Hypocrisy is a charge that gets thrown out a lot of the time in today’s world. Especially in politics, we see people charges others with what they perceive to be hypocrisy. For instance, most recently, I have noticed ‘conservatives’ who want to reopen the US economically and then ‘progressives’ who want to stop open businesses being accused of hypocrisy when it comes to the role of states rights. On the one hand, some conservatives, who generally value states rights, want the states to open up in accordance with Trump’s expectations, whereas on the other hand, some progressives, who often associate state’s rights with racism, want the states to not be interfered with by the federal government and to stay closed. Each, then people who identify with one side accuse the other side of hypocrisy, while they don’t really pay too much attention to their side’s hypocrisy by the same definition.
However, I am not presenting this to be some in-the-middle moderate who engages in some false equivalence, saying everyone is simply equally in the wrong. Rather, my point is to show the lack of value for what mean today by hypocrisy. Today, when we talk about hypocrisy, we talk about some perceived inconsistency between people’s behaviors and people’s expressed attitudes. In other words, our modern day definition of could theoretically hypocrisy would apply to everyone except those who are perfect. It is so broad so as to be effectively useless, and when combined with the derision that we attach to “hypocrisy,” to become socially and politically toxic with no real redeeming value. It has the appearance of moral virtue with none of its actual value, risking tearing all people down and shaming them for their inconsistencies. Of course, as is the case with much of politics in this present era, it seems that most political rhetoric is 10% of truth and value and about 90% is a combination of pandering to one’s base and expressing toxic, prejudiced, stereotyping drivel against the other sides.1
Similarly, the “charge” of hypocrisy gets readily thrown out against Christians. They who follow Jesus who espouses love at the same time can act in ways that can seem downright unloving to others. Of course, Christian faith is not about saying we are perfect, but that we are being redeemed by the One who is good, faithful, and loving to the whole world. Nevertheless, Christianity is often times portrayed as a religion of morality, and, as a consequence, the failure to love according to that morality gets used as evidence of hypocrisy.
Is it any wonder, with such a definition of hypocrisy, that we live in a culture that cultivates perfectionism? While we can typically throw off such language when it comes to politics because we have in part been immnized from it, when people in general have learned to throw out a divisive label such as hypocrisy and other equivalent claims of inconsistency that suggest a deep moral flaw about someone simply whenever they feel angry about something, what is the effect of this? Either defensiveness at the accusation such that people will be inclined to disregard any personal inconsistency to defend themselves from an exaggerated charge or submission that will risk leaving people feeling deep shame for their inconsistency as being portrayed as a deep, moral flaw. We have been taught, the lot of us, to think of moral inconsistency in a shame-ridden way simply in virtue of the inconsistency, rather than the nature of the offense done. We are readily inclined to shame people for imperfections, instead of shaming people for the harms they commit. This is what a focus on people’s ‘hypocrisy’ can do to us: make us more concerned about managing our own image before others than the actual result of our actions and behaviors towards others. When you focus on this type of hypocrisy, when you focus on finding people’s flaws from their values and extrapolating deep moral flaws simply in virtue of the inconsistency, you help to create a life of either masks or shame or both.
However, the reason we use such language of hypocrisy is that it is something rooted in the New Testament and Jesus’ language to the Pharisees. Many a scholar will tell you, and rightly so, that Jesus is not using hypocrisy to refer to moral inconstancies, but rather people who are acting like an ‘actor.’
However, we need to avoid making what I am referring to the semantic fallacy of identity,2 which I find to be a cousin of the etymological fallacy, in which we think the name of someone or something determines its essential, fundamental character and meaning. In this case, you will see people trying to explicate the meaning of a hypocrite based upon the image of an actor, as if what defines the Pharisees is that they ‘righteousness’ is a self-righteousness that isn’t really genuine and true to God’s righteousness.
The words we used to identity someone or something, however, is intended to refer to something that is readily identifiable about a person or thing, not necessarily what is most defining of that person. To that send, the acting role of the Pharisees is something that Jesus identification of them as hypocrites allow people to identify them as a hypocrite, but that doesn’t mean the real problem of the Pharisees is simply an illusory self-righteousness. We might be tempted to think this is the case because Jesus calls them white-washed tombs in Matthew 23, but this inclination is rooted in salience we find attached to the ideas of inconsistency, particularly moral inconsistencies. However, the woes of Matthew 23 have a pattern of successive intensity of increasingly worse and worse moral characterizations, which climaxes in Jesus’s accusation of their murderous nature. The problem of the hypocrite isn’t their “self-righteousness” or their “moral inconsistency,” but rather that what lays at the root of their own inconsistency and their own self-righteousness is their own murderous nature in that they spill the blood of the righteousness. The Pharisees may be immediately recognizable by their “acting,” but their problem isn’t the “acting” but what the “acting” has covered up: their destructive nature, which echoes back to Jesus’ warning about wolves in sheep’s clothing.
In other words, I would put forward the semantic fallacy of identity has lead to us to think the problems of the Pharisees that Jesus points out is some bradly defined sense of inconsistency that we call hypocrisy, self-righteousness, etc., etc. However, that isn’t the real problem for Jesus, but I would say that is language that Jesus uses to help begin to identify those who have covered themselves up in a particularly egregious way. But the real problem for Jesus is that what this self-righteousness, this inconsistency covers is dangerous, not the mere existence of self-righteousness and inconsistency.
However, we don’t need to make the error of affirming the consequent. Just because these evil characters have masked themselves doesn’t mean, therefore those who mask themselves are evil characters. And, yet, this is implicitly what we do, each and every time in today’s world when we throw the label of hypocrisy against people who exhibit moral inconsistency, as if this inconsistency makes them worth of moral derision and avoidance. To be inconsistent to be human, is to be a sinner. However, because the Protestant caricatures of the Pharisees suggested their real problem was their self-righteousness that didn’t depened on “God’s righteousness” through faith to get them to heaveny, rather than the fake righteousness that mask a grave pattern of injustice, we have done much damage to various people, including the way we throw the hypocrite label and and also, especially, Jews who are treated as they have the same problems that the Pharisees had, based upon a semantic fallacy of identity that was reinforced from the Protestant impulse to carciatures the Pharisees’s error as, essentially not going the right way to gett one’s sins forgiven through to go to heavne, rather than the moral transformation of person through trust in the faithful, righteous, loving God. Perhaps, we can trace a realy line between the modern way we use “hypocrisy” and other synonymous terms back to the way we have wrongly understood the Pharisees.
The end result of this caricature of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees: we make moutains out of people’s moral molehills, being inclined to see people’s inconsistencies not in virtue of the actual harm or wrong done, but imagining the deep moral flaws and intentions that make them inconsistent. We may even believe this to be the case because Jesus talked about the heart and, therefore, we should be focused on the heart of people.
However, I would put forward that Jesus didn’t come to tell Israel about the heart and to focus on it; the Old Testament Scriptures testified to the heart repeatedly. Rather, Jesus language about the heart is about helping Israel to undersatnd the way the heart actually works, that what one consumes doesn’t make one inpure but rather what one says and does creates a defilement of the heart. That Jesus’ discussion about the Torah commandments in Matthew 5 isn’t about saying “the heart of the commandments” matter, but rather that one should also see how one’s heart can lead you to the breaking of the commandments, even if one has not yet to break the commandment.
However, the problem that occurs when we talk about hypocrisy and assume deep moral flaws based upon mere existence of inconsistency is this: we are distracting ourselves from what happens on the “surface” in people and what good or harm did or did not happen on the “surface” to focus on what we can not actually easily see or discern: the human heart. This leads us to a real problem: we can be easily inclined to draw conclusions about people not based upon what they do, but based upon our own fears, our own grievances, our own struggle, or even our own wants and sense who we think we are. We are inclined to whisk away the “surface” for the “deeper” truth, when in fact it is all the “surfaces” taken together that guide to the deeper truths of people in the first place. We are inclined to look for depth in a way that devalues the surface, leading us to readily percieve inconsistency between what is presented and what is in the heart.
However, when Jesus talked about wolves in sheep’s clothing, he does not tell people to focus on the “heart.” In the end, God alone knows the heart and it is human arrogance that we can do anything other than try to make coherent sense of the surfaces. Rather, he tells them to focus on their fruits: pay attention to the surfaces of their behaviors. Look at what comes from them. See what they do, and then you can see what type of people they are by what they do, and who Jesus is specifially warning people about isn’t simply people who have their own struggles, who are imperfect, who may not hurt people’s feelings from time to time, who make people feel uncomfortable at times, etc., but people who take and destroy life itself. That is what Jesus is concerned about: people whose hearts will be formed by what the Pharisees teach and do, to become twice the child of hell, to become a masked agent of deep injustice. Jesus’ teachings about the Torah and the heart makes known the dynamics of the heart and how Torah can be directed towards the perfect love of the Father but also how Torah can be directed towards the defilment of the heart towards evil by blinding people from the real problem. In so doing, Jesus is instructing people from the false solutions of the Pharisees, not because every Pharisee is evil, but that their teaching is of no value against the human inclination towards sin, which if left untreated can go deeper into gross injustice.