The Challenge of Hypocrisy | Part 3: The Most Dangerous Kind of Judgment
Moral judgments are unavoidable. They’re also the most dangerous, and have provided the impetus for some of humanity’s greatest atrocities. How do we make moral judgments without viewing ourselves as superior to others?
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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to Vital Signs. This is a podcast where we are exploring signs of life in today's culture. This is part three in a four part series where we are confronting the challenge of hypocrisy and if you haven't listened to the previous two podcasts, I would encourage you to do so that'll bring you up to speed on what we're going to talk about in this installment. You can listen to previous episodes of vital signs by going to www.rzim.org/vital-signs. This is part three in a four part series on this vexing topic. We mentioned Matthew chapter 23. Matthew 23 is the most scathing indictment of hypocrisy, but it's also a scathing indictment of the abuse of power and the mindset of moral superiority, and the religious leaders that Jesus is attacking in Matthew chapter 23, were men who wield a tremendous influence and who were the cultural elites, but who believe themselves to be morally superior to everyone else.
They were in a different category from the common sinners surrounding them so they believed and this made them believe that they were people of greater value, that somehow their actions were more efficacious, that they had greater merits as human beings. Ladies and gentlemen, as we think about the historical record of this mindset, some appalling examples will come to mind. It's a morally superior mindset that makes it possible to put certain groups of people and certain ethnic groups into a different category from humanity, to put them into a sub category. This is what led in very extreme circumstances and I'm always hesitant to go to extreme circumstances because they are extreme and they certainly are an exception to the norm but nevertheless, they're part of our history and if we ignore them and we ignore our own susceptibility to this mindset, we're in grave danger so I'll mention these extreme cases. This is what made it possible for Nazis to label Jewish people, Romanian people and other groups as sub human, Untermensch.
It's amazing how even little subtle linguistic changes can make all the difference in the world. This is what made the heinous institute of slavery possible. This is what continues to make the institute of slavery possible because slavery is still a reality in our world, sadly. This mindset of moral superiority, where the person who's suffering from this mindset and the person who has this mindset is suffering, whether they believe it or not. That person sees themselves in a category of superiority. They set themselves up as better than other people.
This is a horrifying reality of life and again, I'm giving extreme examples. This doesn't mean that the attitude of moral superiority always plays out like this and fortunately for us, many people who have this attitude do not have recourse to massive amounts of power or else we would have a whole lot more tyrants on our hands, but we need to recognize that this mindset of moral superiority destroys relationships, it destroys marriages, it destroys friendships, it destroys family. In fact, you can trace a very powerful system of decay back to a mindset of moral superiority but again, here's the rub. We can't avoid making moral judgments so how do we avoid moral superiority? Well, it's just at this juncture, where one of Christianity's most popularly reviled doctrines proves so useful and I think, listeners, so deeply practical.
I think it helps make sense of the way things are and that doctrine is the doctrine of original sin, that we, because of Adam's fall in the Garden of Eden, because of that, all of us are born into a condition of sin, much in the same way that a child born to a mother with a chemical dependency is born disadvantaged from that standpoint. We are born into sin. This is what the scriptures tell us. Now there's another doctrine, a whole lot more popular, called the Imago Dei, the image of God and this doctrine holds that men and women are made in God's image and this is an important and vital truth and we need to recognize it. It comes from Genesis, but we also need to recognize that this doctrine, that men and women are made in the image of God has often been subject to massive abuse in ways that the doctrine of original sin has not. Bear with me here.
I know that we are in heavily theological territory here and I know that it sounds like we've strayed far from the path of practicality, but I promise to try to bring this back to a practical point but I want to draw on Alan Jacobs here. I've mentioned Alan Jacobs before. He is a literary critic and he's a professor at Baylor University. A number of years ago, Alan Jacobs wrote a fascinating book called Original Sin, A Cultural History. I highly recommend that book, by the way. In that book, Jacobs has a very audacious thesis and his thesis is that original sin, not the image of God, original sin is the Christian doctrine that unites all of us, that offers us a sense of solidarity as human beings. Now why on earth would he say that? He actually has a very arresting phrase for this. He calls it the co fraternity of the human type.
Now why would he say it's the doctrine of original sin that offers human being solidarity, and not the fact that we're made in the image of God and endowed with intrinsic worth each and every one of us, no matter who we are, no matter how disadvantaged, no matter what ethnicity, we're all made in the image of God. Here's why he says that, because again, historically, there's been an appalling precedent for misuse when it came to the doctrine of the image of God. People tend to think in hierarchical terms and pride often wants to set itself apart and make itself distinct. There have been many throughout history who have abused the doctrine of the image of God to argue that some people are made in God's image, while others are not. They've gone about this in various ways and they're complex and recondite, and if you want to explore those further, I highly recommend reading Alan Jacobs book, Original Sin, A Cultural History, because he goes into these at length, but the one point that we can easily take away is that all of us, if we're honest, are deeply susceptible to pride.
We often get carried away because of pride and in fact, moral superiority, the attitude of moral superiority is engendered by pride and so is hypocrisy by the way. We said last week that the hypocrite is somebody who cares deeply about what others think about him or her. That's the motivation behind the hypocrisy many times. You tell everybody that working out four or five days a week is extremely important because you want them to think of you as a really great upstanding guy, works out, is fit in shape. We doctor our lives on social media so that everything looks perfect, our homes look perfect, our children look perfect and our smiles are perfect and the cameras perfectly angled because we want to convey to the world that we have everything together and that our lives are perfect when of course, nobody's life is perfect. Nobody's life is perfect and nobody is morally superior to anybody else, in the sense that nobody has greater value than anybody else. We have to bear this in mind. Conversely, the doctrine of original sin shows us that we all fall short.
As Romans 3:23 says, We've all fallen short of the glory of God. We all fail to live up to our own standards. Here's what Alan Jacobs says, and once again, this comes from his book, Original Sin, A Cultural History. He says, "By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time of being divided against ourselves, falling short of a mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that though that person is not all he or she might be, neither am I, but in general, it is easier for most of us to condescend, to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others than to lift up people whom are culturally formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well. Whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation." You see what he's saying there?
Ultimately, pride demands hierarchy and distinction, even if it means banishing others, exiling others even if it means as drastic as this sounds, demoting their status of humanity. Now of course, theologically speaking, the doctrine of the image of God does balance this out because as a Christian, I'll chime in here and say it is not possible to demote somebody's status as a human being made in the image of God. It's no more possible to do that than it is to undo the law of gravity by jumping off a cliff and flapping your arms and saying that you're Superman. It can't be done but sadly, from a legal standpoint, it can be done, and it has been done and it continues to be done and this is one of the great blemishes and scars and atrocities of our world. People can be demoted from their humanity in the legal system. That's what the institute of slavery has done and continues to do. We need to recognize that there are serious consequences that attend pride and attend an attitude of moral superiority.
I think Alan Jacobs is right. I think in these dark times, and let's face it, times have always been dark but I think we need to face that the co fraternity of the human type is an important assumption, original sin, that we've all fallen short of the mark that we all have this penchant in this tendency to screw things up is part of reality and it's not just other people, it's us. The problem of hypocrisy is a deeply personal one and the more puffed up we are with pride, the more we feel ourselves to be morally superior to other people, the more dangerous the situation, and the more serious our condition. We need to be knocked off our high horse and the doctrine of original sin knocks us off our high horse. It reminds us that we are all sinners. One of my favorite verses in scripture is that timeless verse where the publican is in the synagogue and he simply says Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.
In contrast, the Pharisee essentially says, Lord, thank you that I'm not like that guy over there. Thank God that I'm me and I'm not like that sinner over there. No, if we're believers, our prayer needs to be, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner and if you're not a believer, may I suggest to you that your assumption needs to be I'm no better than anybody else. Yes, this person's wronged me. Yes, I've been lied to. Yes, I've been wronged but I've also wronged other people. The word broken is very popular right now. It's very popular in churches as well. It's not a bad word as far as it goes. We like to talk about how we're all broken. I'm broken, you're broken. Let's sit down on the couch and talk about how broken we all are and commiserate, and it's true. All of us are broken. We all carry physical scars, emotional scars and spiritual wounds. Yes, I'm broken but listeners, I'm going to tell you honestly, I've broken other people as well. My heart has been broken, but I've broken other people's hearts. We all break other people. We all fall short.
We're no better than anyone else. We need to remember that so let's go back to Matthew chapter 7 and let's go back to the question, who are you to judge especially when judgment is inevitable? What does he say? Jesus says, "Judge not that you be not judged, for with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye but do not notice the log that is in your own eye or how can you say to your brother, let me take the speck out of your eye, when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite. First, take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." In other words, look at your own life and deal with your own shortcomings first, then your vision will be clear and you'll be able to help other people. Notice that the motivation by the way behind the moral judgments here is not to condemn, it's to help.
Now moral judgments do not preclude condemnation so to speak, in the sense that there are consequences and in many ways when it comes to our personal lives, the most powerful consequence that we can inflict on somebody else and sometimes sadly, it is justified, is exile, banishment. We have to cut this person out of our lives, at least for the time being but that doesn't mean that we write them off as a human being, that we condemn them outright as a human being. We can't do that and why can't we do that? Well, Jesus has just told us because we have a speck in our own eye, because sometimes, we've been the person who somebody else has had to cut out of their lives. Sometimes we've been the breaker. Sometimes we're that person. We need to remember that. We need to remember that anytime we're tempted to set ourselves up above anybody else, we do not occupy permanent moral high ground. Sometimes we have the moral high ground in specific situations, but no human being occupies permanent moral high ground. We've all fallen short and the Christian terminology would say that we are all fallen.
We're born into the condition of original sin so this raises a very important question, what is the cure then to hypocrisy? Because what we're seeing with the challenge of hypocrisy is that this is really a condition that we all share and yes, judgment is inevitable. We have to make moral judgments. We have to make legal judgments sometimes and we have to make practical judgments all the time, but we're never in a position to make ultimate an absolute judgments so who is? Is there anybody or anything in the position to make absolute and ultimate judgments? Is there any judge out there, any ultimate judge with total access to all of reality, to all of the facts, all of the contingencies of our lives? Well, obviously, I'm being a little rhetorically clever here in the way I'm phrasing this.
I'm trying to give you a foretaste for next week's episode, where I want to look at two very specific kinds of judge and I'm just going to give you the title and I'm not going to offer any further explanation in that regard, because I want to keep your interest, but the judge penitent and the judge defendant. Judge penitent, judge defendant. Hey, we'll get there next week and I'll talk to you about both of them.
Let me end on this note. Why is it that anytime somebody else wrongs you, why is it that anytime you're driving, somebody cuts you off, somebody rides your tail, why is it that every time they do it, they're instantly wrong? They're written off and sometimes you respond with a certain finger that isn't a thumb. Why is that? Every time you're the one who cuts the person off, you're the one who rides them, there's always extenuating circumstances? There's always a factor that had they access to it, if they could only see, then they would have more sympathy for you and they would understand why is it that there's always an excuse for you, but not for anybody else, why is that? Is there anybody who has total access to all the facts? Is it possible that sometimes people do terrible things and they're responsible for those terrible things, but there are unseen factors that predispose them to do those same things?
Is there a chance that some people who engage in abuse, who abuse their children or who abuse their spouses, is there a possibility that they were abused when they were younger and that this doesn't excuse or explain away their actions, but it does give us a little bit of a different perspective? Is there anyone out there who could possibly know that and see all of those hidden factors? Is there any perfectly just judge? I seem to be describing or naming the qualifications for the kind of judge that is not just ideal, but that we need, that we fallen human beings need. Is there a judge who occupies permanent moral high ground?
I would invite you to join us for the final installment of this series on confronting the challenge of hypocrisy next week and we'll talk about these issues that I've brought up in the final segment. This has been Vital Signs, a podcast exploring signs of life in today's culture. Thank you very much for tuning in. If you'd like to go back and listen to other episodes of Vital Signs, once again, you can do so by going to the website www.rzim.org/vital-signs. My name is Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.