How can some reconcile faith, bad behavior?

McClatchy Newspapers

Deferring to mindset

The Rev. Holly McKissick, pastor of St. Andrew Christian Church, Olathe, Kan.:

The Holocaust proved that “faithful” people can rationalize the most horrific behavior.

Nazi doctors conducted horrific experiments in concentration camps, freezing children to death, poisoning adults and keeping detailed scientific records. Outside the camps, some maintained normal medical practices, even caring for Jewish patients. They were attentive fathers and ostensibly faithful Christians. They reconciled their behavior by deferring to the Nazi regime.

Closer to home, think of the Bernard Madoff scandal. How could he steal from friends, charities, schools? Madoff had a mind-set that said, “If I can get it, it’s mine.”

It’s not just the extremes. Sociologists describe America as a “cheating culture.” Students lie on college applications, parents fudge on their taxes, spouses engage in extramarital affairs. Beneath these behaviors is a complex stew of fear, anxiety and pain.

In an anxious culture obsessed with wealth, power and status, being persons of faith does not stop us from mimicking the violence and greed around us. And faithful people justify such immoral behavior like anyone else: denial, excuses, blending in.

Maybe saints are immune to destructive behaviors, but the rest of us need a faith community centered on God’s peace with justice, with a high degree of intimacy and trust, where we can honestly confront one another.

They are off the mark

Rabbi H. Scott White of Congregation Ohev Sholom in Prairie Village, Kan.:

Judaism has a special term for grievous sins committed by outwardly pious people: Hillul HaShem, desecration of God’s Holy Name. Hillul Ha- Shem is the antithesis of Kiddush HaShem, acts sanctifying God’s holy name, a classic example of which is martyrdom.

The pending allegations against Agriprocessors, a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, illustrate the concept of Hillul HaShem. The company owners stand accused of obtaining forged documents for illegal workers at their plant. If guilty, their crime is doubly bad, first because of the inherent wrongness of the act, and second because their outward piety could give the impression they acted with God’s approval. That idea cuts sharply against the grain of Judaism’s highest theological purpose, to amplify God’s moral perfection. It gives God a bad name.

In fairness we should withhold applying the term to the company and its owners until our justice system determines the truth. Jews and Gentiles alike ostensibly live lives devoted to God, even while they act in decidedly ungodly ways.

As the Eskimo tongue has many words for snow, so Hebrew has a variety of terms for various types of sin. The most basic one, however, is the word “het” (with a guttural “H”), literally meaning “off the mark.” A pious person who thinks he has God’s approval to commit a great wrong shoots a shot that misses everything but himself.