DOES THE ‘E’ IN ‘E PLURIBUS UNUM’ STAND FOR ‘ENTITLEMENT’?

One of the things that constantly strikes me about the U.S. when I come back from overseas  doing preaching or teaching or writing, or mission work of some kind, is just how spoiled so many Americans are, perhaps even the majority of Americans.  Indeed, ‘spoiling yourself’ or ‘spoiling your own children’ is seen as a good thing here.  As Americans, we think we are entitled to live the lifestyles of the rich and famous, even if it gets us into enormous debt.  We are entitled to a luxury home, a luxury car, and luxury life—- just super-size me!   The amount of egotism, narcissism, self-centeredness just oozing out of the pores of this approach to life ought to be obvious, but sadly even devout Jews and Christians get caught up in this nonsense, and in the Evangelical world you actually have preachers that make you feel  o.k. about being so selfish and self-centered, making it safe to be posh and live a luxurious lifestyle.  What would Jesus say?    I can tell you for sure, he would be upset.

And the sense of entitlement is so strong that it is hard to overcome.   ‘I am entitled to make this much money’     ‘I am entitled to retire early’,    ‘I am entitled to do what I want with my money’   ‘I am entitled to complain bitterly about paying what I see as an unfair amount of taxes’   ‘I am entitled to be supported in the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed’  ‘I am entitled to welfare,  social security, refunds,  disability pay,  no longer having to work if I have been injured on the job,  to compensation if someone else accidentally hits my car’.    We have a whole category of ‘entitlement’ lawyers these days—- they’re called personal injury lawyers.    All the time you see them on TV urging you to get in touch with them so you can sue the daylights out of this or that company because you now have mesothelioma or some other dread condition.

Nowhere, and never are there ads on TV about ‘you are entitled, indeed you must, take responsibility for your own actions, especially if they are immoral, stupid, arrogant, rude, excessive, bigoted, or otherwise get you into hot water’.     We also have a whole battery of counselors who’s main job is deprogramming people from addictions because they think they are entitled to have as much sex as they want with whomever they want, or as many drugs as they want whenever they want,  or as much bling as they want, and so on.  Our’s is a very sick and binging society, and the E word does not stand for  E Trade and that smartass baby, it stands for ‘Entitlement’.   It has become one of the seven deadly sins.

If you think I am wrong, think back to the fleeting mea culpa of Tiger Woods last year. When asked what caused him to so egregiously and frequently commit adultery over and over again when he had a beautiful wife and child, he answered  honestly and correctly—‘a sense of entitlement’.   He thought he was entitled to such things because of his measure of monetary and golfing success.  It’s the ugly side of the American myth that everyone should be entitled to everything whenever we want it.

So what actually does the Bible suggest we are ‘entitled’ to?   ‘Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness’, or at least the happiness of pursuit?   A good job, a good family, a good life?    Here is where I tell you that we are entitled to nothing. Why not?   Because even the lowest common denominator— life itself is a gift from God.  We are not entitled to be alive at all.  It’s a gift which we did not create for ourselves.  We are not our own makers, but we are indeed our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

Instead of the ‘E’ word we ought to talk about the ‘O’ word— ‘ought’.   The ‘O’ word speaks of moral obligation.   We ought to respect one another.  We ought to treat every person as someone God loves and we should love, we ought to see each person as a person of sacred worth, we ought to try and overcome injustice, prejudice, oppression, hatred, and a lot of other things that are bad to the bone.  I am not entitled to live large on the basis of someone else’s hard work.   I am not entitled to rip waitresses off who mostly live on tips.    Why not?  Because even all the resources I have can be gone in 60 seconds, and if I had not been given the opportunity to make that money by God and others, I wouldn’t have it.  There are no millionaires in a Darfur refugee camp, not because they don’t work hard, but because they have no opportunity to thrive in that way.   ‘Opportunity’ is a blessing and grace.  It is not an ‘entitlement’.

When you look at life from a theocentric point of view, it looks very different than if you look at it from an egocentric American point of view. Of course Americans don’t have a corner on the market on  sinful narcissism.  It’s a trait of fallen human beings in general.  We’re just the worst offenders in many ways.   We make up less than 10% of the world’s population but we are still swallowing and gulping down over 60% of the world’s resources.  We are rightly called ‘consumers’.  That’s what we are good at,  much better than we are producers of good things, in many ways.   And indeed, we are the most wasteful society ever in human history.  We waste more food every day, which if sold at market value would amount to the entire GNP for a year in many countries in Africa.  We just throw it away.   And it could feed most of the world’s starving children on any given day, if it could only reach them.

And worst of all, we have no guilt or shame about any of this.   None.  We lose no sleep about the things we waste or throw away.  I had to laugh and then cry about the recent golf tourney in Arizona—it was called the Waste Management Open.   And nobody said ‘that name really stinks’!!   They just accepted it.   When a country loses its sense of shame at its pathetically bad and self-indulgent behavior, it also loses its sense of honor.  And we are there in so many ways.  All that has been replaced by our supposed moral outrage over what we are being deprived of, and are ‘entitled’ to.  Rubbish!  As the Brits would say.  Most of this moral outrage is not merely misplaced, it’s not even moral.  Will we have learned anything important from the recent downturn as we crawl out of the wreckage of 2008′s economic disaster?  Will we change our ways?

Lent is the season in which we should reflect from a God-centered viewpoint, on our lives.  And one of the things we should do during Lent, is ask ourselves the hard question— ‘Why do I feel I am entitled to this, that or the other’  and ‘What is wrong with this picture’?     BTW,  that ‘E’ in ‘e pluribus unum’— it stands for ‘out of’ as in ‘out of the many— one’   That motto doesn’t mean ‘I’m the One’ it speaks of what should unify our nation, and it isn’t a sense of entitlement.    It’s a sense of self-sacrifice and putting others before ourselves. Think on these things.

  • Jaymes

    Love this! Going to send everyone here and read this… I hate to minimize this in any way with my diction, but ranting is awesome especially about things people need to hear.

    Peace!

  • http://www.oscarsflickpicks.com Oscar

    Are we (Americans) any more depraved than the rest of the world? Would other peoples react to the wealth that this country has been given if the situation be reversed? Are people in other countries more virtuous than we?

    The answer, of course, is no. All men are sinners and fall short of the glory of God. Our wastefulness, our self importance, our selfishness is just a result of our fallen human nature. Any other country would, more than likely, respond in a similar manner if given the opportunities that wealth affords, if not THAT then something just as depraved. They all have their own failings.

    If we read this piece and decide within ourselves, as individuals, to be more circumspect in how we conduct our lives then it has accomplished a good thing. Otherwise it is just a generalized complaint about human nature given our circumstances.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Actually Oscar, you’re partly wrong about this. Americans really are the worst offenders, and frankly there are plenty of places in the world that are less egotistic and self-centered than America. For example, I am thinking of the Indebile folks in Bulawayo I have been with or the Methodists in South Africa that help lead the charge against apartheid and I could go on. They in some cases have had plenty of opportunities to be selfish and self-centered and have simply refused as part of their Christian commitment.

    BW3

  • http://www.chadelliott.wordpress.com Chad

    I got my first true understanding of this several years back when an Israeli friend of mine was visiting and I took him and his wife to the grocery store. His wife had a near panic meltdown when she wandered into the aisle to buy shampoo.

    Her meltdown came because – for her – there were simply far too many choices of shampoo. She explained later that what was typical for her was “our local Israeli brand, and Pert. Do you realize this is a big part of the American attitude? Too many choices, and the feeling that you deserve all those choices in every area of life.”

  • Dave

    I don’t know Dr. Witherington, it seems your point about South Africa actually reinforces what Oscar wrote. The fact of apartheid in that country was an example of a different culture’s depravity on a level with ours. (Or worse, really. Racism is worse than any level of entitlement/consumerism I can think of.)

    The example of the Methodists in South Africa is likely similar to other genuine Christian responses to cultural depravity in any country and doesn’t really argue against what he was saying, IMO.

  • George in AZ

    A most appreciated post, Ben. I agree (and confess): consumerism is a terrible distraction from God.

    Not sure that multiple choices is evil, tho. Why is having the two choices that the Israeli was accustomed to having morally superior — isn’t it just a matter of what she was accustomed to? Would it be even better if there were one product and no choice? Why?

    And Ben, please explain what was wrong with having the Open sponsored by the company named Waste Management? It manages — picks up and disposes of — waste. Was the former name of Allied Waste better? Why?

  • http://www.chadelliott.wordpress.com Chad

    George, I don’t think that my Israeli friend felt morally superior in any way. The point she was making was about an American sense of entitlement due to what we are accustomed to having, and our expectation that those same things would/should be available in a completely different culture.

  • http://www.oscarsflickpicks.com Oscar

    Ben, I got the impression that you were speaking about Americans in general. If that WERE the case then I think my observation would be correct. But since you are using the Christian people of Bulawayo as an example then I guess your initial complaint was against Christians in THIS country…a very pointed, and more than likely correct, observation.

    Culture has an awful lot to do with a nations innate weaknesses and since the U.S. has been showered with wealth and a constitution that promotes individual “rights” then it stands to reason that this is the area in which we would fall into abuse.

    I’m not much into castigating ANY peoples in particular because we ALL have fallen short and, without Christ, we are all doomed for hell.

  • kevin d

    It is reassuring to know that many Christians throughout the world pray specifically for American Christians because of what Dr. Witherington observes. They know how hard it is to get those camels through the eye of a needle — some might say impossible!

    Reading through Judges this month reminded me that the one of our great adversaries is Comfort. When enslaved, they cried out to God; when freed, they rejoiced. But when a generation of peace had passed, it was idolatry time once again. It seems this is how we humans operate: we need suffering to wake us up from our spiritual, self-induced stupor.

    I’m not worried that the American empire might be falling and immorality spreading. I’m encouraged to know that as the economy fails and discomfort increases, we may see more souls come to know Jesus Christ.

  • mason

    we are a culture that is consumed more by a pursuit of happiness rather than a pursuit of blessedness…i believe there is a difference between these two ideals….blessed is the………

  • Jay Roberson

    I often misunderstood the word “entitlement” as some kind of government program, which it can be. Even then most people consider “Entitlements” as something only offered to the poor in education, medicine, and social programs, read handouts.

    However living in the south, where agriculture remains strong, I’ve discovered many of my farmer friends live on a dole much larger than the $800 or so a person gets with a disability, or the few hundred a family gets on food stamps. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture hands out millions, 7 digits left of the decimel, to indivdual and corperate farmers each year. Some for planting, some not to plant, some to keep your trees, and some to cut them.

    But that’s a political problem! The spiritual problem you’ve described, Ben, affects each one of us, when we beleive we deserve anything on merit.
    We don’t.
    Peace, jay

  • Brad Johnson

    Ben, your comments–as usual–are provocative. In this case, they’re convicting. I realize how self-absorbed and insensitive to the needs of others I can be, especially when operating under the tyranny of deadlines, pursuit of my own selfish aims, etc.

    Seems to me that a hallmark Christian virtue that is largely overlooked these days is forthrightness in ecclesiastic community. Having said that, I invite you to speak directly and squarely into my life (preferably, in private and in love!) as to where you might see my own narcissism at play. I’m sure I’m blind to it, but I give you permission to speak with candor.

    Grateful to and for you,
    Brad

  • Mark Kennedy

    Excellent sermon, Ben. As with most such that I’ve experienced, am still unsure how I feel about parts of it, especially whether we ‘ought’ to seek ‘entitlements’ for the needy in our own cities and neighborhoods. See, I’ve been working with other people’s (poor) children for a coupla decades. The sticky part is that their situations and mine are messily intertwined–so my efforts to improve their lives will have a synergistic effect on my own. And in my idiosyncratic case, vice versa as well.

    At any rate, an excellent piece which I must indeed think on.

    Mark

  • Jerry

    How does this relate to the Wisconsin protesters? Are they too much wrapped up in entitlement?

  • Matthew

    I wonder if we can actually break out of our way of seeing the world and ourselves.
    The message is great, but the practical application? I dunno. I don’t mean this to be some sort of escape hatch/back door, but it seems that noticing and articulating the problem is the easy part and attempting to transform not only ourselves, but an entire society’s way of understanding the world and their place in it is almost beyond comprehension.
    Again, this isn’t a cop-out, I am merely musing, but I don’t buy into the idea that this is one of those “change yourself and then the world will change” moments (ah, does it ever happen that way?). It would seem that all the past movements that attempted to transform a nation’s ideology occurred on a massive scale and not alone in one’s prayer closet (I’m thinking, in our own nation, of the Civil Rights movement, Abolition, Prohibition, you name it they all occurred via public groundswell).
    Yes, the groundswell certainly began with individuals and then groups, but they all saw a common purpose. What might our common purpose be? I agree that the issue seems closely related to human nature (but then isn’t everything that relates to humans invariably connected to human nature?). Truth is, I don’t see a common purpose because what is one man’s idea of entitlement is another man’s idea of license. Jerry’s comment about the Wisconsin protesters (while certainly seeming to be of a provocative nature) underscores the distance between us.
    Sorry, but I don’t see a remedy, nor do I see a way out. I think that we can try to be more aware of our sense of self, maybe practice the spiritual discipline of humility and submission, but even this is problematic–should this be put into effect at your local church how long would it be before someone was taking advantage of someone else?
    Is it hopeless? From a human standpoint I would say yes, it is–people cannot expect to escape their cultural mindset unless they can hope to get some kind of distance from it–preferably physical distance. Our “pursuit of happiness” has turned into our pursuit of ourselves and the problem with pursuing happiness (in any form) is that as long as it remains your focal point, it will always recede from you.
    Well, thank God that he is an interventionist God.

  • Pat Pope

    Love this post, but I too have to partly agree with Oscar about the fallenness of humanity. Although we Americans do carry the sense of entitlement like a badge of honor, look at those from other countries that strive to be part of the American dream? Some come here with dreams of a big home, big car, big etc. Some countries export some of our excesses as though having a McDonald’s or designer jeans or whatever else they desire is really what the American dream is all about. What ends up being exported or bought into is the idea that the “land of plenty” means ‘plenty for me’. If it weren’t an attractive idea, others would not so readily buy into it. Of course there are many more people who are really seeking the freedom and relative security that we enjoy in this country, but I can’t get away from those who are drawn to the excesses which in my mind speaks to the depravity of the human condition, whether American or foreign.

  • Judy

    Very good article! It hits home with all the nonsense going on in Wisconsin with teachers there. Teachers who called in sick from school, took students with them to the protests, students that did not really know what was going on. And then they took fake excuses from supposed doctors, so they would not get in trouble at school. Do they think people do not watch TV, and will not see those doctors talking to the press and telling what they are doing? What a poor example for their kids.

  • Mike Taylor

    Your comments are not just generally true but true of me.
    I want (but am far from it) to be like Paul – content whether in want or plenty. The Lord has given me more than enough but I have to battle the idea that they belong to me or that tomorrow’s loss should occupy my mind today.

  • Ben Witherington

    This is a fair question. What I know about hard working public school teachers is that they are grossly underpaid to begin with. On average they make less than city garbage men per hour in the U.S. So taking away their health benefits I would say is grossly immoral under those circumstances.

  • Mary

    I am a little disturbed that a cuss word was used in this post.

  • Matt

    Great post! Right on Dr.!

    And Mary, why are more upset about a cuss word more than the attitude of our selfish, self-centered society? I don’t know how to say this nicely, but please, grow-up!

  • Mary

    Matt,
    I am most certainly not more upset about a cuss word than the attitude in our society. The only difference is that I am well aware, and have been disturbed for some time, about the attitudes of our society. I am no longer “shocked” by this. However, to hear such a renowned Christian openly using cuss words does disturb, and yes, shock me.

  • Matt

    Mary, I believe that great leaders, and great communicators use cussing to accentuate a point (sparingly) when it is something that is of serious concern, and something people really need to hear! Paul cussed in Philippians 3:8, saying “More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ.” The word dung translated from the Greek, skybalon (meaning rubbish, or rotten and decaying things), was considered vulgar. But his point was heard…

    I know this is an aside for you Dr. Witherington, but your opinion on this would be very interesting. Ultimately, love the article, I have shared with it with all my friends, as we all to some degree suffer with entitlement.

  • Mary

    Matt, I hardly think calling a baby a cussword is a necessity. Also, a vulgar word and a cuss word are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes we put spiritual leaders on a pedestal and think they can do no wrong. I think this is what you are doing here. I am in no way condemning Dr. Witherington, as we are all sinful. I just find it a little distriburbing that a renowned spirtual leader would purposefully use a cuss word (typing out a cussword and posting it is not the same thing as accidentally letting a cuss word slip…you have ample time to decide that you should use a different word choice). With this being said, Matt your are entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. I do not think it is a good example and I certainly do not think the best way to get the point of Jesus Christ across is to use profanity. That is a pure example of giving in to the world and what is acceptable culturally, instead of what is acceptable biblically and in our faith. Isnt this the exact topic of this post? I think the word choice was not only distasteful, but sinful.
    “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” James 3:9-12

  • Dave

    Matt, while I could buy your argument that vulgar language could be used in extreme cases to make a point. It is very distastefully used in this article. What point exactly is he making by cussing in THIS situation that wouldn’t have been made just as well by not cussing??

  • Matt

    I think it brings attention to how upset the Dr. is! As Tony Campolo once said, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” That quote basically defines this whole argument to a “T”!

  • Matt

    And that James passage has nothing to do with cussing. It has more to do with cursing someone, like speaking bad about someone.

  • Mary

    Matt,

    You are incorrect. Im not going to argue with you anymore, but that quote you just said is ridiculous.

  • Bert

    The worst part is that we consider ourselves to be the most Christian country in the world! I really have a hard time to reconcile this with the plutocracy that America has become. How come we don’t see a problem in serving God and Mammon at the same time? No doubt we are the worst offenders among the Western democracies (it makes sense to compare apples and apples, so let’s leave out Asian countries like Japan or South Korea) and any smug dismissal about how ‘all have sinned and fallen short’ would not do. Has anybody visited any Scandinavian countries? How come they consequently occupy the first places on any human development index, or good governance index, or on about any other indexes supposed to measure healthy societies? How come ‘bigger is better’ doesn’t tempt them? How many Scandinavian billionaires do you know? And they are among the most happy peoples on Earth (according to published statistics). Dare we say they have put Jesus’ principles (Sermon on the Mount) in practice? Can’t we consider ourselves humble enough as to try to learn something from them? Or would it be too much to ask? Just a thought.

  • http://TransformingSermons Paul

    I will side with Mary, as I was going to comment anyway before I started to read these comments. The adjective used for the baby was ill placed. We all should use our best thoughts/abilities when using our tongue/typing.

    I would also point out, we can be gone in an instant, not merely 60 seconds.

    Yes, I am being picky. I just want no one to be confused or disheartened about the Lord and His commandments for our obedience and the fact that we are His light in the world.

  • laurie

    What was the cuss word that everyone (well someone) is complaining about. I’ve read the article a number of times and can’t find anything offensive?

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