There is a great gulf between the Christianity that wrestles with whether to worship at the cost of imprisonment and death, and the Christianity that wrestles with whether the kids should play soccer on Sunday morning.
One of the recurring problems that Facebook throws up is “whataboutism”. You know what I mean by that – the tendency when you put up a comment about a life difficulty, and someone says “Yeah, but what about…?”
I get that all of the time, because I write about some of the struggles of the Christian life in the West, and I get people say “Yeah but what about refugees? You clearly don’t care for refugees!” That’s “whataboutism” and it’s a scourge of the social media age.
Fortunately I can chew gum and walk at the same time, so I am more than happy to hold both issues in hand. My primary writing has been about the issues that are complex and subtle facing Christians in the West, so if you want me to write about everything all of the time, then that’s not going to happen. And neither is the fact that I have occasionally written about refugees merely a sop to those who demand it.
The quote at the top of the page by John Piper, which I have seen today making the rounds of some people on Facebook is a classic case of “whataboutisim”.
Here’s the thing with “whataboutism” in the Christian life: It’s designed to make us feel suitably guilty. It’s designed to keep us on the edge of feeling secure in our faith. It’s designed to keep us always beyond the conceit that we are living a life faithful to Jesus. Or more to the point a life that is faithful enough to Jesus.
For at first glance who’s going to argue with Piper’s statement? Punishment and death in Afghanistan versus my kids playing soccer on Sunday mornings? Hmmm no contest. I should put up and shut up because… well because why? Because there’s always someone worse off than I.
Which, to be frank, has all of the intellectual rigour of my mum’s comment when I wouldn’t eat the excruciatingly awful fried liver she put on a plate in front of us in my youth. Her riposte? “What about the starving kids in Africa?” Well what about them? But it didn’t address the matter at hand. Besides I have since learned that liver itself is not excruciating. My mother’s approach to the cooking of meat lay somewhere east of Leviticus.
But back to my point. If Piper is saying there’s a huge gulf in the lived experience of the Christianity between the two, then that’s one thing. But that’s not, I think, what he’s saying. He’s saying that they’re different versions of Christianity. Too much of that statement by Piper, and indeed some of the theological reckoning behind it is a little like those memes you see about maths that pop up on Facebook. You know the ones like:
I think that’s what Piper’s quote does. It tries to equate two completely random scenarios. But unlike the maths meme, it’s not simply designed to be responded to by a knowing laugh, but by, well, by what exactly? I’m not sure. I don’t think anyone I know is going:
“Hey wait a minute! All along I considered the arguments in our family about sport on Sunday to be the equivalent of the sheer terror Afghani Christians are experiencing at the moment. He sure showed me!”
Sorry, but that’s up there with Mum’s fried liver. It’s a false equivalence. And it doesn’t actually do anything about the situations that are “wrestles” for the faith in the West. And that’s the key word that everyone, including Piper I suspect, is overlooking: “wrestles”.
The point of the wrestles in our faith is not the issue we wrestle with, but the wrestle itself!
The wrestling, and the context in which we are wrestling with them.
Charles Taylor writes about “the social imaginary” of the modern West. That simply means “the water we swim in”. What’s conceivable and what’s possible to conceive of in a world that is given over to a secular frame in which public fact and private opinion (aka “faith”) are bifurcated. Align the two at your peril!
So as it happens, the wrestle in our faith as to whether our children play soccer on a Sunday is not done from a cave on the hillside outside Kabul where we are hiding from the Taliban. It is done from the social imaginary of the West in which dozens of minute wrestles have to be made all of the time about similar matters.
From the moment we get up in the West, with our social media life always on, to the temptations and lures of the good life that a graduate career will give us or our children; to the soft blurring of distinctions between what is holy and what is not; to the constant desire for more when we see the latest home renovation show; to the decision to not monitor our child’s online searches because “it’s all too hard”; to the question of how we do church together and whether or not in our busy lives we will even be hospitable to the stranger; to whether we should give financially until it stings, we wrestle!
Soccer on a Sunday is not a discrete idea. It’s an interwoven, inter-connected concept that is lived out in the midst of a relationship web in the Western world. Change one factor and other factors feel the tension. And neither am I saying “Meh, let your kids play soccer on Sunday.”
Mine didn’t and don’t, and I am committed to making the worshipping community of God’s people the primary plausibility in their lives, and that is first expressed by the big rock in the jar of meeting together regularly in such a way that it stings a little. And as a pastor I’ve seen lots of parents wrestle with it. Coming out with “Well at least your kids aren’t in Afghanistan” is pastorally stupid. And likely not to work.
So these constant “lightweight category” wrestles, are the wrestles of the modern social imaginary. And they are complex, constant and alluring. They are a beautiful form of tyranny that can wind you up in hell. They are like a row of spinning plates, each one needing attention all of the time lest one cease its spin and fall.
And they are all designed to do one thing that we totally have in common with the Christians in Afghanistan. They are designed to make us submit. The Afghan wrestle is designed to terrorise you and make you submit. The Western wrestle is designed to neutralise you and make you submit. And so both are opportunities for Christians to “wrestle”, to fight the good fight of faith in completely different settings.
And if we are going to be biblical about it – and Piper would require that we are – then let’s look at the parable of the soils. Another way of describing the failure to wrestle is “unfruitful”. And guess what? Jesus makes no distinction in terms of which fruitlessness is better or worse, or indeed which conditions are better or worse and therefore more of an excuse for fruitlessness. So look how he describes the second and third soils in Mark 4:
Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.
In other words, Afghanistan and Manhattan. Or more to the point for John Piper, Afghanistan and Minneapolis, MN. The question is not what are you wrestling with, but “Are you wrestling?” Jesus doesn’t recognise the great gulf between the two versions of Christianity that Piper does. He just says “wrestle”.
I hazard a guess that if in the middle of a frigid winter’s day in Minneapolis, or in the midst of a heatwave, if the Bethlehem Baptist Church decided that for the sake of equivalence with Christians in Afghanistan, the thermostat would be turned off in the main auditorium for the duration of the season, there would be an outcry. And most likely from the pastor.
We’re not required to equate ourselves with our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, and see how “lucky” we are. We’re required to pray for them, that God would deliver them from obvious evil. And we need to find as many ways to support them as possible as those who belong to King Jesus.
What we don’t need to do is play a game of “whataboutism” to make ourselves feel simultaneously bad, but never bad enough that we don’t actually do anything about it except experience a low grade guilt that will never empower us to change.
Your task today in the West, in our Sexular Age, in this imminent frame in which the good life is more likely to make you unfruitful than the bad life, is to wrestle. So get out there and wrestle.