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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Active and Passive Hypocrisy

In John Steinbeck’s novel The Moon is Down Alex Morden, an inhabitant of the town, kills an enemy officer. The commander of the enemy forces requests that the town mayor sentence Alex to death for the sake of maintaining order. The reluctant mayor finally asks the enemy commander how many of the enemy’s soldiers had been on the machine guns when they captured the town, in the process killing several of the town’s soldiers. Being informed that there were about twenty, the mayor says. “Very well. If you shoot them, I will condemn Morden.” Being told that his request is impossible, the mayor then says “And what you ask cannot be done.” The mayor’s help is requested to maintain order. Yet the enemy’s capture of the town caused the breakdown of order in the first place.


There is a hypocritical element to the story. The enemy commander desperately wants there to be order in the town. Yet he cannot see, or will not see, or could care less that it was his own country’s invasion that caused the breakdown in the first place. As long as the enemy controls the town there will never be order. But if they were to leave, order would quickly be restored.

We can often do the same things in our own lives. We can seek a particular result, but live our lives such that we make that result all but impossible to achieve. We may want to have a good marriage, but never work at having one. We may want to have a good relationship with our children, but are always criticizing them and never taking time to attend their activities or talk with them. We may counsel them to do what we say, but do just the opposite of what we tell them. We may want to have a relationship with God, but never put in the effort to have one. We can cause, by our own actions, the very thing we are trying to avoid. When we do, we live hypocritical lives.

Hypocrisy can be either active or passive. Active hypocrisy is more easily identifiable, for it is overt; like the pastor who preaches against homosexuality while engaging in a homosexual liaison, or who condemns adultery while in the midst of an adulterous affair. We observe it in the person’s actions. Their actions and words are not congruent. But hypocrisy can also be passive, often occurring when we lack desire. We may want something, but not enough to actually carry it through to completion. This type of hypocrisy is more insidious, for it is only observed in inaction. Since it is largely unnoticeable, it may take years before it is uncovered and brought out into the open. It is largely identified by later reflection on the impact of the inactivity, long after the fact. But it destroys relationships just as much as more active forms of hypocrisy do. We are often left with knowing that something isn’t quite right, but are unable to quite put our finger on the cause until later reflection brings it into the open.

A hypocritical lack of desire destroys relationships through inaction. We can want to know God while our closed Bible gathers dust on the bookshelf. We may want to build a relationship with our children, but find ourselves leaving for work before they are up in the mornings, and coming home after they have gone to bed at night. In each case our desire, and the accompanying resolve, are not strong enough to overcome the hypocrisy. How much do you see passive hypocrisy active in your life?

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