Whataboutism

Several years ago, I preached a sermon on grace at one of our colleges. After the message a concerned student approached me and said, "I really appreciated your talk on grace. But, if time would allow, you'd share more about the law, right?"

In essence, he was saying, "I mean, grace is important, but what about the law? Isn't it just as important?" It was kind of a strange moment. The message I had shared, which simply noted God’s willingness to forgive sins from our past that haunt our present, in no way suggested that living a lawless life would lead to happiness. Yet, a zealous young man felt that by preaching a message on grace I was at risk of automatically minimizing the law.

I have experienced this phenomenon in a variety of other contexts. If I preach that men shouldn’t excuse their lustful behavior based on women’s clothing choices, then I will likely hear, “But what about women? Should they just wear whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want?” It's as if my challenge for men to acknowledge their own lust, an exhortation rooted in the teachings of Jesus (see Matt. 5:27–30) is somehow a license for women to parade indecently in any social setting they please. It isn’t. It also suggests a healthy number of women are naturally immodest by nature, just waiting for a chance to expose themselves. Granted, there are real pressures for women (and men) to objectify themselves, but my emphasis on one side the coin doesn't nullify the opposite challenges.

If someone says something in defense of Black Lives Matter, the response comes, “But what about everybody else?” If someone expresses concerns about keeping their gun rights, “But what about stopping violence in schools?” If someone suggests teens have a voice that needs to speak truth to power, “But what about the adults pushing kids to speak on behalf of their agendas?”

Pick the scenario, and no matter what issue you comment on, no matter what side to which you say a word of support/criticism, someone else will ask, "What about … ?"

It isn’t a new problem. “Whataboutism” (as it is known) is historically rooted in Russian propaganda and is used to deflect criticism back on the one making the critique. If I express a point, it is countered with a “what about … ?” statement.

There is a form of this in the Bible when David goes out to check on his brothers and Eliab changes the subject:

"David said to the men who stood by him, 'What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?' And the people answered him in the same way, 'So shall it be done to the man who kills him.' Now Eliab, his eldest brother, heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab's anger was kindled against David, and he said, 'Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.' And David said, 'What have I done now? Was it not but a word?'" (1 Sam. 17:26–29).

Not only is this form of response a distraction, it implies that if you did something wrong, or another group did something wrong, then it shouldn’t matter. It is the ethic of “two wrongs make a right.” And … in spite of the polarized culture all around us, that’s not right. Finally, it’s annoying to have a conversation about something you constantly have to qualify out of fear the other person will assume you are ignoring or minimizing other important issues.

Imagine trying to talk about the law but incessantly balancing it out with grace statements to avoid whataboutism. The law is important, but so is grace. We should all strive to work our hardest at making good choices, but remember there is also grace too. Setting reasonable goals each day can help accomplish important tasks, but also remember grace can empower you as well. The law is important to God (but so is grace!) because it helps us live a life free from sin (but we still need grace!). You get the point. We would never finish a conversation. 

We live in a culture with a “hermeneutic of skepticism” — meaning we are suspicious of everything and everyone. To some degree this is healthy. We do need to be sure of what is true or false. But taken to extremes we create a world where everyone, by default, believes the worst about each other. Instead, we need a “hermeneutic of charity” (rooted in verses like Prov. 15:1 and Matt. 7:12) that patiently strives to believe the best about each other until we have evidence otherwise.

So put your “what about … ?” away and take time to listen to others. After they feel heard, then see if they are open to some questions — which will be far better questions once you’ve actually heard what the other person is saying.

May 04, 2018 / Perspective
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