Ginning-Up Outrage Is No Way to Live

Did you hear that Planned Parenthood makes a fortune selling body parts from late-term abortions?! They don’t.

Editor's update! We've published a reflection on the creation of and response to this article here.

Ed Stetzer, via Christianity Today, two weeks ago called out gullible Christians who spread false stories. I’m a churchgoer, so I was intrigued. What phony stories was he talking about? Well, evidently there was one about a pastor who was arrested for refusing to perform a same-sex marriage. And another one was about a gay man suing Bible publishers for $70 million because the Bible is offensive to gay people. So, on the one hand, three cheers for Stetzer and Christianity Today and their eagerness for honesty!

That said, Fred Clark, writing in Patheos, didn’t give them utter credit, making the point that, while Stetzer chided CT’s readership for “gullibility,” he didn’t chide them for malice, for wanting to pass on such stories in order to stir up outrage. Clark includes a killer quote from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity.

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head… we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

It only took a few days for Clark’s fears to be borne out. Another provocation to Christianity Today’s  conservative readers was reported via a gotcha video purporting--as you may have heard--to show a Planned Parenthood leader confessing that they profit from harvesting body parts from late-term abortions. No doubt there are disturbing things on this video. Planned Parenthood has apologized for the leader’s cavalier tone. But almost immediately red flags came in. It turned out the video had been made by James O’Keefe, who gained notoriety for debunked—but quite damaging—gotcha videos against the community-organizing and voter-registration organization ACORN (he paid $100,000 in damages when sued—and, in response to an earlier stunt, he’d been arrested and given three-years probation) and a hapless administrator at Cornell University whom O’Keefe falsely claimed was advocating for an ISIS student group on campus. This new video quickly was called a hoax here, here and here among many other sites. The New York Times’s editorial board excoriated it. The California attorney general’s office is exploring criminal charges against the videographer. It’s understandable for some people to be troubled by the actual work of Planned Parenthood, some of which is highlighted on this video. But Planned Parenthood appears not to be guilty of these particular charges made by this openly and repeatedly unethical filmmaker. Nonetheless, as in the earlier cases, Republicans in congress immediately picked up on O’Keefe’s alleged outrages, as did several Republican presidential candidates.

And so did Stetzer and Christianity Today, who forcefully demanded more outrage against Planned Parenthood from their progressive Christian alleged “brethren.

So score one for Clark. Evidently we churchgoers, as Lewis wrote, like to be outraged to the point that things like “bearing false witness against our neighbor” are trifles to be overcome for the greater good. My social media feed, filled with fellow pastors and churchgoers, has participated in the outrage over this video, as it often does over other things. And I can see this urge in myself. (My current outrage: the egregious way the New England Patriots are being treated by other teams that can't figure out how to beat them--hey, I don't want to hear from the haters out there! And then I say to myself: every party to this is making millions or hundreds of millions [Brady, Goodell] or billions [owners] from this dysfunctional league so, hey, they can probably work this out without me. And then I take a deep cleansing breath... Deep cleansing breath...) It’s as if we need to know where to focus our outrage to find our own meaning, to have a reason to get up in the morning.

Why, per Stetzer, are we churchgoers particularly susceptible to ginned-up outrage? I wonder if it’s because churches are often what one anthropologist called “bounded sets.” These are best represented by a circle in which you’re either inside or outside. The downside of bounded sets is that we spend a lot of time focusing on the boundary, on what separates us from those outside of our set, on our definitions, say, of sin. Bounded sets need bad people not in their sets to have a reason for existing.

But there’s another option, a “centered set” which, since it’s not about boundaries, has no “in” or “out,” only motion towards or away from whatever is the center of the set. (If this grabs you, there’s lots more on it here.)

For Christians, there’s an obvious center, Jesus. Under this theory, the more you or I turn our arrow towards Jesus, the better our lives will go, since Christians believe Jesus is in fact alive and interactive. The more we veer, the more we’ll be journeying into territory where there is only famine.

This has remarkable power in a world of ongoing encouragement to be outraged. Namely, it offers what a friend of mine calls a “non-anxious system.” A bounded-set world is intrinsically anxious. Being inside or outside of the boundary is the whole ballgame! So we have to think obsessively about sin, because that’s what stands between us and desolation. And even if we feel confident in our insider-ness, what about our children? Our friends?

Feeding outrage against the evil, outside world serves a noble purpose in our bounded sets, religious or otherwise—if there be lions out there, better to keep our walls high. But, though we get the comfort of feeling righteous, we pay the cost of unease, of perpetually being stirred-up. In a world of outrage, our systems stay in some level of constant high-alert.

But I’m banking on a world in which I’m squarely facing the center—in my case, facing this Jesus who we’re told sees us and embraces us and speaks to us and offers us what we need to make our way forward in our lives which, even without faux outrages, have plenty of challenges. I’m hoping to discover a kind of well-being and joy that religion promises but which outrage-driven bounded sets can only mock.

We’re heading into an election season. This “scandal” with Planned Parenthood is just the beginning of what will become a barrage of proddings towards being up in arms. It’s a form of control by our bounded-set puppet-masters, sadly some of whom are our religious leaders.

So let’s not “be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred!” Marinating in outrage is no way to live.

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