Two contributors present brief essays in response to some
perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes
from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other
comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.
Should we disapprove of hypocrites?
A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be what he is not. A
sub-type of hypocrite is one who uses religion to act out goodness while
secretly behaving in an evil way.
It seems that Jesus singled such people out for special condemnation.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke contain many passages criticising people
for their hypocrisy. Because the disapproval is attributed to Jesus, we
might suppose that we have permission to do as he did. But it is highly
probable that these passages actually reflect the views of early
Christians, not of Jesus - so the question we�re asking here remains
At one level, our answer must be in the negative. Isn�t it true that
we all, without exception, pretend to be what we are not? Society�s
norms don�t allow our behaviours to accurately reflect what we are
thinking and feeling. I can�t punch someone who annoys me, any more than
I can freely express my opinion that someone is an idiot. True
spontaneity is forbidden. So if I am obliged by social norms to be
hypocritical, I cannot justly disapprove of the hypocrisy of others.
But at another level, hypocrisy is an important issue.
Our lives are based upon trust. It is paramount in close
relationships. We place our trust in doctors when we�re ill. We trust
friends to keep confidences and support us. It�s impossible to do
business without a high level of trust. Trust is easily broken and
extremely difficult to restore.
Hypocrisy destroys trust in at least two respects.
First, trust is built partly on a person�s willingness to share
personal information, both good and bad. If I discover that you know or
have done something which affects me but have concealed it, my trust in
you will be shaken or even destroyed. The hypocrite is closed about his
true self. While pretending to be open, he will conceal or lie about
things which impact others whenever it�s in his interests to do so.
Second, trust is built upon personal congruity - that is, on a match
between private convictions and public behaviour. Insofar as society
allows it, I am expected to be genuine, to be straightforward. Trust
diminishes if I discover that you are pretending to sympathise with me,
while secretly despising me; or that you have told me a truth in such a
way that I have been deceived about the reality of the matter.
The area of our lives in which hypocrisy most directly and deeply
affects us all is what is usually called �politics�. There can be no
doubt that politics, perhaps because it is �the art of the possible�, is
actually the art of hypocrisy. Our rulers, whether elected or not,
practice hypocrisy as a necessity. They appear to lie and distort the
truth routinely. At best they keep the truth from us, their political
masters (in democracies); at worst they plead national interest in
keeping us in the dark about their dubiously moral stratagems. They
posture and prate, going to great lengths to create and protect a
favourable public image. Open they are not; and congruence is far from
being a priority.
But the question is: If you and I were in their place, would we - or
could we - behave any differently? Might it not be true that we would
quickly become hypocrites ourselves?
To sum up: the hypocrite deliberately pretends to be other than he
really is, and does so for his own secret ends.
It seems to me that not only should we disapprove of such a person,
but that we should also be prepared to expose him or her if necessary.
Though even then, Christians might recall what Jesus said about planks
The short answer is, yes, we should disapprove of hypocrites. Let�s
be careful, however, to analyze hypocrisy lest we fail to appreciate the
full impact that hypocrisy may have on civil society.
In essence hypocrisy is deceit and deception and it distorts reality. In
simple terms a hypocrite says one thing and does another. Hypocrisy
invariably involves a perpetrator and the object of the hypocrisy. The
object may be a single person or an organized entity such as a country
or church body.
Doing the opposite of what is advocated is not always bad. A person who
advocates evil but does good is a hypocrite in a literal sense.
Admittedly, it is hard for me to find an example of this. I cite it only
to make the point that the measure of hypocrisy is not simply the act
doing the opposite of what one says. Samuel Johnson warned about the
misapplication of hypocrisy when he said
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with
hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to
practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of
conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a
man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey,
without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly
recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.
It is essential to consider the motives underlying the hypocrisy.
Admittedly it is treacherous to adduce motives. Only the perpetrator
knows the sincerity and true intentions of the hypocrisy. However, the
objects of the hypocrisy have the right to make such judgments since
they are the victims of it. It is they who are being led off the cliff
and they should know if the leader has done the same.
Hypocrisy is frequently associated with politicians who deceive for
their political advantage and power. It is chilling to read the rhetoric
of the USSR in the immediate post-war period when communist politicians
extolled the virtues of democracy only to extinguish it in counties they
annexed. Such is hypocrisy on a grand scale. Many will be particularly
sensitive to church officials who proclaim their moral probity while
engaging in execrable behavior. Political hypocrisy can infect any
institution or any human interaction.
A regrettable and perhaps unintended consequence of hypocrisy is
discrediting the otherwise noble principles the hypocrite espouses. Not
only are the objects of the hypocrite deluded, but there is also double
damage done to those who are identified with the perpetrator but not
personally involved in the hypocrisy.
From the grand to the trivial, I ask the question, �Is telling a �white
lie� hypocrisy?� I am thinking of situations where one may present a
false position to save another person from embarrassment or pain. In
this situation the border between hypocrisy and unnecessary candour may
be difficult to ascertain. The motivation may be entirely altruistic.
Among the questions regarding motive should be, �Is the leader doing it
for his self-aggrandizement or protection?� In other words, is the
motive self-oriented? Or is the motive driven by an inflexible ideology
in which the leader is enmeshed?
�My subjects don�t know what they want so I will tell them what�s good
for them. You should live in a small house even while I live in a big
one. You should be married to just one wife and be loyal while I may
have many concubines.� In such instances there is tyranny, deceit and
deception. There is always a perpetrator and an object or victim.
We should always be wary of hypocrites. They poison the waters.