The Torture of Our Hypocrisy | Sojourners

The Torture of Our Hypocrisy

Solider in isolation painted with an American flag. Image courtesy CURAphotograp
Solider in isolation painted with an American flag. Image courtesy CURAphotography/

Hypocrisy is woven into the founding fabric of our nation. While engaged in the systematic theft of land and structural oppression of native populations, our so-called founding fathers also proclaimed “certain unalienable Rights” as “self-evident truths,” and at the same time actively participated in the brutalities of a multinational slave trade. The moral vision articulated in the Declaration of Independence was indeed commendable, but our federal fixation with destruction and acquisition was by no means preventable. As the English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in 1776, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

Hypocrisy was — as it continues to be — the homage our vices pay to our virtues.   

While hypocrisy is an inescapable reality of our human condition, the open endorsement of such hypocrisy is unjustifiable — yet we continue to find clear and present evidence of such justification. Over the past several decades our U.S. State Department has condemned Iran, North Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and numerous others for their use of torturous techniques such as waterboarding, stress positions, forced standing and nudity, threats of harm to person and family, sleep deprivation, use of loud music, prolonged solitary confinement and the seclusion of prisoners in small spaces. But the recently-released U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detention and interrogation program revealed that the U.S. has done exactly to others what we have so adamently condemned of others. In other words, if hypocrisy is a mask, then not only does our nation seem to wear one, but our faces have clearly grown to more fully fit into it.   

The consequences of our hypocrisy are both countless and dangerous. When a gap exists between principles and practice, between promise and performance, and between rhetoric and reality, then our mass lies become massively normalized, and in turn our society slowly bleeds to death from a case of collective delusion. As Frederick Douglass remarked in 1852, “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future."

In spite of the best efforts of such public prophets, we remain bound to such a torturous future, because we continue to condone what we condemn. Such widespread hypocrisy is our most serious weapon of mass self-destruction.  

While moral perfection was, is, and always will be unattainable, we must continue to chase it — for in doing so we might grasp a greater taste of integrity. As a nation that frequently and forcefully calls for transparency and accountability among other countries, we must be held to the highest of all available standards, such as “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Regardless of how aggressively and repeatedly our national leaders have broken our moral compass, and no matter how much we as citizens have maintained the status quo patterns of denial and defence, we must passionately and persistently demand the fruits of integrity — from others and ourselves — in order to effectively serve as global leaders in the advancement of justice and freedom. Contrary to those that merely want to push forward and forget the past without proper penance, the opportune time has clearly arrived for a renewed advanced moral interrogation upon the United States of America. As a nation that strives for — and often achieves, greatness — we must pause, wonder, and ponder, for not only should we be disturbed with what we have done, but, even more so, we should be increasingly concerned with what we may become.

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and serves as Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.