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Critical Condition (Part II): Hypocrisy

I was raised as an evangelical Christian whose family attended church three or four times a week (twice on Sundays). In my twenties I rebelled and refused to darken any church door for the rest of my life because, as I proclaimed loudly to anyone who would listen, “churches are full of hypocrites!”
My resolve to avoid church lasted about ten years.
I still think churches are full of hypocrites, but now I’m one of them. I also don’t think church people have a monopoly on hypocrisy. Isn’t everyone a hypocrite in some sense? Most of us are pretenders or dissemblers, aren’t we? We all have a public persona, a shiny, clean, well-dressed self to present to the world. How many times do we smile at people we’re angry with, or say “I’m fine” in response to “How are you?” when we’d rather burst into tears and run from the room? Or maybe we just want to say, “I’m hating life today.” But do we say these things to anyone but our closest family members and friends? (Sometimes not even to them.)
Why, then, are churchgoers the target of so much criticism and accusations of hypocrisy if we are all hypocrites at work or social situations? We don’t expect colleagues or acquaintances to live up to any particular standard, much as we might wish they would. Quite the opposite, in some cases: the workplace can be a cutthroat environment where people can be expected to gossip, backstab, and pass the buck. Baseball players don’t call their teammates hypocrites. Office workers don’t call their colleagues hypocrites. There are plenty of negative labels one might attach to these people, but “hypocrite” isn’t the first one that comes to mind.
Perhaps the answer is this: everyone has a public facade, but Christians claim (at least implicitly) to be moral, ethical, kind people who follow the example of Jesus. Thus, when Christians gossip, backstab, or pass the buck, their critics are quick to shout, “hypocrite!” Unfortunately, Christians are known to be less honest about their struggles and failures than other people when instead they need to be more honest.
The following is a true story. I’ve changed some details to protect the identity of the people involved, but I was there and will never forget it.
Imagine a church, a picture-perfect church with gorgeous stained-glass windows, a high ceiling, and vestments and altar-linens embroidered with gold and green thread, symbols of royalty and new life. The pews are carved from an old, dark wood imported from somewhere in Europe—Bavaria, perhaps. This is a decidedly upper-middle-class church, with many wealthy parishioners. If there are any attendees living below the poverty line, they do their best to hide that fact.  There is one exception, a man who comes to church wearing the same threadbare Superman T-shirt every Sunday, but nobody seems to notice. He’s the token poor person, perhaps, and people feel noble when they’re friendly to him. Everyone else dresses well: the men wear suits or expensive trousers and shirts; the women wear dresses and sometimes hats too.
The church service has been going on for at least twenty minutes. Announcements have been made, a hymn has been sung (accompanied beautifully on the magnificent pipe organ by an accomplished organist—the best in the city, everyone says).
The congregation is listening to the scripture reading in a hushed sanctuary, but then it happens. The door at the back of the sanctuary opens with a loud creak, then bangs shut behind a strange-looking couple.
The woman is petite and past her youth but wears her long hair loose, like a teenager. Her dress, if such it can be called, is a tie-dyed, fringed garment that wouldn’t be out of place at a campfire. She has her arm around the waist of her male companion, a tall, stoop-shouldered man who leans heavily on her. He is wearing jeans and his hair doesn’t look as though he’s combed it for several days. He can’t walk without staggering, which explains why he’s leaning on the woman. I can’t see his shoes, but the ones in the photo above would be consistent with the rest of his ensemble.
Instead of slipping into a pew at the back, which the congregation naturally expects, this odd couple moves slowly and painfully down the middle aisle to the front of the church. The man appears to be in a very bad way. Not only is he staggering, but he has a hollow-eyed, spaced-out look. Is he drunk? On drugs?
They make a lot of noise as they stumble up the aisle, and if it were acceptable to gamble in church, I’d bet big money that nobody is listening to the scripture reading anymore as the couple passes by. It’s like a parody of a wedding—the bride and groom are very late, don’t look happy, and aren’t dressed for the occasion. The guests are dressed much better and might be excused for wondering where the real bride and groom are.
Once the strange couple chooses a pew at the front, the service goes on as before. Well, not quite as before. During the sermon, the Eucharist, and the remaining hymns, the couple seems very “involved” in each other. I am again reminded of teenagers as these two not only wrap their arms around each other but engage in . . . er, a lot of touching. Nonsexual touching, as far as I can tell, but still. The woman rubs the man’s back. He plays with her hair. I feel sorry for the people in the pew directly behind them and wonder if anyone will tap one of them on the shoulder and tell them to cut out the PDA.
When the service is mercifully at an end, I realize I remember nothing about the sermon. I have only the vaguest recollection of the hymns we sang, so distracted have I been by this couple who doesn’t seem to have any idea how to behave in church. I notice a member of the clergy going to talk to them and think, That’s nice of him. I wonder if he’s going to gently remind them what behaviour is appropriate during a church service. A few parishioners follow the priest’s lead and greet the couple.
I wish I could say I was one of the parishioners who greeted the couple after the service instead of the majority who left the church muttering and shaking their heads at what the world is coming to when people don’t show proper respect for a place of worship. But I wasn’t one of the greeters. I was one of the muttering head shakers.
A week later someone told me who these people were. The man was not an alcoholic or drug addict but a cancer sufferer who had endured several rounds of chemotherapy and wanted to go to church one last time before he died. (I’m well aware that I make assumptions about drug addicts and alcoholics and that it wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—have mattered if he’d turned out to be one.) He wouldn’t have made it to church without the help of his wife.
He died a few weeks later.
My critical spirit was exposed the day the strange couple came to church, and I have been forever changed by that experience in a way that no sermon could ever change me. The next time I see someone in church who isn’t dressed like everyone else or who doesn’t act like everyone else, I plan to be the first in line to say, “Hi, I’m Clarissa. I’m glad you came.”
In New Seeds of Contemplation, poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “The one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems [is] that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggression and hypocrisy.”
Amen to that.


  1. MH

    Interesting. I think the problem is with people who don’t admit that they have problems. If people actually are at the stage where they don’t have problems, that’s fine (as long as they’re not proud about it). However, people in churches are one of the groups of people (and there are others: eg Wall Street) who most commonly (at least in the past) don’t admit to having problems and pretend to be perfect. This is very aggravating – like smoke in the eyes. The hypocrisy is much much worse because the church is supposed to be the one place where broken people can go and be accepted (Wall Street doesn’t claim to accept and love broken people).

  2. MH

    “We all have a public persona, a shiny, clean, well-dressed self to present to the world. ” This may be a necessary part of living in society; having graces to smooth and oil our way when there are so many people we interact with. I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily a problem.
    P.S. Love this post.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Good point, MH. I agree that a public persona is necessary to make social interactions smoother, but sometimes I feel as though it’s impossible to be honest when faced with the polite wall of reserve we Canadians are so good at. On the other hand, complete honesty can be inappropriate and even harmful!

  3. JT

    Thanks for sharing this experience. What a lesson for all of us. I think the couple’s different looks and actions would have made me uncomfortable and I likely would have been happy to avoid them. This last Sunday a very chatty woman with a loud voice sat beside me in church and I instantly thought, “Oh gosh, I hope she doesn’t talk to me very much, since everyone will stare at me as well as her.” Maybe she was very lonely. Maybe she didn’t have family or friends to support her. I reacted with my own comfort in mind rather than accepting who she was. I do this at work too. When people act harshly I usually respond with equal harshness rather than just relaxing and thinking that they may have a sad story that is at the root of their behavior. I’m not advocating being a door mat, but I think that I want to choose kindness over criticism. I want my behavior to reflect kindness and not be changed by others’ actions or words. Hmmm. Very easy to say.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Thanks, JT. I’m aiming for the same thing, but you’re right, it’s easy to say. It’s tough to stop the knee-jerk reaction of treating someone the way they’re treating you (or even just using the same harsh tone of voice). I guess choosing a different response will take lots of practice!

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