(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to The Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
There is a story that has spread across the internet about a brothel in Nevada that sued a neighboring church. While I can find no evidence the story is true, it’s not only amusing, it speaks to my message theme today.
It seems the brothel in question was very successful and so it decided to remodel and expand its size. Across the street, however, was a conservative Christian church. As the brothel began construction on its major remodeling, the church responded by starting a payer vigil. It enlisted most of its members to hold morning and evening prayers in front of the brothel. They prayed for God to prevent it from reopening.
Only a few days before the brothel was to celebrate its grand reopening, it was struck by lightning, caught fire and was severely damaged. The church and its members were overjoyed. They said the fire was a miracle and God’s answer to their prayers.
A few months later, however, the brothel owner filed a lawsuit against the church and its minister. In the lawsuit, the owner claimed the church’s prayers to God were the direct cause of destruction to his business…..and he sought $2 million in damages.
In its legal brief answering the lawsuit, the church denied responsibility claiming its prayers were not really petitions to God, that their prayers could never cause a fire, and they even cited a Harvard University study that prayer is totally ineffective.
The judge in the case quickly summarized the case. She wrote, “I have no idea how I will solve this unusual case where we have a brothel owner believing in the power of prayer, and a church, its minister and its members denying the power of prayer!”
The story is amusing and it highlights how many people profess beliefs but do not act according to them. They are hypocrites. Indeed, even though I do not think of myself as a hypocrite, when I examine all that I say and do, I find that I am. Indeed, most psychologists claim nobody acts and speaks in ways that are completely consistent with what they believe. In other words, we’re all hypocrites in one way or another.
As most of you know, I’ve examined in my messages this October what I call three scary Halloween masks one might wear. Today, I look at the hypocrite mask which, as I said last Sunday, is perhaps the scariest of costumes because, when considering a hypocrite, it’s difficult to know when the person is being authentic or not. What do the church members in my opening story really believe about prayer? If they believe it to be real, why do they not defend it? Shouldn’t they be willing to lose a lawsuit as a way to prove their beliefs?
But the church’s dilemma is one many people face without realizing they engage in hypocrisy. How many of us know of a doctor who smokes? What about a police officer who speeds when off duty? Or a financial adviser who is broke? Or a psychologist with significant emotional problems?
On a more personal level, what about some people’s moral value of honesty? Does that mean they never tell a lie? What about the value of not procrastinating? Many people procrastinate all the time even though they believe it to be unhelpful. While these might seem relatively minor examples, they are inconsistencies in one’s beliefs and actions. They are examples of hypocrisies.
Many people are hypocritical in more serious ways. Consider the point of view that using mind altering drugs is wrong. Experts point out that alcohol is a mind altering drug, as is caffeine and so is marijuana which many adults, truth be told, have tried. I, for one, am guilty on that score. If we believe recreational drug use is wrong, then why do many people use recreational drugs like alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or marijuana – often in ways that are not addictive but still harmful? Other adults teach the importance of birth control and safe sex to their teenagers, but how many times in their own lives have they not practiced what they believe on that score?
On a more political level, and without getting into nuances of this issue, how many progressives believe in a woman’s right to an abortion but also believe in abolishing the death penalty? And, the same is true on the other side of that debate. People who are against abortion are often ardently in favor of the death penalty.
Regarding the major issue of our time, racism, a vast majority of white Americans do not consider themselves racist. They claim to have African-American friends, they may have voted for Obama, and they would never say or do anything overtly racist. Indeed, I think most white Americans sincerely want to be anti-racist and pro-equality.
And yet, I also believe most white Americans still hold subconscious racism that is a latent vestige of their upbringing. I admit to a form of racial hypocrisy myself. I want to be someone who accepts and celebrates everyone equally. Intellectually, I have a strong dislike for any prejudice and yet, when I honestly examine my inner thoughts, I know I can have racist feelings.
I often have to catch myself and refrain from unkind thoughts when I see groups of African-American men hanging around street corners during the middle of a work day. Issues of unemployment, unequal educations and centuries of white racism are primary reasons for this – not the fact that black men are somehow lazy. Why is it, however, that I can know this intellectually and still not always think it?
I am inwardly fearful when I encounter a group of black young men walking toward me on a downtown street at night. I racially stereotype the black young men as possible criminals in ways that I don’t when I see groups of white young men.
Or, I sometimes mistakenly believe that I’ve earned my place in the world solely through hard work and diligence. I ignore, in that thinking, the fact I’ve been given all the privileges of being white – attending good schools, being raised in well-off neighborhoods and never having to fear for my safety or my dignity because of my race.
Subconscious racism also causes me to forget that I had all the advantages of an excellent education – much of it provided to me because of where I grew up – in neighborhoods with high property taxes to fund good schools. In my conceit, I can forget that many blacks do not grow up in similar neighborhoods and cannot attend well funded schools. I am the product of white privilege. Differences between my station in life and that of some black men my age is therefore not due to inadequacy on their part. It’s due to systemic inequalities in how we fund our schools, in our criminal justice system and in politics. I’m a hypocrite when I believe I’ve fully earned my way.
My point is that most people with thoughts and opinions are hypocrites on some level. As imperfect people, we fail to fully practice our beliefs – and that causes many of us unease. We either confront our hypocrisy, or we try to rationalize it. Experts call hypocrisy “cognitive dissonance”. A hypocrite’s mind is at war with itself.
When we confront our hypocrisies, psychologists say we take the first step toward growing out of them. What is important is to be aware of our hypocrisies, admit them, and then find ways to to align our actions with our beliefs.
To do that, psychologists strongly recommend we avoid a judgmental attitude. When we judge others, we immediately open ourselves to charges of hypocrisy since no person is perfect. As a great human teacher, Jesus was clear about this. “Do not point out the speck in someone else’s eye,” he famously said, “when you have a log in your own.”
That teaching is underlined in the story about his confrontation with a group of men who were about to stone an adulterous woman. “Let the man with no moral failures cast the first stone!” he said. When no stone went flying, it was clear he had pricked the mens’ consciences. They had all, of course, sinned.
The story is one many scholars believe is true. The story was intended to highlight the terribly hypocritical and misogynist ancient Jewish practice to stone a woman to death for adultery, but not the man. They based such a practice on the belief that women are the cause for most immorality, including adultery, since it was Eve, and not Adam, who was seduced by the devil. Jesus, however, was horrified at such hypocrisy. While he did not absolve the woman from any wrongdoing, the story has him furious at the hypocritical men who sat in judgement of her. Indeed, he often taught that hypocrisy is the worst of sins.
And Buddhism echoes that teaching. When we recognize a flaw or failure in someone else, according to the Buddha, we must not point it out but instead ponder how we are prone to do or be the same. In doing so, we will recognize and want to fix our flaw. Most importantly, we’ll avoid the hypocrisy of tsk-tsking about someone else’s misdeed when we acknowledge we have similar misdeeds of our own.
One story about the Buddha that teaches self-awareness relates that after a traveler from a far off land visited and got to know the Buddha, he was stunned. He’d never encountered a person with such honesty and peace of mind.
“What are you?” the man asked, “A heavenly being?”
“No.” replied the Buddha.
“Are you a holy man?”
“No.” said the Buddha.
“Well,” said the traveler, “Are you an ordinary person who only appears to be great?”
“No.” said the Buddha.
“What are you then?” asked the man.
“Awake.” said the Buddha.
And that is a key concept for admitting and correcting hypocrisies in ourselves. We must be awake to our true selves and, most importantly, awake to ways we are hypocritical. The truth is that none of us are either saints or sinners, but instead fully human in our beautiful and yet imperfect glory. If we understand that, if we both accept it and admit it – we’ll take off our scary masks.
As I quoted the Dalai Lama last Sunday, we must be true to our reality. And it is by facing our reality that we’ll no longer judge others and thereby fall prey to hypocrisy.
The last two Sunday’s, after my messages on scary Halloween costumes of scapegoating and Prima Donnas, several people told me they knew exactly who I was talking about – a politician who I shall not name. And, truthfully, that politician was the inspiration for this message series. As much as I have said we must refrain from judging others, this politician’s words and actions are so extreme that they do warrant rebuke and disgust.
But, it’s easy to cast stones at this person even though I will not name the person. I walk a fine line here since ministers and churches must not be political. With regard to my belief that we must look inside ourselves, I suggest the unprecedented coarseness of this election is due to our collective coarseness. All Americans have become divided not just by political beliefs but by hate and nasty vitriol. I invoke the words of Gandhi. We must be the change we want to see. If we want to unify our nation and end the hypocrisy of some of our leaders, we must first begin with ourselves.
That means it’s all the more essential to examine ourselves to root out any hypocrisy. Wearing even a faint version of a mask of the particular politician scares the heck out of me. I must admit to all the ways I hypocritically assure myself that I’m so good, that I harbor no racist thoughts, that I don’t scapegoat, that I’m not conceited, and that I always treat others with respect. It deeply pains me to think I’m not only sometimes a hypocrite, but that I sometimes wound others with my speech, demeanor or actions. In the face of hate, we must love all the more. We must be even more winsome and true to our values.
My friends, I’m a hypocrite and, forgive me, so are you. If you agree, then we are both on the road to a cure. More importantly, it’s a step toward not judging others and offering Instead kindness and peace. Yes, that politician’s speech and actions toward women, minorities and immigrants are terrible. But the person – the person – we cannot judge but instead hope for redemption and growth.
For us, this person helps us by highlighting our own scapegoating, arrogance and hypocrisies. If we focus on our flaws, and then on becoming the best we can be, we will emerge from behind scary masks and reveal our true, and beautiful, selves.