the law required it. I was struct with the thought that he was judging according to grace and not law. I went further to see that the unbelieving world is not under grace. It is under law and is to be judged so. As believers, we are under grace before God, yet in the world we are judged by law. I don’t know if this is coming across the way I ‘feel’ it should. I just see that there are christians who want to ‘christianize’ the world without Christ being in the heart of the world. Without law and the fear of punishment for breaking the law, the world (especially North America) cannot be godly, that is have a semblance of looking godly.
    Keep up at ‘not being that good’

    • Hi Don

      Thanks for that story. It reminded me of a comment I read about the fall of the Roman Empire. Bear in mind I don’t know if this is true. I’m entirely dependent on the historian whom I was reading but according to that historian one of reasons the empire fell was because Christians did not want to get involved in civil life in case they had to do something bad. The example he used was a judge who may be forced to have a man executed. If memory serves, and it often does not, I think the conflict was because the person may be innocent not because of the ethics of capital punishment. Thanks again Don.

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