Pathways to healing, pt 1: Acknowledged hypocrisy

In the opening scenes of the movie, ‘A Clear and Present Danger,’ a friend of the U.S. President is found dead in a suspected drug deal, which prompts a damage control session. When the President asks how he should respond if the press ask him if he was friends with the deceased, some suggest he should downplay their relationship. Jack Ryan offers the exact opposite advice: “If they ask if you were friends, say, ‘No, we’re good friends.’ If they ask you if you’re good friends, say, ‘No, we’re lifelong friends.’ It would give them nowhere to go. Nothing to report. No story.’”

That scene has always stuck with me, as I believe it’s great advice. Our tendency when we’re asked awkward questions is often to become defensive. When people point out problematic behavior we’ve engaged in, or statements we’ve made, or positions we hold, or even – heaven forbid! – our hypocrisy, our first response is often to try to justify ourselves. But what if we took Jack Ryan’s advice and chose not to deny those things, but, instead, to own them? Would assuming a posture of humility rather than defensiveness lead to conversations that are more kind, more honest and more productive than much of what passes for civil discourse both in the church and in the wider culture? I both believe and know this to be true. It is a practice I adopted following a conversation I had several years ago, and which I call “acknowledged hypocrisy.”

 Most likely you share my profound concern about our increasingly polarized society, which is sadly all too often mirrored within the church. Allowing ourselves to be divided into opposing camps where "we" are right, and "they" are wrong ("about everything!"), is to succumb to the cynicism of popular news media and to yell ever-louder into the echo chamber of social media. I understand the temptation to believe that it is only people like ourselves who have the clear-eyed view afforded by occupying the moral high ground on any given issue (having fallen prey to it myself on more than one occasion). But for the sake of our common welfare, we must learn to resist that temptation. One way to do so, I believe, is to practice “acknowledged hypocrisy.”

 A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a private, liberal arts Christian college. I was staying in the B&B on campus, and while enjoying breakfast I was joined by two senior members of the school's administration and another guest speaker. I had sat in on the class the other speaker had taught the night before and chatted with him for a while afterwards. I liked him. Over breakfast he introduced me to his companions, and then they began talking about the recent departure of a gay student from the school that had brought a great deal of negative press both locally and on social media. They seemed genuinely pained by the entire experience – both for the student and the school – as they discussed the Community Covenant’s prohibition against homosexual relationships, which was the main reason for the student's departure. They asked the guest speaker if his church had anything similar in their own membership covenant. He said that while persons who identified as LGBTQ were welcome in his church, they could not serve in leadership roles. I knew his church's affiliation was one of the historic 'peace churches,' and asked him if they had a similar prohibition against members of the armed forces serving in leadership. Without hesitation he responded, "No. That's our acknowledged hypocrisy."

 Two things struck me about his response: its speed, and its complete lack of defensiveness. I had expected the kind of response I often get when highlighting the blatant double-standards we are capable of in the church when it comes to questions of leadership:  a strong denial of any hypocrisy, followed by a lengthy rehearsal of why our position (whatever it is) is in fact “biblical.” I was not prepared for "That's our acknowledged hypocrisy." And I must say, it was a welcome breath of fresh air. On the flight home a few days later, I found myself reflecting on those four words, and began to be convinced of their potential importance in re-shaping the way we talk about contentious and often painful issues (painful because, whenever we’re talking about "issues," we’re actually talking about people).

 The challenge before us, of course, is that much of our hypocrisy goes unacknowledged because we don't question ourselves overly much. Which makes sense, given the degree of homogeneity we tend to maintain in our friendships and voluntary associations. When most of the people I know hold the same beliefs as I do, it's unlikely that someone is going to call me out on my hypocrisy, because they probably share it, and are probably as equally unaware of it as I often am.

 My formal pastoral ministry in the U.S. has been within the United Methodist church, and many of my dearest friends are lifelong Methodists. You’re probably aware of the recent Special Session of the General Conference of that denomination that both affirmed the church’s prohibition of gay marriage for clergy as well as creating strong sanctions for any clergy who perform weddings for gay couples. I grieve for the pain that this issue has caused for years (because, again, it’s not an abstract “issue”, it’s people), and I grieve for the pain that is to come as faithful Christians on every side of this question stand to lose friendships, congregations, pastors and jobs that they love because of the decision that was made in St Louis, and all the decisions that will be made following that one. (I also understand that sexuality is only the ‘presenting problem’ revealing the deeper problems the UMC is wrestling with.)

 It is not uncommon for those who supported the ‘Traditional Plan’ to point to Jesus’ statement in Mark chapter 10 as the “biblical standard” for marriage:

“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10.6-9, NRSV)

There it is, in black and white, from Jesus himself. Now, I have a shelf full of books about human sexuality and marriage from all kinds of perspectives, so I know that no one arrives at their understanding of what “biblical marriage” is from a couple of verses. But this text in Mark is often the ‘mic drop’ text for those who defend the church’s traditional and historical understanding of marriage as being reserved for a man and a woman.

 The problem is Mark chapter 10 does not end at verse 9. The context for Jesus’ comments on marriage is a discussion about divorce, and this is how the chapter continues:

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10.10-12, NRSV)

So again, there it is, in black and white, from Jesus himself: divorced people cannot re-marry, because to do so is to commit adultery. Yet I imagine that there are people in just about every United Methodist church in the U.S. whose re-marriage ceremony was blessed and celebrated in their church.

 When I raise the apparent hypocrisy of this practice with some of my friends who hold to the traditional view of marriage, the response is invariably to embark on a lengthy discourse as to why such marriages are, in fact, not inherently sinful, as would appear from the Marcan text. They engage in thoughtful exegesis of other relevant texts, offer theological reflection on the nature of covenant, of sin, repentance and restoration and conclude that re-marriage is a legitimate form of marriage and not, in fact, adultery. To which my response is, “Is it possible to extend the same kind of generous and wider interpretation of ‘biblical marriage’ to people who read the earlier part of Mark 10 and arrive at a different conclusion than you do?”

 What if my friends who would deny marriage to gay couples in the church, while affirming re-marriage following divorce, instead of defending this position when questioned about it, offered the immediate response, “You’re right. That’s our acknowledged hypocrisy.” How far would that admission go to reducing the defensiveness that tends to push us away from one another rather than draw us towards each other? What if I forego my well-rehearsed justifications for rejecting the “plain meaning” of some text (while asking others to accept the plain meaning of another text) and just say, “Yes. That’s my acknowledged hypocrisy.” What if, for instance, when people say to me, “Sean, you’re always going on about climate change and our need to care for the planet God has given us as a home, but then you get on airplanes to travel to speak about that,” what if instead of offering a defense for my behavior (which I’m strongly inclined to do), I simply said, “You’re absolutely right. That’s my acknowledged hypocrisy.”

That’s what I started to do following that conversation over breakfast several years ago. And that practice has helped prolong and deepen conversations about important aspects of our shared life, in contrast to the defensiveness that often brings such conversations to a grinding halt, and which tends to just leave us retreating into our respective ideological corners in self-congratulation or to lick our wounds.

 “Acknowledged hypocrisy” is my first suggestion for practices we can adopt in order to resist the kinds of polarizing discourse that is dividing us as the church and as a society, and which keeps us from the kind of shared life we long for, even if we disagree on how to get there. The next post will discuss a second pathway to healing: curiosity.

 (PLEASE NOTE: I do not say any of the above to pass judgment on divorce and re-marriage. I have gladly performed such weddings. I gave this example simply to point out our tendency to make absolutes for some things, and find exceptions for others.)