By Rev. Peter Sawtell, Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries
My friend, Ted, is a wonderful story-teller. He has so much fun spinning a yarn that he often starts giggling just before the punchlines of his own stories. I've often heard him tell a Buddhist story (which he stretches out to great length!):
When Nasrudin was a magistrate, a woman came to him with her son. "This youth," she said, "eats too much sugar; I cannot afford to keep him in it. Therefore I ask you to tell him to eat less of it, as he will not obey me."
Nasrudin told her to come back in seven days. When she returned, he postponed his decision for yet another week. Finally, he sat down with the youth and announced in a loud voice, "Eat less sugar!"
The woman asked him why so much time had been necessary before a simple order could be given.
"Because, madam, I had to see whether I myself could cut down on the use of sugar, before ordering anyone else to do it."
I'm not an authoritative "magistrate", but I do feel some kinship with Nasrudin in avoiding hypocrisy.
From time to time, I receive suggestions from my loyal and dedicated readers, suggesting topics for Notes that go beyond what I have written.
- Don't just talk about eating "lower on the food chain", some say. Tell people to be vegetarian or vegan.
- When I discussed using less water, one friend posted on Facebook that none of us need to take a shower every day.
- A comment about the small vegetable garden that we have in our front lawn prompted comments that we shouldn't have a lawn at all.
- My musings (and confessions) about transportation decisions have provided an opportunity to hear from my readers who never fly, or who bicycle year round.
All of those people are providing heartfelt and necessary advice. They provide me with detailed guidance toward responsible behavior that they are already practicing -- and that I am not.
I generally have not written issues of Notes that give extra-challenging instructions on such topics. It isn't that I don't know the truth and wisdom of those recommendations. I find myself in the same trap as Nasrudin. I need to live in some semblance of conformity with my own advice.
I have found that the ethical tension about hypocrisy is reduced, at least somewhat, when guidelines for behavior are put in the form of suggestions and an invitation for us to take up together, rather than "ordering someone else to do it." I have written often about how I'm trying to meet challenging goals. I find it helpful when I hear from others about how they are working toward new lifestyles.
So, with the first example above: I am not a vegetarian. My family eats far less meat than we did when we lived in Iowa farm country, and we're on the journey toward eating even less. We're having fun, these days, exploring the creative options of lentils (despite what one friend at a church pot-luck said about a dish of rabbit droppings). But will I tell others that they should do what I have not yet done? No.
I think of the warning from Jesus, "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7:5) But it is not at all hypocritical to talk about how we'd all be better off if we didn't have stuff in our eyes, and to try to help each other.
Hypocrites, who are full of advice and empty of action, don't have a lot of credibility. Jesus and Nasrudin knew that, and we've all chafed when a self-righteous person tells us to do more than they're willing to do. On the other side, people who "walk the talk" and who actually make big changes do have a lot of credibility -- even if what they're asking is hard.
And for those of us in the middle, honesty about our own aspirations and our own journey free us from hypocrisy and make us genuine human beings.
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Hypocrisy has been on my mind recently, on a larger scale than personal behaviors of shower length or food choices.
This weekend, I'm in Kansas City leading some workshops on divesting from fossil fuels. The sessions will explore reasons why more and more universities, denominations, churches and others are deciding to remove stocks of the major fossil fuel producers from their investments portfolios. We'll also be examining -- and hopefully rebutting! -- several of the reasons given for not divesting.
The president of Harvard University, Drew Faust, has given four reasons why she does not want the school to divest. (Harvard has been a powerful leader in some other historic divestment campaigns, so their non-participation here is hotly debated.) Number four on her list is that divestment is hypocritical. "Given our pervasive dependence on these companies" in our personal consumption, Faust says, "it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments."
Nasrudin wasn't willing to announce, "Eat less sugar!" until he'd cut down on sweets. I have not been adamant about vegetarian diets because I'm not far enough on that path to have credibility. But is it legitimate to say that all of us who use fossil fuels can't be advocates for the political strategy of divestment? That seems to me like an over-reach, but it still deserves a serious answer.
Many commentators have pointed out that divestment is seeking systemic change. It is not about the behavior of individuals. The divestment movement is trying to change the cultural and economic setting in which we live and act. Divestment, said philosopher Alex Lenferna, "responds to the need to create an alternative future in which our practices are no longer embedded within systems that bring about significant harm ... divestment is a strategy which aims to propel that shift forward, an active strategy to bring about a low carbon future."
When I encourage my denomination and my college to divest, my personal behavior is pretty much beside the point. So is their use of fuels, since I'm not calling on the institutions to cut their carbon usage (although I hope they do).
In my work for divestment, I am trying to be consistent -- not hypocritical -- in my ties to several beloved institutions that have large endowment funds. I am saying that we must use all available tools to break free from the deadly -- and seductive -- systems that are cooking the planet. Divestment is one powerful tool that wealthy institutions can use.
Calling a movement and its activists "hypocritical" is a less-than-honorable way to avoid hard questions. I wish President Faust gave more credibility to the members of the Harvard community who are working responsibly for social change.
Republished with permission.
Image by TheeErin from Flickr Creative Commons.