First Lady Michelle Obama was instrumental in creating Let’s Move, a task force encouraging healthy eating and physical activity. Not long into her term, she was spotted at—wait for it—McDonald’s. The world was in shock. How could someone who supported healthy habits dare eat fast food?
Being an advocate gave her a platform. When she failed to perfectly adhere to it, people called her a hypocrite. (Of course, we can give her a pass. Even the healthiest have eaten fast food, and who can resist a French fry’s allure?)
Accusations of hypocrisy aren’t exclusive to politicians. Those who take a stand are subject to criticism when they don’t uphold those standards, and standing on platforms means everyone can see us better. Christians are certainly no exception. When we put on our crucifixes or slap a “My Kid Is An Honors Student at St. Francis” sticker on our cars, people often do not notice our Christianity. Until we do something wrong.
The Hypocrisy of Hypocrisy
I was walking down a Costco aisle with my children, cart full and trying to subdue an angry toddler. I was moving too slowly apparently, and a woman sped around me, muttering and giving me “the look.” Already overwhelmed, I deflated.
I noticed the woman’s T-shirt had a Bible verse on it. My hurt turned to rage. You are mean to a mother trying her best, and you call yourself a Christian? Sure, I made assumptions based on a T-shirt, but when those values were questioned, even this Catholic was ready to jump at the hypocrisy.
We are all hypocrites at some point. We hold onto past hurts, even when we teach our kids about Jesus’s unrelenting forgiveness. We preach patience, but lose ours when a car pulls out in front of us. But a spotlight is on that hypocrisy when we choose, knowingly or not, to put our belief system on display.
No Small Call
By our Baptisms, Christ lives within us. Therefore, we should be more forgiving, kind, and patient people—not just when we read our Bibles in Starbucks or leave the church parking lot. Jesus said, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That’s it, Jesus? Just be perfect? No problem.
At all times, we have to try to see others with His eyes of perfect love. So when a car sped ahead and is now trying to squeeze into our backed-up lane, we are called to be Jesus and let them in. When the moms group vents about the teacher’s unfair expectations, we are called to be Jesus and speak a charitable word. When the kids in front of us at Mass are wiggly, distracting, and really going to town on those Veggie Straws, we are called to be Jesus, avoiding judgment and instead giving the parents an encouraging smile. Yes, that perfection—to consistently act in a way so contrary to our impulses—is an impossible task. And that’s without our faith on display.
How much more are we called to be witnesses when we are visibly witnessing, even when such a witness is unintended? Because in those moments when others notice the Jesus fish on our bumper or the scapular around our necks, we are still evangelizing. And the unfortunate reality is that those moments leave very little room for missteps or imperfections. Non-Christians, particularly anti-Christians, will notice and chalk them up to Christian hypocrisy. So when we, with our pro-life bumper stickers, cut off another car or, ahem, side-eye a slowpoke in Costco while wearing our favorite retreat T-shirt, we may potentially—though inadvertently—push someone away from the faith.
A Silver Lining
But I do have two bits of good news: The first is that the opposite can also be true: We may be able to subtly evangelize, to “preach the Gospel at all times [and] when necessary, use words.” When the cashier’s register is down, patience and a friendly exchange can demonstrate our Christian spirit. Or maybe it’s a smile at the “energetic” family at the next table when we are trying to enjoy a quiet dinner. Even if we don’t announce, “It’s because I love Jesus,” the cross around our necks may make our message clear. Having those sacramentals, books, and bumper stickers may give us a subtle yet noticeable platform for speaking about how our lives are joyful and grace-filled because of Christ.
The second piece of good news is that we have God’s grace. We are definitely going to mess up. We are going to say the wrong thing or lose our cool because, let’s face it, we are human. But inviting Jesus into the grocery, meetings, or the carpool line will allow Him to act in and through us. And when we inevitably make mistakes, our response can also show the kind of people we are.
Identifying where we tend to fall short may set us up for success. If we often lose patience in traffic on harried mornings, maybe we need to wake up a little earlier to give us the freedom to catch an extra red light. Perhaps we adjust where or when we eat lunch if work conversations tend to be a gossip opportunity. Or do we simply need to offer a twenty-second prayer before errands or parent-teacher conferences?
Our call to be Jesus is a big one. The cross of Christianity—and the crosses around our necks—can feel very heavy; in both cases, we must be conscientious of what we are saying “yes” to. We have to be, somehow, humans who are divinely good. If that isn’t hard enough, when our clothes and cars speak our Christian message, we stand in for Christians everywhere.
It isn’t fair, you’re right. But Jesus never promised it would be. What can we expect from a blameless God who took on our guilt, a God who runs toward us when we only slowly push our carts down the aisle?