When we call someone a "hypocrite", what exactly do we mean? We mean, generally speaking, that this person, whether they be preacher or politician, public authority or private person, is insincere, putting on a show, pretending to be something other than what they really are. And of course, to the extent that we all try to show off the best side of ourselves -- do we not all dress up a bit to impress others or do we not often swallow our feelings rather than come right out and say what we are really thinking? -- are we not all a bit hypocritical? It seems then that there is a little bit of the hypocrite in all of us. So the problem with "hypocrisy" of this common sort it is not so much that it exists. A civil society would be impossible with out a certain amount of it. The real challenge is in understanding why it is the way we are.
Hypocrisy is born in idealism. It is the result of failing to live up to what we aspire to be. The pharisees of Jesus' time were not so much evil men as good men whose idealism was misplaced or had gotten out of line. They had, as Jesus said, replaced God's commandments with human conventions, substituting their own elaborate rules of conduct for the more fundamental obligations of human life. And in doing so, they had become hyper or over-critical of others while becoming increasingly hypo or under-critical of themselves. They had become experts in finding specks of sawdust in other people's eyes while all the time they had a whole plank of lumber lodged in their own.
What then should we do about this? Give up our ideals? Perhaps we do need to examine them to find out whether or not they are realistic and make appropriate adjustments when necessary, but to give them up entirely would, I think, bring human evolution to a grinding halt. Repeated failures to keep peace in this world hardly means that we should settle for perpetual war. The gross imbalance between the haves and have-nots in this world (the poor who are always with us) hardly means that we can give up on the struggle to make this a more just world. What we need to do, I think, is sit down and examine carefully where our idealism (or sometimes lack of it) has gone wrong.
But we must begin with ourselves. True or authentic religion has always begun with a confession of sin. Without the admission of our own failures there can be no genuine progress toward a higher ideal. The person who says that he or she is not conscious of any sin or failure in his or her own life is either inhuman -- perhaps superhuman? -- or just plain naive. In any case, meeting with others, admitting it, and trying to do something about it (in other words going to church) is, in most cases, the first step on the path towards making this a better world. No doubt, there are a lot of hypocrites to be found in the churches and other religious establishments. But at least (if they are heeding the message of religion) they know they are hypocrites. Unlike those who avoid church because, as they say, it is filled with hypocrites, they have a handle on what it takes to overcome the hypocrisy built into daily life in the world.
A preacher I once heard over the radio I think put the case quite succinctly: we go to church not to pretend that we are better than anyone else, but simply to practice at, for at least a short time, what we should be doing for the whole rest of the week!
R.W.Kropf 9/3/2000 hypocrite.doc 00-09-03.htm