Advertise Your Hypocrisy

Things You Won’t Hear Anywhere Else (But Church), Part One

David Zahl / 9.13.23

I suppose one can only hear so many stories about church decline before a defensive posture kicks in. Or at least, it starts feeling necessary to articulate what one finds worthwhile about Sunday morning attendance. What makes churchgoing special and not interchangeable with, say, a farmer’s market or a really good podcast. Ahem.

To that end, I’m teaching a class at our church this fall entitled “Things You Won’t Hear Anywhere Else (But Church).” Each class focuses on an aphorism intended to distill something unique, counter-cultural, and good about the perspective one (hopefully) is exposed to at a Christian worship service.

The class could have other, longer titles. “Things You Won’t Hear Anywhere Else (But Church) — And Oftentimes Not There Either” or “There’s a Lot of Wisdom Out There But Here Are a Few Counter-Intuitive Bits You’ll Probably Only Hear at a Decent Church”. Those don’t quite have the same ring. The point here is to be accessible and a little provocative, to possibly even generate fresh excitement about the treasure trove our tradition is sitting on.

Oh and I wanted to avoid the usual suspects, e.g., “You are Forgiven!” and “Jesus Loves You,” in the hopes of gaining some immediacy and maybe a bit of that ‘tell me more’ vibe.

The first aphorism is “Advertise Your Hypocrisy.”

Hypocrisy, I think it’s safe to say, is considered shameful. Something to be diminished as much as possible, concealed, if not outright denied. A categorical no-no in pretty much every context you can think of. This is so obvious as to not warrant mentioning. You can be anything you want, as long as you do it with consistency. Just don’t tell me you want to be my friend and then stab me in the back.

Hypocrisy is the basis for a great deal of our negative judgments of others. It is the substance of most ‘gotcha’ attempts. “Can you believe he did/said such-and-such?? Especially after he claims to be (a Christian, a Socialist, a Libertarian, a Punk Rocker, an Ally, etc)??” “Listen, she’s free to spend her money however she wants, but maybe don’t lecture the rest of us about sacrifice from the front-seat of your new Range Rover. The hypocrisy is galling.”

Underlying our censure of others is the notion that we are somehow different. We believe that such a thing as a non-hypocrite exists, and we have the option of being one. This is a fiction. As Aldous Huxley once wrote, “the only completely consistent people are the dead.” (Another Huxley-ism: “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a conscious hypocrite.”)

At church what we hear is that we are all, to some extent, hypocritical. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done. We have said one thing and done another — and we will do so again. No one anywhere is living with full consistency. In fact, this shifting sand forms the basis of our commonality. You might say we are divided by the specifics of our political or aesthetic ideals, but united in the fact that we fall short of those ideals, #lowanthropology.

When Jesus admonishes the Pharisees as “you hypocrites!” he is speaking to religious leaders who believe themselves not to be such. He is indicting those who’ve bought into the myth of their own righteousness and are lording it over others. What he counsels them is the same thing he counsels us, namely, to take the plank out of our own eye before examining the speck in our brother’s (Matthew 7). This is JC 101.

To advertise your hypocrisy is not the same thing as celebrating it. Odds are, your hypocrisy causes pain, both to others and to yourself. It creates damage. But just because hypocrisy is universal does not somehow make it excusable. It is not a happy thing that we betray our convictions. A better world would be one in which integrity came easily to human beings. Alas, that is not this world.

Nor is advertising one’s hypocrisy a way of falsifying our ideals. It is still good to serve the poor, and support those who do, even if you yourself reflexively cross the street every time you see a panhandler.

To advertise your hypocrisy is simply to lead with an admission of contradiction. It entails dropping the pretense of consistency from the outset and placing yourself — or being placed — in the category of those Jesus came to save. There’s freedom in this advertisement, if only the freedom to be a little less concerned with projecting a watertight persona to the world. That ship has sailed.

Naturally, we are afraid of advertising our hypocrisy because it risks rejection. If others knew the extent of our fickleness we would be judged, excluded, condemned. Yet the ethos behind this aphorism fosters the opposite. It dismantles the wall of superiority we erect between ourselves and others that shuts out love. Contrary to the mobs on social media, your hypocrisy does not disqualify you from love, anymore than theirs does them. Real love — certainly God’s love — does not balk at sin. That’s where it takes root.

To advertise your hypocrisy is to say to the world, come on in, there’s room for one more. You don’t have to pretend any longer to be something you’re not and never can be.

I’m pretty sure this is why I still go back to that clip of Robert Downey Jr. accepting an award from Mel Gibson in 2011. It wasn’t a church in which Downey gave his speech, but he turned it into one, not merely because he invoked the Bible numerous times.

The clip is less than two minutes, and it’ll be the best thing you watch all day. Gibson, as you may remember, had become a real pariah and not without cause. He had said reprehensible things and behaved terribly in public. He no more deserved what Downey did than any of us deserve grace.

Downey Jr’s words cut through the self-satisfied baloney that fogs so much of our posturing and talk (within the church just as much as without). With self-righteousness deflated for a brief moment — the breathless ‘but’s’ of unforgiveness forming in throats but yet to be voiced — the scales fell. What emerged was the fellowship of advertised hypocrisy, which, I’m convinced, is more precious than any award. Even the ones they give out at Sunday morning travel soccer games.

Up next: Blame Belongs with the Blame-Shifters.

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4 responses to “Advertise Your Hypocrisy”

  1. Bryan Robinson says:

    I love this article. It smells like Jesus.

  2. Jim Munroe says:

    Dave – I’d never seen this clip about Downey and Gibson. Just incredible. And I’m utterly convicted of my hypocrisy in judging Gibson’s hypocrisy. Whew!

  3. […] I’m presenting as a class at Christ Church Charlottesville on Sunday mornings this fall. Click here to read the intro and many […]

  4. […] of which I’m presenting as a class at Christ Church Charlottesville on Sunday mornings this fall. Click here to read the intro and many […]

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