Sociologist Tony Campolo has been known, when speaking to Christian audiences, to begin by saying something like this:
“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact I just said “shit” than you are that 30,000 kids died last night.”
When citing this, I have had people prove his very point by responding something to the effect of, “Yeah, I get it, but I still wish he would make his point some other way…” Ummm, that is his point. His point, in my opinion, isn’t really the children (although it is, obviously); his point is we (Christians) get upset over the wrong things. Our moral sense of outrage is often misdirected. The fact we notice the language, our being offended, before we really register the fact children are dying, tells us all we need to know here. Any focus on a crude term and not his greater point that children are dying of starvation or malnutrition and that we might be complicit proves his very point. If there was a tiny gasp from the crowd at that word or an awkward silence—such reactions were misdirected. These people were upset about the wrong thing.
There is something about the legalistic, simplistic, and shallow world of fundamentalism (and even many aspects of evangelicalism) that breeds some rather odd triggers for what it is we are supposed to get upset about. Here are just a few:
If you become upset when hearing gay marriage is legal or that a transgender person may use the same public restroom as you, but you are less upset regarding the hate, violence, and discrimination directed toward such people, leading often to suicide: You are upset about the wrong things.
If you become upset when people use the greeting “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” but you are less upset at the wasteful use of resources during this season, the rampant shallow consumerism, while many live in poverty: You are upset about the wrong things.
If you become upset when the government uses its power to make corporations protect their workers and protect the environment, but you are less upset when those workers are exploited, injured, or the environment critically harmed: You are upset about the wrong things.
If you become upset at the grocery store when you see someone pay for their food with vouchers or food stamps, but you are less upset with the institutional and cultural structures that often create the very need for such help: You are upset about the wrong things.
If you become upset when you see people smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, but you are less upset when you see people over-eating (gluttony), knowing the health effects of such, or wasting food, knowing people go to bed hungry every night: You are upset about the wrong things.
If you become upset when Hollywood puts out movies that contain coarse language or nudity, but you are less upset with the excessive, sadistic, and pornographic displays of violence, murders, gore, and bloodletting in war movies and action movies: You are upset about the wrong things.
If you become upset when the government tries to pass reasonable gun restriction laws, but you are less upset with the amount of firearm accident related deaths among children and the general level of gun violence in America: You are upset about the wrong things.
If you become upset when you feel the government is restricting your religious liberties, but you are less upset or even applaud the restriction of the religious liberties of others: You are upset about the wrong things.
If you become upset when someone commits adultery or at the sexual lapses of others, but you are less upset when people gather around to stone them, or gather around to throw insults, or gossip, or shun them, or shame them, or pass laws to single them out: You are upset about the wrong things.
If the response to the above is still, “I get it, BUT…” one has missed the point and made the point, all at the same time. Yes, you can be upset at those other aspects (rightly or wrongly). The point however is that those aspects pale in significance when placed alongside the deeper and much more important moral failing noted—the failing that should really upset us. It would be like someone telling Jesus, just before he overturned the money-changer’s tables and grabbed a whip, how upset they were at the price of doves that year. It isn’t a false dichotomy. It’s a problem of scale.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie “Life is Beautiful” where we see Guido (Roberto Benigni) so happy to think that his old friend, the Nazi doctor, will help him after the doctor recognizes him and makes his life easier inside the death camp. The doctor remembers how clever his friend was, and how he could solve difficult riddles. We begin to think the doctor realizes the moral wrongness of the death camp. Maybe he will try and save Guido and his family. But no, we finally realize, as does Guido, that the doctor simply wanted help solving a riddle. He doesn’t see Guido or the suffering. That doesn’t upset him. What upsets him is not finding the answer to something as insignificant as a riddle. He even says he can’t sleep at night because of it.
An extreme example? Maybe. Still, I think such is the sort of person we look like, and are perhaps in danger of becoming, when we get upset over the wrong things, when we focus on the incidental and miss the deeper moral issue. Christian: Don’t be that person.