05/18/2012 12:57 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

Getting Beyond Hypocrisy: Bristol Palin and the Blind Man Healed by Jesus

Calling Bristol Palin a hypocrite is "like shooting moose from a helicopter flying low over the tundra." That's according to Frank Bruni, who could easily mount Palin's antlers over the mantle after she attacked President Obama's decision to come out in support of marriage for same-sex couples. Bruni points out the obvious irony of Palin advising us that, "kids do better growing up in a mother/father home." After all, she does not live with Levi Johnston, the father of her own child, whom she describes as virtually a date rapist. Worse, she intends to subject little Tripp to the morbid curiosity of the American public on her upcoming reality show. "Little children are known to thrive in such environments," Bruni acidly observes.

For Bruni, Palin epitomizes "hypocrites," those whose "histories, along with any sense of shame, tumble out the window as soon as there's a microphone to be seized or check to be cashed." But tarring others with the label "hypocrite" is dangerous business, a point made eloquently by the theologian James Alison in his essay on the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John.
John 9 is a bit of dark comedy. Jesus' disciples see a beggar who was born blind, and ask whether this disability is punishment for his own sin, or those of his parents. "'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,' said Jesus, 'but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him'" (John 9:3). Jesus proceeds to show what he means by making a little clay with dirt and his own spit, rubbing it on the man's eyes, and telling him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam. The blind man does so and immediately he can see. And that's where his troubles really start.

For the leaders of the local synagogue have already decided that "anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue." For some of them, the fact that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, a day of rest, is just another example of his lawlessness. Others, however, ask, "How can a sinner perform such signs?" Rather than dealing with these uncomfortable questions, they call in the man's parents, hoping that they will testify that their son had never been blind in the first place. Afraid of being expelled from the synagogue, the parents say that their son can speak for himself -- throwing the problem back on him. The synagogue officials then tell the man that the whole issue will be put to rest if he simply acknowledges that the one who gave him sight is a sinner. But the once-blind beggar refuses to turn against Jesus and is expelled from the community.

Alison notes that this is the story of an expulsion carried out by people who are convinced that they know what is right and good, people who are only interested in maintaining moral order. But moral order is always challenged by the creative power of God, which never tires of bringing things to completion and drawing them into participation with God's own life. Case in point -- the man born blind, whose eyes are smeared with clay (the stuff from which God created Adam), and thus made complete (i.e., given the power to see), and comes to recognize Christ. Carried out by a controversial prophet on the holy day of rest, the curing of the blind man seems to break all sorts of rules. But in this story, sin is not about breaking rules. Rather, it is resistance to the creative power of God -- even when that resistance is carried out in God's name. In Alison's words, "Sin ceases to be a defect [blindness] which excludes, and comes to be participation in the mechanism of exclusion." Those who thought that they were on the side of God are revealed to be profoundly wrong. We might even call them hypocrites.

Liberals might be quick to endorse this theology of inclusion, but they should be careful. Alison points out that from the moment that the man born blind starts to speak for himself, he must "begin to learn how not to be an expeller." In other words, if we see this simply as the unmasking of a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites, we might end up doing the very thing for which we condemn them. "Which of us has tried to identify with the hypocrite, trying to understand the mechanisms which tie us up in hypocrisy, so as together to cut ourselves loose from them?"

Frank Bruni points to some of the mechanisms -- the love of money and attention -- that tie up Palin in hypocrisy. But pointing out that hypocrisy is Bruni's way of attracting money and attention to himself. As for my part, while I'm not paid for this blog, I could stand a little attention. The three of us are participating in a media circus of shame for spectators who derive a bit of self-righteous satisfaction that is no less hypocritical than we are. But if it does nothing else, Alison's essay at least points to the possibility of something better.