Nothing invalidates the way of kindness more than the way of arrogance and hypocrisy. When our religious trappings do not sync with our actions, we’ve got a problem. After a flight from Chicago to New York City where I met an Orthodox Jew, I began to see this problem starkly in me.
My seat assignment, 29D, was on the aisle near the back of the plane. As I boarded, I noticed a handful of Orthodox Jewish men, distinctive by their clothes and beards. Just before the doors closed, one last passenger hurried aboard, bespectacled and disheveled. From the black suit, white shirt, fedora on his head, and tassels on his belt, the latecomer was obviously Jewish. He took the last open seat on the plane, the middle seat beside me. I turned my legs sideways so he could slide by.
The moment he sat down in 29E, he took out his cell phone to make a call. As he dialed, the flight attendant began her intercom drill. “Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we request that all mobile phones and electronic devices be turned off . . .”
As the voice rolled on, another flight attendant dutifully patrolled the aisle as part of her FAA checklist. Politely, she told my neighbor to turn off his phone, as by now we were pushing back from the gate.
He wasn’t done.
A few minutes later she came by again, downgrading her politeness to borderline scolding, insisting he get off the phone. He quickly clicked off the screen but didn’t hang up—a trick. She passed by. He kept talking, discreetly facing the window seat and hiding the phone behind his beard’s bushiness and his fedora’s rim.
As we taxied down the tarmac toward the runway, the flight attendant settled across the aisle from me in the jump seat by the galley, oblivious that my neighbor was still on his phone, now speaking in hushed tones. I felt a peculiar urge of justice to point out his indiscretion. So I did. Holding my pinky to my mouth and my thumb to my ear, I gestured to her that 29E was still on his phone.
At that moment, hell had no fury like a flight attendant disobeyed.
In a matter of seconds, she unclicked her shoulder straps, jumped up, and confronted my seatmate. He didn’t see it coming.
“Sir, this is the third time I’ve told you to get off the phone! I will have the pilot return to the gate and the police escort you off the plane if you don’t get off now!” Her voice must have hit 100 decibels, somewhere between raised and roaring.
Passengers from rows in front and behind whiplashed their necks to look. He frantically closed his flip phone and put it in his pocket, looking away and saying nothing. The in-flight rubberneckers went back to their reading or chatting. As the flight attendant left, my Hasidic neighbor glanced my way. I sheepishly shrugged as if to say, “Can you believe her? Bad luck for you.”
Not long after we took off, my Jewish seatmate stood up. Squeezing by me once more, he crossed the aisle into the galley and opened the pouch he was carrying. I discerned it was public prayer time, though he was the only one praying among the smattering of Jewish men on American Airlines flight 358.
His routine was religious. He removed his fedora, revealing his yarmulke, and draped a prayer shawl over his shoul- ders. Taking the phylacteries from his case, he wrapped them first around his arm and then around his head. For the next ten minutes he prayed with all the earnestness of the devout. From my view across the aisle, he seemed to do everything just right, affixing the band to his left forearm and the Scriptures to his forehead, kissing the shawl and gently nodding. Throughout, this religious man lipped the words of prayers and blessings he’d learned as a child.
When he said his final amen, I tucked in my legs sideways once more so he could return to his seat. He straight- away began reading a Hebrew text, continuing his holy task. Seeing his actions on the phone and then in the galley, I was honestly flummoxed. A few times my lips began to form the words to ask him about what seemed like two starkly different ethics, but I inhaled them before they were spoken.
Not long before we landed, and shortly after he put away his text, I could hold my question no longer. “Excuse me, sir,” I said, exhaling the words. “May I ask you something?”
He looked up.
“You know, I’m not religious like you are,” I began somewhat truthfully. I am religious, but not like he is.
“I’m not judging or anything,” I went on, trying to soften the defensiveness I anticipated might follow. “But I find it a bit interesting if not ironic how careful you were to obey all the rules when you prayed, but you didn’t seem to care about the FAA rules the flight attendant was trying to enforce.” As the words were coming out of my mouth, I wondered what had come over me. But the words kept rolling. “How do you reconcile obeying religious rules but not federal airline rules?”
His retort was quick and protective. “I turned off the phone as soon as she told me to turn off the phone.” But it didn’t happen that way, as I—along with the three rows before and behind us—could testify from the flight attendant’s third and harshest warning.
He kept talking, and once his defenses relaxed, he told me about the 613 Levitical laws he attempts to follow.
“It must be hard to keep up with that many rules,” I said. He insisted it was possible.
Our conversation continued about law and freedom and what God had in mind with the laws. By now, he’d picked up that I was more religious than I had at first led him to believe. We kept talking until we separated in the LaGuardia terminal. He ceded little, and I blessed him as we split. He headed off to his neighborhood in Brooklyn. I took a cab to Manhattan to meet a friend for dinner.
…As I’ve thought about the religious man in seat 29E, the story is no longer about him. This story is not to stereotype the Orthodox Jew next to me. It’s not to stigmatize devout Jews or Muslims or Orthodox Christians who employ rituals and symbols as part of their public prayer. As I sat there in the restaurant, cutting bite-size pieces off my steak, it occurred to me that we followers of Jesus are also being scrutinized more than ever by an increasingly skeptical culture. John pushed me to think about my in-flight confrontation with the Jewish man as more than a “gotcha.” He pondered aloud whether the conversation between 29D and 29E wasn’t a lesson on our own hypocrisy as Christians, not the Jewish man’s. If so, then anything that smacks of hypocrisy will become a lethal barrier to living the way of true kindness.
The vice of hypocrisy is the evil one’s tool for squeezing lifeless the virtue of kindness.
One of the first things I said to the pious man on the plane was, “I’m not religious like you are.” But that’s not completely true. I am a religious man. Maybe it’s not obvious by what I wear, but it is by what I do. My phylacteries are the title I bear and the stage I stand on. My shawl is the Bible I carry and my license-plate frame. My yarmulke is the public blessing over the Manhattan restaurant meal. The more evident it is that I’m a Christian, the more others will scrutinize me to see if my life as a religious man—by which I mean a disciple of Jesus—is consistent, whether I’m doing “religious things” or “secular things.” And if my Jesus is not real in what they see, they probably don’t want to hear what we have to say about him. Hypocrisy spoils kindheartedness and authenticity, the very virtues that point people toward Christ.
…The lesson from American Airlines flight 358 has lingered. Today more than ever, our high and holy calling must be a low and humble calling. We need to increase our diligence to love generously as we live out our faith sincerely. We will do well to model winsome voices of conviction for the many who are watching us, whether from the church pews or the office cubicles or the campus yard or airline seat 29E. Otherwise, we communicate that our faith is a charade. The way of kindness is not cosmetic. It is from the soul. It’s not performance. It’s purpose. It’s not mechanics. It’s motive. It’s not pretense. It’s candor.
And when we mess up, which we inevitably will, defaulting to denial only pours kerosene on the flames of hypocrisy. People of piety must be seen acknowledging and owning our mistakes rather than spinning them away. We are name bearers, and the name we bear is Jesus. Whenever we separate our religious image from the rest of our life, we are living a double life, and this inhibits the way of kindness.
This is an excerpt from Love, Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue pp. 124 – 133.
Barry Corey has been president of Biola University since 2007. He previously served as vice president for education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Corey received a BA in English and biblical studies from Evangel university, an MA in American studies, and a PhD in education from Boston College. As a Fulbright scholar, he lived in Bangladesh, where he research education programs for children of the landless poor. He and his wide Paula live in Southern California and have three children.