We are so used to fake news we usually simply sigh and move on. But every once in a while, the “news” is so egregious and the manipulation of the truth so blatant, that it’s worth sharpening our critical thinking to see exactly how logic and reason are being flayed and boiled in oil.
Atlantic Monthly writers offer in-depth reporting that I often appreciate. But they jumped the shark when they published a piece by former evangelical Jonathan Merritt: Some of the Most Visible Christians in America Are Failing the Coronavirus Test: In place of love, they’re offering stark self-righteous judgment (April 23, 2020).
Here is a simple summary of Merritt’s case:
The Christian response to Covid is cruel. Instead of choosing to respond with love some Christians are “choosing to emphasize judgmental messages.”
They are “shrugging their shoulders at mass death and heaping pain on the grieving”
Merritt offers 5 examples: author John Piper, First Things editor R.R. Reno, a megachurch billboard, White House Bible study leader Ralph Drollinger, and pastor Robert Jeffress.
The result in today’s culture: This judgment and hypocrisy makes nonreligious people despise Christians. It’s costing the religion dearly—people are walking away.
[But what should we expect?] These are the same people who support Trump because he is a “shit talker and a fighter.”
Christians should be known by their love. Some need to go back to Sunday School and discover their roots.
There endeth the lesson.
- Bait and switch
I seriously doubted that John Piper was “ shrugging his shoulders at mass death and heaping pain on the grieving ” in this time of pain and loss. Yet he was Merritt’s first supporting illustration:
Consider the popular pastor John Piper, who was asked what he would say to pastors who claim that the pandemic is God’s judgment on sinful cities and arrogant nations. “God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him and give themselves over to sin,” Piper responded.
Merritt makes the generalization that Christians are cruel because they are choosing to respond to the pandemic with judgment. But Piper is not asked a question about pain or grieving or suffering. He is asked a question about judgment. Do you see the switch?
Piper’s questioner asked about judgment, but not as Merritt reported it. Merritt claims that Piper was asked how he responds to some pastors claiming that the pandemic is God’s judgment on sinful cities and nations. Only partly…
A man in Singapore actually asked, “Dear Pastor John, when [Covid] reached Singapore…church responses are mixed. Several continued with Sunday services, with added precautions. Some suspended church services altogether. Some pastors are promising: ‘If you are a believer, God will not allow the virus to touch you!’ Other pastors are saying: ‘This is God’s judgment on sinful cities and arrogant nations.’ Pastor John, how do Christians, with open Bibles, make sense of a viral epidemic like this one?”
This man wants to know, from an open Bible, what is God up to? Showing his protection? Showing his judgment? He is seeking to understand the meaning of this plague. And he is in good company.
- The false dichotomy
Merritt also linked to an article by author Jim Dennison in Christianity Today, In the article Dennison begins with a billboard that posted the same question: “Is the corona virus a judgment from God?” Dennison said it was the “most common question” he’d been asked since the pandemic began. The billboard invited people to a local megachurch to find answers.
God has “set eternity in our hearts.” We are meaning-seeking creatures who want to understand the eternal significance of tragedies. According to Merritt’s analysis it is “bad” for a church to acknowledge or try to answer a question that might link the meaning of Covid with judgment. Not just the answers must be off the table, but evidently the questions as well, even when Merritt writes that 44% of poll respondents are asking that question. He condemns the 44% who believe that the pandemic is a “wake-up call” and “signs of coming judgment.”
Is it not more compassionate to open the Bible and help people find answers when they ask for answers from the Bible? Matthew 9:35,36 says that Jesus saw the people of his region as sheep without a shepherd and was filled with compassion for them. So he taught them. And healed them.
Merritt sets up a false dichotomy by claiming that the only way to show love to people who are suffering is to offer charitable acts—“run soup kitchens and homeless shelters, hand out water bottles at summer community events, and…donate to charity…their goodwill stands in stark contrast to the coldhearted pronouncements of some of their pastors”
Isn’t it just as loving to teach them? To answer their questions as carefully and honestly as we can?
How does Piper respond?
- Cherry picking your facts
“Well,” Piper wrote, “I’m going to try to answer the question that was asked — “How do you make sense of this? How do you get understanding?” — with an open Bible in front of me. But before I do, let me just say I have misgivings, because I make a distinction between helping people get ready to suffer by making sense of biblical teaching about suffering — that’s one thing. And then another thing is physically, emotionally embodying that theology in the moment when somebody is suffering. And we’ve got thousands of people now who are dying, which means hundreds of thousands of people who are grieving. And what I’m about to say might not be well-timed in some of their lives, because if I were on the ground, in a church, I would be discerning whether there’s a time to speak here or not.”
Piper’s first concern about answering the Singapore man’s question is that he has misgivings. Because, in the face of Covid, he is most concerned about love—preparing people to suffer, embodying a theology of love when thousands of people are suffering and dying. And if he were speaking to a church he would be very discerning about whether to even talk about judgment in the face of suffering. (A good word for all of us.)
Does this sound unloving?
Merritt had to read through this entire first paragraph of Piper’s response and much more to find his pull-quote: “God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him.” (Think Moses, Pharoah, Passover and the pestilence-driven death of the first-born–a well-known fact of Biblical history).
If an Atlantic editor felt any responsibility to verify if Merritt’s pull-quote was taken out of context, he or she had to read it too. If so, they both ignored the fact that the opening paragraph of Piper’s article shows that Merritt is intentionally writing fake news.
Does he have an agenda to prove that Christians are cruel? Is he searching for articles by Christian leaders on “corona+virus+judgment” and, if he finds one sentence he can use, does he ignore any others that would clarify that the author’s intended meaning is not what Merritt wrote?
Further, Merritt had to read through Piper’s paragraphs that clearly state…
Jesus is stronger than the virus. He has the power to restrain it or not.
Christians do not escape the fallenness and futility of this world. The day is coming when our world will be redeemed.
God sometimes inflicts sickness on his people as a purifying and rescuing judgment, which is not a condemnation, but an act of mercy for his saving purposes.
Then finally Piper acknowledges that, as Merritt quoted, sometimes God uses disease as a particular judgment. He gives several examples from the Bible.
Merritt ignores all the tenderness, hope and encouragement woven into this article and condemns John Piper, who answered this man’s question with great [justified] misgivings that it will be mis-construed as unloving. Where is Merritt’s journalistic integrity?
- Merritt’s editorial chop shop
In his second example Merritt rips up First Things editor Reno’s words and infers that Reno thinks, “’it’s not worth a ‘mass shutdown of society’ just to fight the virus.” But that is Merritt’s distortion, not Reno’s meaning. Reno actually wrote that he condemns the idea of a “mass shutdown” just to save one life. Big difference.
This “one life” refers to Reno’s main thesis at the beginning of his article where he critiques Andrew Cuomo for saying, “I want to be able to say to the people of New York—I did everything we could do. And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” Merritt has taken Reno’s words into his own chop shop, sliced off a phrase he can use (“mass shutdown”), omitted Reno’s just to save “one life,” and substituted “just to fight the virus,” which Reno did not intend, but which fits Merritt’s agenda of condemnation.
As with Piper, from his very first paragraph, Reno shows that he too is not focused on judgment, but rather on protective love: “There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost,” Reno wrote. “Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents. Clergy won’t visit the sick or console those who mourn.”
Visiting the sick and grieving has been the loving tradition of Christians for millennia and Reno is apoplectic that this great ministry of love has been forbidden to families and priests in this time of suffering and death. Regardless of whether you agree or not, does this sound like a Christian leader motivated by “dismissing death and heaping pain on the grieving”? He appeals to us to be willing to sacrifice our own lives so that others will not die alone. And for government to allow it.
Yet Merritt twists Reno’s words in his brief quote to portray them as a “cold-hearted pronouncement” of cruelty and judgment.
*Finally, pastor Robert Jeffress incurs Merritt’s wrath by writing, “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced back to sin.” This illustration might seem to justify Merritt’s condemnation of Christians, but Jeffress clarifies that he means Adam and Eve’s original sin. Merritt leaves that out.
Further, Jeffress insists that, “what I CANNOT say is that the coronavirus is God’s judgment against America for the sin of abortion . . . or any other sin. That is presumption.” But this does not fit Merritt’s narrative about cruel, judgmental Christians, so not surprisingly, this quote winds up on the chop shop floor as well.
Pulling back the curtain on fake news
Why have I taken the time to show how one reporter has vilified Christian leaders with outrageously twisted manipulations of their own words and the truth? Because I hope you will question these kinds of attacks as well. It’s not hard. Just click through the attribution links and ask, Did a Christian leader really say or mean that? Most often you’ll find they did not. But the authors are betting you won’t take the time. So are their editors.
What I find most breathtaking about Merritt’s piece is his own “stark self-righteous judgment” of these Christian leaders. On Facebook, Princeton constitutional professor Robby George writes, “this is a textbook example of someone becoming the very thing he is accusing others of being–committing the very sins he is accusing them of committing–in the course of his making the accusations. I’m nearly flabbergasted that there is no internal governor calling this rather glaring fact to his attention as he writes–if not on ethical grounds, then at least on grounds of self-interest: Who wants to look like a flaming hypocrite?”
And who wants to completely ignore the greatest Christian example of how to respond to a Pandemic?
- Suppressing the truth
From Merritt’s first example of cruel Christians, John Piper also writes, “Pilate had slaughtered worshipers in the temple. And the tower in Siloam had collapsed and killed eighteen bystanders. [Luke 13:1-3] And the crowds want to know from Jesus, just like I’ve been asked, “Okay, make sense of this, Jesus. Tell us what you think about these natural disasters and this cruelty. These people were just standing there, and now they’re dead.”
Jesus responds, “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent [he shifts from them to you], you will all likewise perish.”
Piper concludes, “Now, that’s the message of Jesus to the world at this moment in history, under the coronavirus — a message to every single human being. Me, and you…and every ruler on the planet, every person who hears about this, is receiving a thunderclap message of God, saying, ‘Repent.’”
Jonathan Merritt missed the greatest illustrative example of someone speaking about judgment in the face of tragedy: Jesus Christ. If anyone spoke about judgment rather than love in the face of tragedy it was Jesus.
Merritt has again set up a false dichotomy. In the face of suffering and loss, Jesus did not go to the site of the tower rubble and heal the wounded or resurrect the dead. He gave an invitation that sounds very judgmental to Merritt, but was meant to be life giving to his listeners: “Repent.” It was the most loving thing he could do.