What Joel Osteen Can Teach Us About Racism


What Joel Osteen Can Teach Us About Racism

For the last few days, news reports have been filled with two things:

  1. devastating images of the flooding in Texas; and
  2. Joel Osteen's luxurious hair.

Under normal circumstances, a megachurch pastor isn't able to eclipse the media's focus on a catastrophic natural disaster. However, instead of following our usual path (i.e. blaming government leaders for the forces of nature, as happened during the flooding in New Orleans and Nashville), the public seems to have decided that Mr. Osteen is the true villain of Houston's massive flooding. Indeed, these are not normal circumstances. 

Pastor Joel (or "PJ," as I like to call him — to further my delusion that we're buddies) has been verbally and digitally flogged by millions for what may have been a failure to fully anticipate and act upon a charitable opportunity. That's not to say that he wasn't charitable. I don't think anyone is making that argument. But PJ has been widely accused of simply not doing enough — of not providing a response proportionate to his means and platform. 

As much as I hate seeing our national conversation revolve around what PJ may or may not have wanted to do to aid Houston, I have a confession: I prefer these headlines over the ones that came out of Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago. By comparison, the completely subjective and pointless debate over PJ's charitable morality seems much lighter than the violence and hate fomented by Neo Nazis and Communists. (For people who like totalitarianism and anger so much, it's odd but fortunate that Fascists and Communists don't get along.) If our worst imaginary villain at the moment is a middle-aged motivational speaker with a Jheri curl mullet and a winning smile, I think our nation is doing pretty well. 

I'm not worried about PJ. He isn't hurting anyone and probably will recover well from this public relations exercise. Like any good, grandstanding patriot, I'm worried about America.

I'm concerned about what lies beneath all of this hysteria. Aside from being international headline fodder, the racial and political furry in Charlottesville and the nationwide interest in what happens behind PJ's allegedly closed (but arguably open) doors are symptoms of the same problem: We always demand a villain.

Nothing brings people together like a common enemy. But one of the problems with natural disasters is that they don't give us a human to blame. Since we can't blame anyone for causing the tragedy, we instead try to blame those who may have been able to alleviate the suffering but failed to do so. President George W. Bush was vilified during the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers was blamed after Nashville flooded. And now, until we find someone more complicit, we're choosing to blame PJ. Not because any of those people actually caused the flooding in those cities — but just because we think that they should have done more. And in these situations, that's as close as we're going to get to finding a villain to blame and rally against. Close enough. 

In Charlottesville, a bunch of white supremacist morons held a super stupid tiki-torch parade and an idiot committed a terroristic hate crime by driving a car into a crowd of people. This was yet another example of the tragic results of racism. It's the same type of thing that has happened in nearly all cultures throughout history; racism isn't new and unfortunately doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, racism seems to be part of the fallen human condition — at least on a societal level.

By now, you're probably thinking, "But what does racism have to do with Joel Osteen?"

A lot, actually. 

Our collective demand for villains for life's more difficult situations is at the root of both racism and the public outcry against the Houston pastor. Racists come in many stripes, but they all carry the same belief that many of the hardships they encounter or injustices they perceive are the products of diabolical, villainous races.

Longtime bigot David Duke routinely blames the Jews for the wars in the Middle East and whatever troubles materialize in our economy. White Nationalist leader Richard Spencer blames immigrants, especially "non-Western populations" (i.e. everyone who isn't white), for a wide range of social ills, including crime and poverty. Black Separatist minister Louis Farrakhan follows suit, blaming Jews and Caucasians for a laundry list of difficulties facing African Americans.

Racists such as these rely on the vilification of entire people groups to satisfy their desires for people to blame. It's a way for them to adopt victimhood, maintain a sense of supremacy, and excuse the shortcomings within their own circles. This is the same reason why millions of people have fixated on Joel Osteen. It's easier to vilify him than it is to admit a few truths:

  1. Our ecosystem and weather are indifferent to our morality, and stuff happens regardless of how important we think we are. (Matthew 5:45: "... He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.")
  2. We failed ourselves through our democratically elected government that failed to properly anticipate the magnitude of this disaster.
  3. We failed ourselves by relying on the government to safeguard us from weather.
  4. On a national average, each of us has invited zero hurricane refugees into our own homes, churches, and places of business.
  5. We'd rather gossip about Joel Osteen's charitable (in)action than take any action of our own.

The truth is simply that Joel Osteen is not the problem. He has done absolutely nothing to exacerbate the problem. The problem is 50+ inches of rain. That's all. This problem wasn't caused by a villain. No one deserves the blame except for all of us.

Likewise, the issues bemoaned by the racist pundits are not the product of monolithically villainous races. Jews, blacks, whites, etc. are not the problems. On a racial level, they've not universally exacerbated the problems. (Sure, on a personal level, certain people have done terrible things — but that blame should fall on the individuals, not their entire race.) No one deserves the blame except for all of us.

I find it terribly fascinating that many of the people who decried the racists in Charlottesville are now jumping on the media lynch mob for Joel Osteen. If racism is wrong for misappropriating villainy, shouldn't we hold the same standard regarding the misappropriation of PJ as a villain? Conversely, if we maintain the position that villainy can be assigned at will by the general public, regardless of actual guilt, how can one hold a logically consistent position against the Charlottesville racists? We shouldn't try to have it both ways.

We should resist the urge to assign villains for all of life's hardships. We don't have to find a villain for every problem. In many cases, such bogus witch hunts only serve to distract us from the actual solutions to the issues we face. Most of us will never face a villain more destructive than our own selves. Instead of trying to find whom to fault, let's focus on our own (in)action.

— John