Weep for our Hypocrisy

3 12 2008

It is sometimes said that today is the most important day of your life. I think sometimes it is also the most dangerous. I wrote yesterday about hypocrisy in our world and started by pointing out that actually, in some shape or form, we are all hypocrites, we all pretend, we all put on a face.

Today the headlines in the UK are about the De Menzes coroner who has ruled out an unlawful killing verdict and the article noted that when he instructed the jury some of the family got up and walked out. De Menzes was a man mistaken for a suicide bomber in July 2005, and who was subsequently shot in the head by armed police. There is some apparent dispute about whether or not the police shouted, “armed police” to warn the man. Faced in a tube train by two men waving guns, De Menzes did not do the rational thing and put his hands up with open palms, but made a move that so alarmed the already over-sensitive police, that they took what they believed was the only course of action to save a train load of people and shot him dead. It appears they were wrong.

So how does my claim of hypocrisy arise? It arises out of our pretence that things do not go wrong in life and that people get it wrong, and it seems fairly clear that the police got it wrong. All of our hackles go up against the police because of the nature of the wrong: a man is dead and a family is grieving. If we were part of that family we would be grieving and we would be angry but that is where we too might be charged with hypocrisy. Why? Because we too would be pretending that if we had been the police we would never have done what they did, and in that we would be deluding ourselves.

The hypocrisy here again, I suggest, is within ourselves if we too think we would not have done what the police did that day. Earlier that month, on the 7th July, London suffered its own 9/11 and people died as a result of bombers. On the day before this shooting further attempts had been made. The emotional temperature in London was understandably at boiling point and that is often forgotten by all those hypocritical finger-pointers. Was the shooting wrong? Certainly! Was there an attempted cover up? Quite possibly! But how many of us back then, in the face of the emotional trauma of the 7th July and the possible further attacks were not of the mentality that said, “Won’t somebody get these characters! Shoot them down if necessary!”

It is the same hypocrisy that gets angry when a gunman holed up somewhere waving a gun around gets shot by the police. At the time everyone was saying, “Do something about him!” so they did. It is easy to be pious after the event, and forget that this was an armed and dangerous man with a gun presumably ready to kill people (for why else do you go round carrying a gun!) but when you are on the front line and the government and media (and the rest of us) are shouting, “Do something!” then don’t be too quick to judge when they do! If you or I had been trained to take down a suicide bomber, in the light of the emotional tension that there was in the country at that point, as wrong as we might have been, I think we would not have taken the risk of further carnage, and we too would have shot.

In theological terms it is called living in a Fallen World, a world where things go wrong and people get it wrong, but the first step with coping with such a world is honesty. That’s what the Apartheid meetings in South Africa were all about, facing the truth of the awful things that had been done. I started this article by saying that it is sometimes said that today is not only the most important day of your life, but that it can also be the most dangerous. The reason for the latter part of that comment is because sometimes we feel pressurised into taking action NOW and because we don’t have the full facts and, perhaps more importantly, because we are unable to stand back from the emotion of the present, we lose perspective, and when we lose perspective we do wrong things and take wrong actions.

This is in no way to excuse them, and we should always we working to make sure they are not repeated, but it is to say that honesty, integrity, call it what you will, demands we stop being hypocrites and face the truth squarely and stop pretending to be ‘holier than thou’. My paper also carries today news that President-elect Obama’s grandfather was probably tortured in the struggle for Kenyan independence in the 1950’s. I was only a young child then but the words Mau Mau conveyed terror. So how did the British, still ruling Kenya, handle it? Often badly, but probably no worse than the way a lot of other ‘big’ nations resisted the voices of disagreement.

Was it wrong? Yes! Do we have grounds for judging? Almost certainly, but we will be hypocritical if we do. Another thing about today is that we have probably learned more than we knew yesterday, and it’s very easy to feel smug and condescending about the ‘bad behaviours’ of yesterday and declare “We wouldn’t do that!” That is hypocrisy, the failure to know yourself and pretend you are better than others.

Should we accept such wrong? No, of course not, but there is a great deal of difference between acceptance, denunciation and grieving for our failures. Jesus once declared, If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.” That wasn’t a let out for the woman being condemned but it was a demand to face the truth about ourselves and stop being judgmental. Perhaps a compassionate approach today would find us weeping with the family who lost a son or a brother, and weeping with the police who live with the memory of gunning down an innocent man, and weeping with all those who wound them up so tight that they came to that terrible point, and weeping for our own hypocrisy. That’s what a compassionate approach would do, but perhaps there isn’t too much compassion in today’s world.

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