Pharisees and Journalists

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacterieswide and the tassels on their garments long;  they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;  they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

–Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus spent a lot of time excoriating Pharisees and others he regarded as hypocrites.  “Hey,” says the journalist, “we’re like Jesus, because we too are dedicated to exposing hypocrisy.”  Not so fast.  Christ and the journalists do very different things.  The journalist lives to bring down anyone who defends the moral order–all authority figures, all religious figures.  Their weapon is to expose some way that the authority figure has himself failed to live up to the moral law.  Since we are all sinners, all authorities are vulnerable to this sort of attack.  Thus do the journalists make themselves our masters.  Authority figures are either intimidated into doing the newsman’s will, or they are “exposed”, socially destroyed, and replaced by the newsman’s own creatures.

Jesus, on the other hand, certainly did not condemn people for upholding the moral law, and never imagined that the public promotion of vice excuses its private exercise.  An official who publicly condemns adultery while keeping a mistress is guilty of adultery but not hypocrisy.  He is only a hypocrite if he presents himself to the public as an exemplary chaste man and seeks status according to this lie.  The latter is what Jesus condemned:  status-seeking through moral posturing, moral grandstanding like the hypocrites who make sure everybody knows when they’re fasting, self-righteous priggishness like the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like sinful men.  This message of the Gospels is extremely relevant today, but not in the way our media masters would like us to believe.

Why single out the Pharisees, though?  They’re certainly not the only, and probably not the worst, of history’s status-seekers.  (Also, it goes without saying that there were a number of honest, godly Pharisees toward whom Jesus’ criticisms were not directed.)  The social context gave their preening a particularly obnoxious flavor, though.  Among the pagans, I doubt one encountered this kind of moral grandstanding so much, not because they were more humble, but ironically because they were, in a way, less so–the pagans didn’t make personal virtue the key to social status.  Of course, being a good man was thought desirable, but if is was respect and power you were after, you would have been better off trying to convince your neighbor of your wealth, military prowess, and influence.  Among the Israelites, there seems to have been a competition between Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots for influence, based not on who was perceived as toughest, but on who was perceived as holiest.

Medieval Christians seem to have followed the pagan route.  Even in highly polemical writers, like Dante, one doesn’t hear a great deal of moral self-congratulation, of claims that one is on one side of a conflict as opposed to another because of one’s superior virtue, piety, or compassion.  Today, of course, things are different. We engage in far more moral posturing than the Pharisees of today ever dreamed of doing.  And who are the paradigmatic pharisees of today?  Who else could it be but the journalist?  The man who ruthlessly annihilates all rivals to his power, and then turns around and says that it was his overwhelming sense of justice that forced him to do it.  Like the praying Pharisee in the parable, the journalist’s core belief is in his own moral superiority to his fellows.  Like all hypocrites, he presents himself as a paragon of virtues he imposes on others but never practices himself.  He demands that religious believers keep their faith private, but he demands that the state enforce his atheism on the public sphere.  He demands that white Christians despise their cultural and religious heritage and make no efforts to protect their own group interests, while he ruthlessly advances his own hegemony and the interests of his own ethnic group.  The journalists are far worse than the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and they deserve His strictures far more.  The Pharisees, at least, taught a good morality, and Christ Himself told His disciples to obey them.  Their code imposed real burdens on them, burdens they made some effort to meet (and made sure everybody else knew about it).  The journalist encourages and practices every vice, and discourages only those who challenge their power.

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