To whom much has been given

To whom much has been given July 26, 2011

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Karoli’s post — “Rick Warren, What Were You Thinking?” — is spot on and she deserves kudos for actually prompting a response from Warren, albeit a clumsily defensive one. The only thing I’d quibble with is the rhetorical question in that title.

It’s obvious what he was thinking. There isn’t more than one possibility about what someone might be thinking when he tweets:

HALF of America pays NO taxes. Zero. So they’re happy for tax rates to be raised on the other half that DOES pay any taxes.

That’s three sentences. A flagrant, slanderous lie. A tersely emphatic repetition of that flagrant, slanderous lie. And then an astonishing bit of projection as he disingenuously attributes malice to those who are the object of his malice.

What was he thinking? That’s easy. He was thinking the same thing as anyone is thinking when they let something so venomous slither through their lips. He was thinking, “I feel spite towards people who earn so little income that they do not owe federal income taxes and I shall now express that spite by saying something false and bullying and spiteful about them.”

A more interesting question is why was he thinking that? Where did this spite come from? And what does he imagine to be true of his followers — virtual and actual — that would lead him to assume that they would share this spite, that they would find it clever and amusing and, God help them, edifying?

Look, I’m not a member of a holiness tradition that holds that we Christians are asymptotically sanctified toward perfection. I know all too well what it is to have evil thoughts, bidden or unbidden, and how easy it can be to welcome them and entertain them. I understand the lure of all seven deadly sins and I don’t always resist that lure. I may give in to pride or to wrath. I may covet my neighbor’s ass. (Literally — I have no ass at all. My legs just kind of imperceptibly transform into a lower back at some indeterminate point. Sometimes I carry two wallets, just to pretend.)

But when I’m indulging in a shameful sin, I don’t decide to shamelessly brag about it on Twitter.

Maybe it’s unfair to single out Rick Warren, because the sinful spite he boasted of is proudly proclaimed in thousands of pulpits by thousands of clergy who also weirdly seem to think that such resentment will earn them praise, who also seem to mistake this viciousness for a virtue.

So why is that? There’s yet another interesting question. Why do so many of our supposed spiritual leaders think that expressions of contempt for the very people Jesus loved the most are acceptable? Why would they ever imagine that such contemptuousness toward the vulnerable would be seen as praiseworthy?

It’s impossible to imagine Rick Warren or any other evangelical pastor tweeting, “Just spent an hour surfing Internet porn sites — awesome!” Yet it barely raises an eyebrow when they repeatedly send forth expressions of resentment toward the poor — accusing those who lack possessions of lacking virtue, accusing them of envy or laziness or unworthiness.

The fact that the former would be condemned as a sin while the latter is hailed as an effective church-growth strategy is an indication that somewhere along the way we took a really wrong turn and seem to be hopelessly lost.

Karoli’s post notes that Warren’s nasty tweet contradicts many of the things he preaches about and many of the good deeds that are part of the ministry of his Saddleback megachurch. And it does — Warren commendably encourages his congregation to volunteer in projects that effectively and tangibly serve the very same poor people he was just slandering.

Part of Warren’s non-apology, non-correction, damage-control response to Karoli somewhat defensively makes this same point:

Mt.25 It’s the church’s job to care for the poor,sick,hungry &in prison.It’s why 30,000+ of our members serve thru P.E.A.C.E

The “Mt.25” there is a reference to Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46, which Karoli quoted in her response to Warren. I realize Twitter doesn’t allow much room for nuance, but I only wish that story were as gentle or allowed the kind of wiggle room that his summary suggests.

But the story is a bit harsher and more categorical than that.

Jesus’ story does not say, “You are my followers, and I want my followers to do this.” It says, rather, “Those who do this are my followers and those who do not are not.” The story allows for two and only two categories: Sheep and goats. The sheep are not “the church.” The sheep are those who tangibly love the least of these. If that’s not you, then you can go to Hell. Full stop. That is what the story says.

Wait — don’t get mad at me. I didn’t write that story. I’m the one who, you’ll recall, just finished saying that I wish this story weren’t as starkly categorical as it is. In fact, if you came to me with a soteriology based solely on that passage of the Bible I would probably condemn you as a Pelagian heretic.

I’d pretty much have to, since the standard that story establishes doesn’t leave much hope for me except for the hope of God’s grace. I’m an American. Maybe I’m not in the top half of America’s wealth distribution, and maybe I’m falling ever farther behind those at the very top, but I’m still one of the wealthiest humans who ever lived on this planet. Remember that story of Lazarus and the rich man? Well, I ain’t Lazarus.

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” That’s me.

And, yes, that’s Rick Warren, too. And I’m glad that his megachurch has thousands of volunteers helping the least of these. That is good and righteous and I commend him and them for it.

But I worry when I see him reminding us of that as a defense of the indefensible — as some kind of excuse for why this pastor is also seething with a politicized resentment toward all those people they’re out there helping, and for why he’s able to so casually assume that his followers must share that resentment, and that they will join him in feeding it with slanderous lies, nurturing it, letting it fester and grow to the boiling point so that on the Tuesday after the first Monday of every other November it can be unleashed at the ballot box, allowing the haves to reassert their righteous privilege over the have-nots and ensuring that all those volunteers will have even more needy people to minister to in the future.

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