Wednesday, January 03, 2007

So, Is Robertson God's Accomplice?

I just saw a link to this at

God has spoken, and His faithful servant was listening. So, you'd better stock up on supplies and find a nice, comfortable bunker, because a whole bunch of people are about to die horrible, terrifying, painful deaths. Real soon.

So says televangelist and would be prophet, Pat Robertson.

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. Instead, I'll try to do neither, and offer some sort of semi level-headed commentary, if I can muster up anything other than "Seriously, this dude is whacked!"

It's been a long time since I've written anything about Robertson's disquieting propensity to prophesy doom and gloom. That is not, mind you, because Robertson hasn't said anything outrageous since then. Rather it is because I keep hoping that if you ignore someone for long enough, maybe they'll finally go away.

Perhaps more disturbing to me than Robertson's patently insane assertions is that many people - and not just fundamentalist Christians - keep taking them so seriously. Somehow Robertson, by virtue of building a media empire through his misuse of Christian doctrine, has bought for himself the right to speak for a not so small segment of American Protestantism. As such, his every ridiculous move is covered by the secular media to the point that, in one of my undergraduate philosophy seminars one atheist student seriously asserted that he was the Protestant equivalent to the pope. Of course, that student's belief was as ridiculous as anything Robertson has ever said, but that a philosophy student at a public university could have and articulate a belief like that without being laughed out of the room speaks volumes to our inability to simply dismiss out of hand Robertson's desperate attempts to draw attention to himself.

So says the semi-enlightened being who is now so fed up that, once again, he is taking the bait and writing about Robertson. Oh, well, Kettle, you're still a little black.

So now, after saying that 9-11 happened because God removed His "hedge of protection" around the United States for our tolerance of abortion and homosexuality; after declaring that Hurricane Katrina was evidence of God's vengeance against New Orleans for its manifold sins and wickedness; after hinting that Prime Minister Sharon's stroke was punishment for his land-for-peace initiative; after forecasting President Bush's "landslide" re-election, the nomination of conservative Supreme Court justices, Social Security "reform," and a devastating tsunami; Robertson now declares that God told him that a terrorist attack will occur on US soil this year, possibly killing millions of people.

At least God didn't say it was going to be nuclear.

To state the obvious, it takes some serious hubris to claim that God speaks directly to you. If you follow the Biblical tradition, most prophets were reluctant prophets, fighting against their calling. They did not seek out the gift of prophesy, they just couldn't avoid it when it fell on them. Authentic prophets, if there has ever been such a thing, are not self aggrandizing media kingpins constantly craving after the public's eye. They are humble servants of the Lord.

Look, for instance, at the calling of Moses, the most important prophet of the Hebraic tradition. (For an in depth look at Moses' calling, see Moses and the Burning Bush: Existential Questions from the Divine-Human Encounter.) When God speaks to Moses in Exodus 3, calling him to a prophetic mission, Moses fights God every step of the way, finally asking Who am I that You should send me? While there may have been some fear, and more than a little bit of task avoidance, on the part of Moses here, there is also a healthy understanding that he is unworthy of the calling of God. You don't get that feeling from Robertson's endless self-promotion.

Also, even the most destructive of prophetic messages carry with them some constructive content. The message, in the end, is not You're all going to die! It is, instead, Repent! Of course, the God of the Tanakh, the God of the Torah, the Nevi'im and the Kethuvim, is not always a kinder, gentler God. There is some serious doom and gloom, and fear of that impending doom is a perfectly legitimate motivator for change.

But still, these two facts remain:

1. While fear is used as a motivator by Old Testament prophets, it is not a fear of inevitable destruction. Rather, it is fear of avoidable destruction. It is not simply a matter of forecasting that bad things are about to happen. It is a matter of explaining why bad things are about to happen, and how those bad things can be avoided.

To my mind this does not excuse the fact that fear is used to drive people to repentance, a tactic which is neither pastorally advisable nor morally permissible. But it does at least show that even the most fervent "old school" prophets have an obligation not only to predict doom and gloom, but to prescribe spiritual behaviors which can calm the coming storm.

2. As I argued the last time I took on Robertson and his ilk, this prophetic mode is not the Christian way.

In the ministry of Jesus we see not a God of Wrath but a God of Mercy. Christianity is founded on the notion of the incarnation of God. That notion of the incarnation flatly contradicts the theology of the God of Wrath. The God of Wrath is a God that stands over and apart from creation, looking down on it, judging it, and punishing it. The laws of the God of Wrath are as absolute as they are arbitrary, and the penalty for disobeying those laws is swift and severe. But, the defining attribute of the God of Wrath is separation. Sin is separation from God, and as all have sinned, all are separate from God. Just as all are separate from God, God is separate from creation. This is why God can so harshly judge creation. But in the ministry of Jesus, and the theology of incarnation, we see God, in Christ, entering into the world. This God of mercy enters into the world in Christ to take on the sin, and the suffering, in the world, to reconcile the world to God.

The Christian message, if we take Incarnational Theology seriously, is not Repent or die! Turn or burn! Yes, this message is part of Christian history, but it is not part of the essence of Christianity. The essence of Christianity is found in a God who enters into the world, working with the world to alleviate suffering, not standing apart from the world justifying the suffering that is already in it and even adding new suffering to our daily troubles.

Theological and Biblical concerns aside, there are also some serious ethical considerations here. If we take Robertson at his word, he now has credible knowledge of an immanent threat. Lives are in danger here. Doesn't he have a moral obligation to disclose everything that God has told him, and to work with authorities to try to neutralize the threat? If God is behind the threat, shouldn't he cut off all ties with God, and actively work to thwart God's plan? If God is not behind the threat, but is instead merely using omniscience to learn about and expose the threat, shouldn't there be more specific information in God's message to Robertson? And, if there is more specific information in God's message to Robertson, and Robertson has simply missed that information, shouldn't God find a new vessel to work through?

OK, maybe those aren't so serious, since we can't seriously take Robertson at his word. I doubt that even he believes that God literally spoke to him and revealed an impending terrorist threat. But it seems clear that if Robertson really does believe that this is a message from God, he doesn't seem to believe that he has any sort of duty to do anything about it, save for use it to promote his television show.

Meanwhile, there are a number of negative outcomes from Robertson's declaration of doom. First off, in people who do believe him, Robertson is sowing the seeds of fear and anxiety. This, of course, creates fearful, anxious people, and those fearful, anxious people not only suffer emotionally, but also often make their own suffering contagious. It is, after all, this anxious fear of a dangerous world run by a wrathful God that is at the source of so much bigotry and hatred.

Second, in the people who don't believe him, Robertson has contributed to a polarizing cultural atmosphere, characterized by the extremes of fundamentalism on the one hand, and the suspicion or even fear of religion on the other hand. The religious community is increasingly suspicious of the secular world, and secularists are returning the favor. The more that people like Robertson make ludicrous claims about direct communication from the deity my brothers and I call "Whack-A-Mole" (I once gave a sermon against the "Whack-A-Mole model of God, a wrathful God that stands over and above us, looking to smack us down whenever we stick our head out; the title stuck), the more many secularists will see in religion only the ridiculous and the violent. This view of religion, whether it is held by the faithful or the faithless, doesn't help anyone.

Finally, I have to wonder about the mental health and moral fabric of anyone who seems to take such glee from suffering, whether it is potential (in this case) or actual (in the case of 9-11 or Katrina or any of the other disasters that Robertson has used to promote himself and his religious and political views). I John teaches us that "God is love," and the apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, teaches us that love "does not delight in evil." While it is dangerous to splice pity Biblical quotes together and extract from them some sort of theology, it seems safe to say that such "delighting in evil" is not the way of God, if the New Testament is any indicator of God's nature. In any event, delighting in evil is certainly not a sign of a healthy human being, much less a servant of God.


Amy said...

You state "...This does not excuse the fact that fear is used to drive people to repentance, a tactic which is neither pastorally advisable nor morally permissible," in reference to the writings of the Old Testament Prophets.
I take issue with the assertion that the use of fear is not morally permissible. If our actions as a society have potentially devastating consequences, isn't there somewhat of a moral mandate to draw attention to those consequences? If we recognize that social sin is wreaking havoc in our communities, does not the work of redemption require us to spell out where we are headed?
I am reminded of nuclear escalation during the cold war; throughout that conflict, there were leaders and artists throughout the US who preached and "prophesied" in a way about the devastation to ourselves and our world that would come if our actions continued. They showed us a vision of nuclear holocaust that horrified citizens, and was also a motivating force for the disarmament movement. Granted, they (like the prophets) preached about the potential to change the future; to repent of nuclear weapons. However, they also inarguably used fear about our future as a motivating force for the movement. Was that also morally impermissible? What about Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," which uses similar tactics to inspire people to change the potential affects of global warming?

I am not defending Robertson. I, too, am tired of hearing his dire predictions (whose causes have no evident relationship) represented as the voice of Protestantism. Yet, I disagree with your assertion that the use of fear is impermissible; I think in some cases, it can be very appropriate in prophetic preaching and pastoral relationships. However, such fear needs to be used carefully and responsibly, which I do not see in Robertson's actions.

Sandalstraps said...



Good point, though I'm still not convinced of the permissiblity or advisablity of a fear-based message. Perhaps I am too strongly reacting against a mode of religion which is primarily or even exclusively fear-based, and not recognizing the constructive potential of fear.

I can say that one should turn to God hopefully rather than fearfully. I can say that one should do one's duty because it is one's duty, rather than because of some personal fear. But I may have over-stated my case when I said that the use of fear as a motivator is in all cases morally impermissible. We'll have to examine this more closely.

Fear is an effective way to obtain temporary compliance, though an atmosphere of fear builds the sorts of destructive emotions which lead to violence. You've used a couple of very good examples of how fear has been used to alter behavior and social policy in constructive ways, so let's look at them.

Case 1: Fear of mutually assured destruction leads to disarmament.

Question: Was fear the real motivator for the twin goods of

a.) keeping the Cold War cold (not blowing up the planet) and

b.) reducing stockpiles of nuclear munitions?

It is safe to say, at the very least, that fear was a motivator, and a strong one. But was this fear a natural one or an imposed one? In other words, did it arise from individuals in power recognizing the destructive potential and working to improve it, or did it primarily come from "moral prophets" external to the situation, forecasting doom and gloom and calling for repentance?

I for one can't answer that question, but let's assume that externally imposed fear had at least something to do with it. The question then becomes, was the use of externaly imposed fear (if there was such a thing, and it seems safe to say that there was) morally permissible? For me this amounts to asking a couple of other questions:

1. Was the fear inducing "moral prophesy" necessary to achieve the positive ends of keeping the war cold and eventually reducing (and hopefully eliminating) the supply of nuclear weapons?

2. If so, does the good end outweigh any harm done by the use of fear?

The answer to question 2, anyway, is obvious. A little bit of fear and anxiety can hardly outweigh the twin goods of

a.) not exterminating all life on the planet, and

b.) making it less likely that all life will be exterminated anytime soon.

Case 2: Fear of global warming and the potential devestation it will bring leads to the reduction of greenhouse gasses.

Question: Is it in fact the case that greenhouse gas emitions are being reduced through fear-induced efforts, or that they are likely at some point in the near future to be reduced by those means?

This question breaks down into a few smaller questions:

1. Are greenhouse gasses being reduced?

2. If so, are they being reduced at least in part because of fear of the consequences of releasing greenhouse gasses into the environment, namely global warming and the attending devestation it seems likely to bring?

3. If not (on question 1), is it likely that greenhouse gas emitions will be reduced in the future? If so, apply question 2 to question 3 as a follow up.

5. If yes to either 1 or 3, and to the attending follow up questions, the final question is: Does the good accomplished be reducing greenhouse gas emitions and therefore stalling global warming outweigh any harm done by using fear as a motivator?

This fifth question is the easist to answer. But, there is another relevant question:

Is fear necessary as a motivator? That is, seeig as the use of fear amounts to a kind of harm, could that harm be avoided and still achieve the positive end?

And, as with Case 1, other relevant questions involve the nature of the imposition of fear. Is it natural, in that it arises from an innate understanding that our current behavior is destructive? Or, has it been applied, imposed, by "moral prophets"?

I can't answer all of these questions, and I don't expect anyone else to, either. However, that I can't answer these questions indicates to me that I badly overstated my case when I ruled that the use of fear as a motivator is categorically immoral.

Perhaps at some point in the future I'll do a post on the morality of fear. If so, I am sure that the prophets of our religious tradition will come up again.

Sandalstraps said...

Refining my position on fear:

Earlier in the piece I wrote, concerning fear in the Old Testament:

... fear of that impending doom is a perfectly legitimate motivator for change.

This may allow for the sorts of considerations brought up by Amy. Perhaps the most relevant distinction is in the nature of the imposition of fear. If the fear comes from the supernatural threat of God, then presumably God is wielding a big stick, saying something like:

If you don't do what I want, then I'll smack you.

If the fear, however, comes from a prophet pointing out the natural consequences of a pattern of behavior, then there is no coersion. The prophet is not imposing fear, but rather more fully explaining the situation so that a natural fear, coming from recognizing the situation as it already is and as it is naturally becoming, will arise in the individual(s) and the community.

That, however, does not excuse the recklessness of the statement

... this does not excuse the fact that fear is used to drive people to repentance, a tactic which is neither pastorally advisable nor morally permissible.

It was carelessly constructed, and did not spell out exactly what, morally speaking, is at stake in the actions of prophets.