Thought for the Day - Giles Fraser

The brilliant Catholic theologian, James Alison, has called it "the joy of being wrong". It's a phrase that captures perfectly the drama and emotional complexity of Holy Week. For in the few days that precede the Church's celebration of Easter, Christians are forced to confront their own failure as human beings - our "being wrong". At the start of the week, we stand in the crowd applauding the arrival of a charismatic preacher who promised that the monarchy of God would triumph over the brutal power of the Roman Empire. But it won't be long before all this cheering turns to jeering as the very same crowd is unable to follow the consequences of its own commitment. The followers of Christ are thus exposed as cowards and hypocrites, denying knowledge of the very man that had previously inspired them with so much hope.

This is why, as a Christian, I go by the working assumption that, as Gregory House puts it in my favourite TV drama: "everybody lies." Hypocrisy is so all-pervasive that even the charge of hypocrisy is an act of hypocrisy itself. And yet, of course, the exposure of hypocrisy is widely trailed as the moral justification of those self-appointed guardians of public morality: the British press. The phone tapping scandal, for example, demonstrates the extraordinary extent to which some newspapers will go in the exposure of public figures. But why are we apparently so surprised when a celebrity turns out to be less than a paragon of virtue or a politician seems to put their own interest ahead of their constituents? Or perhaps we're not surprised at all – rather, it’s more an act of what psychoanalysts call projection: that we enjoy the exposure of another person's failings because it reduces the anxiety about our own.

Of course, a fascination with the moral weakness of others is not a modern phenomenon. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer hated the idea that it was the job of the church to be like the press and go "grubbing around after other people's sins." In similar vein, Elizabeth Ist famously maintained that it was not church's business "to make windows into men's souls." I suspect that both of them were able to take such a seemingly relaxed line because they knew precisely what they’d find in the hearts of others.

But where then is the 'joy' in all of this? In Christian terms, it comes about because the admission of failure is the only true preparation for a recognition that what makes us fully and gloriously human is not completely within our power to bring about. That we become who we ought to be through some sort of gift - the gift of a radically reconstituted life expressed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Holy Week is a preparation for the reception of this gift through a clear-eyed audit of our moral failure. Christianity is not in the slightest bit surprised that a gap exists between our words and our deeds. Admitting the depths of our own hypocrisy is the first move in the joy of being wrong.

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4 minutes

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