Friday, September 22, 2006

Collection Booth, Voting Plate, They're All the Same.

I've been ruminating a bit lately on a topic I'd like to discuss here for a bit. I'm not really sure what you'd call it... I guess maybe hypocrisy, particularly the similarities between religious and political hypocrisy.

My thoughts about it really came to a head during church this past week. For starters, there was an excellent sermon. Our priest told us a story about a Catholic priest in Africa, who was working at a mission, out in the middle of the plains, far away from everyone. There were other groups of missionaries - Methodists - serving a tribe not far away, and every week they would come to the priest for Sunday service. After several weeks they Methodists approached the priest, and asked if they would be able to receive communion, as part of the community they had established in the area. Weeks later, the priest was relaying this story to his bishop, who asked the priest, "what did you tell them?"

The priest responded, "Well, I wasn't sure how to proceed. So I prayed about it, and I asked myself, in this situation, what would Jesus have done?"

To which the horrified bishop exclaimed, "You didn't do that, did you!?!"

I think it was a wonderful story, and it really highlights one of the biggest areas of hypocrisy in the Catholic Church - we teach that Christ came for the poor, the sick, the sinners, the undesirable, and yet we try to exclude anyone who isn't "worthy" from receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. It's something that really bothers me.

The other - and the bigger - piece of the Mass that really stood out was the second reading. This one touched more directly on what I'd been thinking about lately. It came from the Book of James (2:14-18). I'll quote it here in its entirety:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day,and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body,what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, "You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works,and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

It's a really wonderful section, because it cuts right to the heart of what it is to be Christian, to be a person of Faith. You cannot simply proclaim faith. You must live your faith, and if your faith is real, true, alive, then you will demonstrate it with the works of your life (I suppose I could get into the Catholic/Protestant soteriology debate over "Faith & Works" vs. "by Faith alone", but that's extraneous to this post, so I'll leave it alone for now).

This brings me to what has always been one of the most legitimate - and therefore most enduring - criticisms of Christians, indeed, of all faithful persons: that their actions do not match up with their words. That they are, in fact, hypocrites.

I remember reading a book in high school - Awakenings (was that what it was called? Where the lady committed suicide at the end? I forget. Someone want to help me out on this one?) - where the main character came from a family that spent Sunday making up for what they did the rest of the week, or something like that. I was always struck by that idea, probably because it proves true for so many people. All week they forget about God. They sin, they fail to serve others, etc. And then on Sunday - at least for an hour - they take time to reflect on their faith. And then it's right back into it.

What I think is really fascinating is the difference between the hypocrites and the regular sinners. At some point in time everyone slips up. No matter how intently you pray, no matter how strong your faith, you're going to sin. And that's ok. Making a mistake, failing in your Christian task, that doesn't make you a hypocrite. It just makes you human.

No, the hypocrites are the ones who have no intention of living their faith. Who embrace the dichotomy between the Sunday self and the Weekday self. Who think they can make up for their week with their faith on Sunday. But it doesn't work that way. James tells us so. If you're living life that way, if you're dichotomizing your faith and your works, then that's not really faith at all. You can't expunge your real life by simply attending church once a week. You can't say to yourself "I gave to the weekly collection, so I've done my duty to help the poor." You can't say to yourself "my church has hired a youth minister, so I don't have to help teach my faith to the young." Those are not statements that compatible with Christian faith, but instead are the statements of a hypocrite.

I'm amazed at how common this type of hypocrisy is. And what I've come to realize lately is that this isn't simply a religious hypocrisy - it's a political hypocrisy too.

What I mean is this: A lot of people look at their time at church/monetary donations as a way of paying their due. They figure that so long as they've given something to promote the cause, they're off the hook, and they don't have to live like Christians the rest of the week.

So too it is with politics. A lot of people look at their vote/monetary donations as a way of paying their due. They figure so long as they voted Democrat (it's mostly democrats, but probably not only democrats (let's face it, more republicans probably fall into the religious hypocrite division)) they're off the hook, and they don't have to live like a Democrat the rest of the election cycle. I know so many people who vote Democrat because "it's the right thing to do," or because they "support education" or "want to help the poor, not the rich". But so many of those exact same people would never help out the homeless man on the street. Or spend time in a soup kitchen. Or donate some spare time to mentor a child. It's almost as if they've voted Democrat so that they don't have to do it. And in that sense, this political hypocrisy is exactly the same as the religious hypocrisy.

I wonder, as church attendance has dropped throughout the past century, how many truly faithful persons have we lost? Or have we simply cut the number of hypocrites from our pews? Because now those hypocrites have a new way to expunge their guilt and clean their conscience; It seems that political hypocrisy has, for many people, simply replaced religious hypocrisy. The voting booth is nothing more than the new collection plate.

Mama works on carburetors


the marvelous patric said...

hot dang! i think we agree for once!

i think that was a good one. i also think that sometimes just voting isn't enough. this is why i've found myself working on campaigns in the past two elections... because sure, i could just give one vote, but i REALLY want change to happen, so i'm out there knocking on doors and calling people so at the end of the day, no matter what happens, i can say, "yes, i really did believe this was best and did everything i could for it."

i always thought it was funny that for a church that takes its name from a word that can mean "universal", Catholics have a tradition of being a bit exclusive about things.

Kajsa said...

It's The Awakening (Kate Chopin).

Matthew B. Novak said...

Awesome thanks. I figured you'd come through for me on that one.

joel. said...

You're right, Matt. I did enjoy this post and I more-or-less agree with everything you said. I'm tickled pink at your questioning of the Catholic policy on communion, as I'm sure you expected that I—as the only member of your wedding party to not partake in that sacrament—would be.

In regards to the political portion of this post and in response to Patric, I don't think that working on campaigns is necessarily a requirement in living out one's political leanings—in fact, I think working on a campaign is far less important than the other things one can do. For instance, as an environmentally-concerned Democrat, I try to make a point to turn off unneeded lights, recycle everything I possibly can, take as few trips in my car as I can get away with, etc. Exercising one's political powers is great, but it can all be undone by [seemingly] non-political behavior.

the marvelous patric said...

i agree with you, joel, about working on a campaign not being a requirement. i didn't mean it to sound like i thought that. more of what i meant was, that for me, i feel like if i believe that someone is important, or a change in general is important, it's not enough to just vote. for me, further action is required, which in some cases, means campaigning. of course, the kind of campaigning i enjoy the most is door knocking and calling because that's when you get to connect one-on-one with people and really get to communicate a lot of ideas.

of course, what good is campaigning for an ideal if i don't do anything else during non-election years? it's almost like a glorified vote then.

Jeff said...

I'm not sure I agree with you that the only way to live Democratic values is to volunteer in the community, etc. It's desirable, yes, but some people simply don't have time to do that. I want to help out the refugees in Darfur, for example, but I can't exactly hop on a plane and fly over there with a big bag of food. That's why I pay someone else to do so (via charity organizations such as CARE, Red Cross, etc).

And don't discount politics either. Working at a soup kitchen is honorable, don't get me wrong. But working to get laws passed that provide a proper social safety net, job training assistance, job creation, and other such things that make sure people don't have to rely on soup kitchens for food anymore is, to me, just as honorable. Maybe I'm too idealistic.

Here's something for you to ruminate on: what, to you, is the highest form of charity? Donating money in person? Anonymously? Volunteering to help someone directly? Maimonides had his famous hierarchy... what's yours?

Matthew B. Novak said...

First off Jeff, interesting quesiton about the highest form of charity... I'm unfamiliar with the Maimonides hierarchy, so I'll have to look into it, and give it some more thought. Off the top of my head though, I'd say the highest form of charity is when it becomes a lifestyle (ala Ma Theresa).

As for the rest... I call B.S. Sure, sometimes it is very hard to find time/energy to volunteer, etc. But ultimately, if it's important enough to you, you'll do it. That's the long and the short of it. Maybe it'll slide for a while, and then you'll pick it up again later, or whatever, but in the end either it's important enough that you'll live it, or you won't.

And you're right, volunteering isn't the only way to live Democratic values. I think political action is incredibly important. I never dismissed it. I just think, ultimately, if you're only doing political action, with no intent, no willingness, no desire to actually get out there and serve - at least from time to time - then, well, I'm sorry, but that's hypocritical.

And giving money to charity, and all of that, is actually, I think, a great example of how to live it beyond just political action. I too would be hard pressed to actually serve the Darfur refugees. But aid is a relevant and appropriate way to put weight to my beliefs, to try to make a difference.

I guess what I'm saying - and I thought this was clear - was that it really needs to be the whole package. You've got to actually live the life. Joel's example of environmentalism was perfect. You can't just say "well, I voted for Kerry, and I am so mad that Bush wants to drill in Alaska" and then go by an SUV. That's hypocritical (unless you need to regularly haul many people and heavy cargo). Do you see what I'm saying? Not only is it desirable to do service, and such - it's essential.

It's really a lifestyle issue. Either you truly believe in the values you vote for - in which case you'll do your damndest to live them, regardless of how busy you are - or you use your vote as an escape from responsibility.