One of my Methodist teachers in seminary liked to tell the story of the man in the supermarket who bumps into the minister of his Methodist church. They chat for a minute and the man says, “I suppose you’re wondering why I haven’t been coming to church.”
The minister, who came to the supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner, not to look for lost sheep, responded, “It sounds like you’d like to tell me why you haven’t been coming to church.” The man says, “The place is filled with hypocrites!” The minister reflects for a moment and says, “Oh, there’s always room for one more, you should come back!”
While I identify with the minister in the supermarket, I’m more and more inclined to sympathize with the man and his need to talk about his feeling that the ‘place is filled with hypocrites.’ He was, perhaps, trying to engage with the minister. Maybe he wanted to ask if the minister really believes all the things he talks about from the pulpit; or is that just Sunday talk, church talk, God talk.
Hypocrisy, after all, is a religious term, in the broadest sense of the word. It is, “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess.”
The word hypocrite is rooted in the Greek noun for ‘actor,’ or the verb ‘to play a part.’
Shakespeare’s famous lines from As You Like It come to mind:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
This summer there was a well-publicized story of the famous German Nobel Peace Prize-winning author, Gunther Grass that captured my imagination.
Gunther Grass has been the conscience of post-war Germans, encouraging confession and full disclosure of complicity in Hitler’s Nazi atrocities, rather than trying to ‘forget and put it behind us,’ as many naturally suggested.
In his Nobel speech he said, “No one had the desire or ability to keep silent. It was our duty to take the goose step out of Germany. We, the children who had had our fingers burned, we were the ones to repudiate the absolutes, the ideological black or white. Doubt and skepticism were our godparents and the multitude of gray values they present to us.” …
“The only way writing after Auschwitz, poetry or prose, could proceed was by becoming memory and preventing the past from coming to an end…only then could the wound be kept open and the much desired and prescribed forgetting be reversed…” He talked about the need to remember.
With the publication of his autobiography, Grass revealed a shocking secret—practicing what he’s been preaching he confessed that he had been a member of the notorious Waffen SS. He said, “It had to come out finally.” Grass said. “It will stain me forever.”
Gunther Grass was seventeen years old at the time he was conscripted into the army, and wound up in the dreaded SS.
His revelation created an instant uproar. People accused him of being a hypocrite. They said he should return the Nobel Prize.
I didn’t know a lot about Gunther Grass; aside from the film version of his 1959 novel, The Tin Drum. I saw the film when it came out in the 60’s, but I had to go back to it and look again to refresh my memory.
His book caused a commotion in Germany because of its depiction of the Nazis. The Tin Drum is a clever parable about a boy who, when he was three years old, decided that he didn’t want to grow up—he didn’t want to become an adult, since the adult world was filled with violence, lying and hypocrisy. So he feigned an accident, knocking over the wine rack in the basement of his home and hitting his head, which would be the medical reason for his not growing after that, which his family would have to accept.
His name is Oscar Matzerath. He didn’t speak, but he had a toy drum which he used to communicate–he would bang on the drum to express his disgust and outrage at the ways people in the adult world behaved, and his voice was so high pitched that when he screamed he broke glass.
Three years old is about the age when we lose our innocence; when we’re thrown out of the Garden, so to speak. It’s the age when we digest the apple, when we know the difference between right and wrong—between telling the truth or lying, of ‘fudging’ the truth a bit, even though the cookie jar is open and we have chocolate on our face and hands.
It’s the age when we begin to lie to ourselves, about our self; the emergence of hypocrisy; the ability to pretend to be something we’re not: to pretend to be innocent!
Gunther Grass was exactly three years old when Hitler came to power in Germany.
When I learned that little tid bit of biographical information I thought of the three year old boy in The Tin Drum, the boy he created out of his own life experience; the boy who realized that if he could do it over, he wouldn’t want to grow up in that world of hatred, violence, genocide—a world of holocaust and hypocrisy. So he created a character who bangs the drum loudly, angrily, to protest what he saw around him, and possibly felt within himself, from the perspective of a 30 year old.
Gunther Grass was praised for his portrayal; it struck a deep chord. But praise can be insidious; beguiling.
I remember a funeral poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson titled Exit:
For what we owe to other days,
Before we poisoned him with praise,
May we who shrank to find him weak
Remember that he cannot speak.
For envy that we may recall,
And for our faith before the fall,
May we who are alive be slow
To tell what we shall never know.
For penance he would not confess,
And for the fateful emptiness
Of early triumph undermined,
May we now venture to be kind
Gunther Grass’s first novel was an ‘early triumph’ and his career took off and led, eventually, to the writers’ Mt. Olympus, the Nobel Peace Prize. What praise! ‘May we who shrank to find him weak…’
There are hints of the guilt he carried in his Nobel Speech. He said that it was wrong ‘to keep silent’ about the atrocities and the complicity. He said, “It was our duty to take the goose step out of Germany. We, the children who had had our fingers burned, we were the ones to repudiate the absolutes, the ideological black or white. Doubt and skepticism were our godparents and the multitude of gray values they present to us.” …
Gunther Grass was a child of Nazi Germany who, as he put it, ‘had his fingers burned.’
Hitler’s Fascism was a ferocious form of authoritarianism. Many who dared to speak up at the time paid with their lives. The fuel that furnishes the fire for Fascism is fear. The fear that hits closest to home is economic—the fear that a family will not have food, clothes and shelter; that they won’t be able to survive.
The story about Gunther Grass’s revelation with the publication of his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, and the accusation that he was a hypocrite all these years for not revealing that he had been a member of the dreaded Waffen SS, touched a nerve.
Some of my colleagues and friends compare George Bush’s fear-mongering and authoritarianism to Hitler’s Germany. Although it overstates the case, nonetheless, we can see the similarities.
The preemptive, unilateral invasion of Iraq, justified with lies and Bush and Condaleeza Rice’s reference to a ‘mushroom cloud’ is as frightening to me as the fanatical terrorists who are dedicated to our destruction. The one destroys from outside, the other destroys this nation from the inside, and that’s insidious.
The pomposity, arrogance and stubborn determination to ‘stay the course’ of the Bush administration touches the central nervous system that makes me want to bang on Oscar’s drum and to scream high enough to break the glass wall that has been constructed to hide the terrible stench of the mess we’ve made in Iraq, the failure to destroy al Qaeda, and the utter destruction of trust and confidence in our democratic discourse. Democracy requires open, unfettered discourse,
This nation, ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal,’ is, I believe, in dire jeopardy, not only because of the brutal fanatics who attacked us on 9/11 and several other times leading up to that terrible disaster, but because of the fanaticism and hubris of Bush, Cheyney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Rove & Co. Our democracy is in jeopardy because of the unwillingness of others to speak up, especially during these past five fear-filled years.
Now we are in a crisis of communication. Language is twisted and turned inside out to avoid the truth, and to control the public through fear, disinformation, manipulation and fear. Hypocrisy is the father of cynicism. I’ve become very cynical, beyond the point of caution.
When I hear the President talk about ‘preserving and protecting democracy’ I think: “Yes, you want to preserve democracy by embalming it with formaldehyde in an air-tight container.
When I read the story of Gunther Grass’s revelation, and the accusation of hypocrisy, I could not help but to be reminded of the glaring hypocrisy that surrounds us every day.
It seems to me that they are keeping ‘the world safe for hypocrisy,’ as Thomas Wolfe put it in his forward to Look Homeward Angel.
Again and again in the last five years I’ve been reminded of Molliere’s Tartuffe. My Dictionary of Synonyms includes the word Tartuffery under hypocrisy.
In the famous play, the protagonist, Tartuffe, is a so-called ‘man of God,’ a clergyman, who ingratiates himself with Orgon and Orgon’s mother Mme. Pernelle. He is taken into their home and he is promised Orgon’s daughter’s hand in marriage. He secretly attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Soon, everyone except Orgon sees through Tartuffe’s pose–his hypocrisies are eventually exposed when Orgon hides under the table and listens with his own ears to Tartuffe seducing his wife.
One of the sayings around my house, growing up, was, “Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see.”
Moliere’s classic comedy is a very humorous satire; it’s not only about hypocrisy, but it’s about the stubborn, blind refusal to see it for what it is—pretense, piety, and deceit. It is, of course, an irreverent expose, which is why, in 1664, when the play was published, it was banned in France by Louis XIV.
There’s an interesting illustration of hypocrisy on the part of King Louis XIV, who enjoyed the play so much that he read it out loud to audiences that included high dignitaries of the church, and they all had a big laugh together. It was performed repeatedly at court, but not for the public. What was the king thinking?
After five years, in 1669 the king finally granted permission for the play to be performed in public, whereupon the Archbishop of Paris laid a ban of excommunication on anyone who might act in the play, read it, or see it. The church referred to Moliere as ‘a demon in human flesh.’
Socrates, in his time—long before Moliere—was considered a ‘demon in human flesh,’ and was ordered to drink the hemlock; he was accused of ‘corrupting the youth, and introducing strange gods.’ Socrates’ real crime, of course, was exposing hypocrisy.
He encouraged the youth of Athens to question authority; to think, to speak up. Democracy demands it. He introduced strange gods by questioning belief in the old gods.
We live in a world of very strange gods—the gods, or ‘the one true God,’ as they say, who encourages fanatical Muslims to kill the infidels, the non-believers, not only non-Muslims, but members of the Islamic community who refuse to a goose-step compliance with the blood-thirsty brutes who claim to be doing God’s work.
The Bible, especially the Christian portion, has a lot to say about hypocrisy. Jesus calls those who pray in public hypocrites; he calls those who pray out loud in the temple hypocrites. He instructs his disciples to ‘go into your closet and shut the door and pray in secret.’
(Mt. 6: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men…but when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…and when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men…when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray…in secret…”)
Now let’s go back to that hypothetical man in the supermarket who wanted to tell his minister that he took that Bible passage seriously. He wanted to say, “You quote selected passages from the Bible, but not that one—you have the people pray out loud in church, and you yourself stand on the street corner and pray out loud. Do you do that so that you can be seen by men and get the reward the Jesus was talking about; to appear holy and pious?”
I think that man in the supermarket wanted to have a good searching conversation, not just about hypocrisy, but about his sense of isolation—the idea that he felt more alone when around piety and politeness, which looks to him like hypocrisy. He knew he was being impolite in the supermarket that day, but he also knew that it’s sometimes necessary; sometimes it’s more important to be honest than to simply be polite.
He knew that if he could dig a little deeper, he would uncover some of the many layers, until he got right down to the core at the center of himself.
So Gunther Grass, at age 78, published his autobiography and called it Peeling the Onion. (Sandburg said, “Life is like an onion, you peel off one layer at a time, and sometimes you cry.”)
When Gunther Grass revealed that he had been drafted into the Waffen SS they yelled, “You hypocrite, you preached peace; you preached honesty—the need to come clean, to cleanse the soul; you told us to purge ourselves of all those terrible deeds in which we were complicit, to stop denying that we knew about the ethnic cleansing, the genocide…and there you were, sitting on this little tid-bit of information…that you, yourself, had been a member of the SS.”
I was surprised to find myself sympathizing with that seventeen year old boy, who couldn’t stay three years old forever, who had to grow up, who was drafted into the SS, and who knew, on a deep level, that he must keep that part of his past a secret.
Hypocrisy has its roots in fear—the fear of not surviving; the fear of being rejected; the fear of being found to be inadequate.
We create hypocrites with the threat of rejection. Actually the ‘perceived threat of rejection’ is built in to the human condition. It runs deep inside the layers of that onion. We create hypocrites with praise, making it clear that you are being rewarded for obedience, for cooperation, for staying ‘in line.’ Goose-stepping comes in subtle forms.
Hypocrisy is not one-dimensional; it’s not two-dimensional. Hypocrisy has at least three dimensions, and probably four or more. It has a lot of layers, and we’re all implicated. Like Gunther Grass, we’re all ‘peeling the onion.’
We’re implicated by virtue of our need for social acceptance; and our need for social acceptance emerges out of our built-in instinctual survival needs—we know instinctively that we need to to be taken care of–to be fed, clothed and sheltered, and to get the warmth of comfort and companionship, we need to avoid being rejected, left out in the cold, left on some doorstep in a basket with a note attached.
We learn very, very early on that there are things we can do and say that will help us to be accepted, to be embraced; we learn how to win approval from parents, siblings, teachers, clergy—the people in our lives who can give or withhold approval. We clergy learn how to win approval of congregants, and if we’re honest with ourselves at all, we have to ask if we’re preaching to the choir so they’ll give nods of approval. How many layers of that onion shall we peel?
Last week I was talking with a couple in preparation for their upcoming wedding and I asked about their religious background. The bride-to-be said that she grew up without religious training, but her mother said, “When you grow up you can choose your own religion.”
She said she had never found a religion that ‘fit,’ but she has found ways to develop and nurture what she called her spirituality. She said that she appreciated her parents’ approach, but there were some problems with it. She remembered one such incident that stood out for her.
“When I was in the third grade we were talking in the class about things we liked and didn’t like, sort of a survey or focus group. Kids took turns asking questions like, ‘How many love pizza?’ and most hands went up…maybe all the hands went up. ‘How many love mashed potatoes, and lots of hands…and how many love spinach? Not many hands.’
Then a girl in the class asked, ‘How many love Jesus?’
“I was the only one that didn’t raise a hand, and that girl looked at me, made an awful face and said, ‘You don’t love Jesus?!’ I’m not sure what I said—I really didn’t know much about Jesus, and I certainly had no reason to say I loved him.”
Then she asked the class, ‘How many hate Ruth for not loving Jesus?’
We’ve all been pressured into saying we haven’t thought much about, but we ‘go along’ because we have a built-in need for acceptance or approval. We need to belong.
As I’ve thought about the sea of hypocrisy in which we’ve been swimming, I find myself asking, “So, where’s the hope?”
The hope is right here, in this room, in this pulpit. It’s right here, in the fact that I can still speak out and speak up without fear for my life or livelihood.
The hope is that more people will see that the Emperor has no clothes.
Hope is a one of the cardinal virtues: faith, hope and love. Hope includes the expectation that the hypocrites will be exposed and truth will triumph at last. I am determined that my cynicism, skepticism, and doubt will not be allowed to kill the dream.
We must not allow the monsters who want to harm us frm the outside, and the hypocrites who are willing to do damage frm the inside, to take away the dream. We have the potential to take another step toward the goal of peace and justice for all. This democratic experiment cannot be completed in our lifetime. It is, indeed, a project for the generations.
We must keep the dream alive; we cannot live without that hope. Emily Dickinson provides an appropriate poem to end the sermon:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.