The problem of whataboutery

The dictionary defines whataboutery thus:

noun: whataboutism
the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.
“the parliamentary hearing appeared to be an exercise in whataboutism”

Whataboutery is pretty prevalent in the church. It is the ‘aren’t there more important things to worry about’ school of thought. Of course, there are always other important things we might talk about but that doesn’t change the reality that the thing we are currently talking about might also be pretty important.

I have heard this line of reasoning several times. Most memorably, it was pulled when somebody was questioned over their ringing endorsement of, and subsequent pushing of resources by, a well-known Prosperity Gospel advocate. When questioned over the wisdom of this, the response was simply this: ‘aren’t there more important things to worry about?’ Than errant theology that will lead people to Hell? No. No there isn’t.

Leaving aside such obvious examples, the argument still fails. Even if we concede that, yes, somebody teaching a false gospel clearly is more significant than whether we go in for paedo- or credobaptism, it doesn’t mean the latter issue is altogether unimportant. Whataboutery would insist that we can only talk about the one issue that is the most pressing in the world (and even then, only if we agree on its relative significance).

Writing a follow-up article to a post about why he won’t watch Game of Thrones, Kevin DeYoung offered 10 common responses to why Christians were willing to continue watching the graphic sex scenes in the programme. Argument 10 was this:

10. Don’t we have more important things to worry about? Of all the bad social media arguments, Whataboutism is one of the worst. There are always a thousand other important issues we could be addressing. But then again, there are also a thousand other important things we could be doing rather than watching graphic sex scenes on television.

Why focus upon whether we should watch such graphic things as Christians when we could be focusing upon more pressing concerns? DeYoung counters this way:

The problem with these rebuttals is that most of them make an implicit assumption; namely, that immersing ourselves in sensual entertainment is somehow a gray [sic] area of Christian liberty. It isn’t.

Which leads to my one salient point: I’ve not come across a single, compelling argument for the legitimacy of Christians viewing graphic sex scenes.

There, in a nutshell, is the problem with whataboutery. It presumes the issue at hand is some sort of adiaphora that we can agree to differ over. It points to something else as a ‘real’ issue and infers the matter at hand is an unimportant point of nitpicking fussiness.

Now, it bears saying, that clearly there are grey areas of Christian liberty (not drinking alcohol or eating meat, obviously, because Paul makes that a very clear issue when he tackled it directly). But there are things the Bible doesn’t directly specify to which we must apply the principles laid out in scripture. Inevitably, when applying broad principles to specific issues, we will sometimes draw different conclusions on them. That is why, for instance, some folk end up in ‘Sunday best’ and others don’t see the need. Nowhere does the Bible say ‘wear a shirt and tie on the Lord’s day’ and nor does it say directly ‘wear what you like’. We apply the principles in scripture and infer specific conclusions from them. We can all acknowledge there are difference of view that seek to be scripturally based.

The answer to adiaphora, however, is not whataboutery. We ought not say, ‘there are more important issues to worry about than whether we wear shirt and tie on a Sunday’. The reason being, if God’s word commands it directly – or the application of scriptural principles demand it – we are openly flouting the word of God if we determine not to do it. The answer is to show scripturally why the issue does or does not apply in the way we are being challenged and to recognise its relative import in the Christian life (see here for example). Even if an issue is not one of first-order importance, we are cavalier to simply brush it off as of no importance. Whilst it may not be a mark of orthodoxy, it may not even be an issue that doesn’t deny the faith but on which it is hard to have denominational fellowship, but if God’s word says it, we cannot simply ignore it.

Ultimately, this means that the issue of whataboutery, at heart, is not one of whether there are more important matters to worry about. The real issue is whether we believe the Bible or not. Fundamentally it is whether we are prepared to submit to all the scriptures or if we are going to pick and choose the bits we will follow. Are we inclined to obey the whole counsel of God or will we continually ask ‘what about that other sin that I’m not doing’ or ‘aren’t there other more important sins to worry about’?

Listen to James on this issue:

10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery”, also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgement. (James 2:10-13)

Whataboutery says this sin doesn’t matter, there are bigger sins with which to concern ourselves. James says, this sin does matter because being liable for this one makes you guilty of all. Adam whatabouted over his sin but the simple act of eating some fruit he had been told to leave alone meant he was a transgressor of God’s law and was thus guilty. If Adam was so guilty for merely eating some fruit he was told not to eat, how much more guilty are we when we continually and repeatedly ignore God’s word and our own conscience in the pursuit of our own sin?

To whatabout over sin is to ignore the very word of God. The issue isn’t whether this is a big deal or that is a relatively minor complaint, it is whether God’s word says it is a problem or not. When faced with God’s word, whataboutery smacks of nothing more than trying to avoid it. The issue is whether we are willing to continue in sin or, even if we don’t consider it the most serious sin, we are willing to submit to the expressed will of God.

Asking, ‘aren’t there bigger issues than this?’, comes into sharp relief when we read:

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness… Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:4, 8) 

As James says, ‘whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it…If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.‘ Are there bigger sins than this one? Maybe. But the question ‘are there bigger issues than this?’ begs another: is there any bigger issue than that which will see you into a lost eternity under God’s righteous condemnation? You be the judge, dear reader.