Joel Osteen has had a bad few days. Hurricane Harvey has drowned Houston, Osteen’s hometown, the one that provides his megachurch with not only thousands of weekly parishioners but, far more importantly, those parishioners’ precious weekly donations. The storm has been so bad that Osteen was unable to open his doors last Sunday. This deprived him of a week’s worth of the money that he so dearly loves. Although it is tempting to believe that Osteen would have been fine without a week’s worth of cash – he is worth an estimated $56,000,000 after all – but it should be noted that those donations could have been put to very good use. For instance, he could have built an addition onto his $10.5 million mansion. (Miraculously, it does not appear as though the mansion was hurt by the city’s flooding.)
If all of that wasn’t bad enough, some of Osteen’s critics then had the temerity to start asking why it was exactly that Osteen’s church, Lakewood, had remained closed in the first few days of the storm. These critics observed that Osteen’s (and his people’s) responses to their questions were extremely underwhelming. Here is a timeline of those responses:
- Joel Osteen himself initially offered prayers from both him and his wife, obviously because he was simply too busy…uhhh…preparing to help?…to do anything more substantive and immediate. Oh, and he also carved out the time to block people who criticized his tepid response to the catastrophic flooding.
- When the prayers (weirdly!) didn’t stop the rising water, and facing mounting questions as to why Lakewood remained shuttered, the church insisted that it was flooding and inaccessible, claims undermined only slightly by the fact that they were demonstrably false.
- Osteen also shilled for donations, because that is the one thing that televangelists are hard-wired to do. At least his charity has no rating, what with it refusing to disclose what exactly it does with all of the money that it receives, but it almost certainly is doing good work. Related: Osteen’s mansion is 17,000 square feet.
- Surprisingly, lying about the church’s condition while also begging for money didn’t slow the criticism either, so Osteen tried claiming that the church was simply waiting for when every other shelter in the city was maxed out to capacity. Then it would open its doors. Because that is definitely how churches work.
- Finally, the church did open its doors, but because simply apologizing for badly botching its institutional response to what was plainly a crisis would require taking a measure of responsibility for it, Osteen insisted that the church had wanted to open its doors, but that it did not because the city had not asked it to do so. Weirdly, plenty of other churches – including ones run by Hindus (*gasps*) and Sikhs (*sweats*) and Muslims (*faints*) – throughout Houston did manage to open their own doors without first being asked to do so by the city.
There were those willing to defend Osteen’s decision making. They insisted that Osteen was being treated unfairly by a social media horde who simply misunderstood, intentionally or otherwise, the preacher’s approach to the storm. They claimed that Osteen was being proactively cautious, and that, in fact, he was protecting people by not letting them come to his church.
The problem wasn’t Osteen, in other words. The problem was everybody else.
This is a snapshot of the growing cultural divide that exists between many American Christian Evangelicals and, it would seem, everybody else. Faced with what appears to be Osteen’s unapologetic grift – in which the man cannot simply admit that he and his people handled a bad situation very poorly – these folks turn on Osteen’s critics instead, explaining away the preacher’s decisions and insisting that, no, it is everybody else who is wrong.
Ultimately, Osteen’s failure is not a huge deal, in that plenty of other people, religious and otherwise, did not turn their backs on their fellow man. Those people recognized a burgeoning catastrophe and responded accordingly. Osteen didn’t, until the pressure to do so overwhelmed his greed. But this cultural cleavage is bigger than Osteen’s dishonesty, no matter how noxious it alone is.
This brings us neatly to the Nashville Statement, a documented created by The Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The statement reiterates the belief that marriage should only occur between a man and a woman, and that Christians should not be accepting of either homosexuality or transgender identity. The statement is as predictable in its explicit bigotry as it is entirely at odds with more modern understandings of our existence. But perhaps more interesting is the degree to which the Statement insists that we, as its readers, understand this document’s signatories are not at all responsible for their own actions and behaviors, but rather, that simply take at face value that they are following the specific direction of God.
Among the document’s more galling sections is its tenth article, which makes it clear that any Christian who refuses to hate gays and transgender people should no longer be considered a Christian. Anybody who is unclear about the intent of its wording can visit Denny Burk’s clarification of what exactly it means:
Readers who perceive Article 10 as a line in the sand have rightly perceived what this declaration is about. Anyone who persistently rejects God’s revelation about sexual holiness and virtue is rejecting Christianity altogether, even if they claim otherwise.
Got that? The only true Christians are the ones that hate both gays and transgender people. The only true Christians are the ones Denny Burk approves of, the ones who (as it happens) walk in lockstep with Burk and the Nashville Statement’s other signers-on. Speaking of lockstep, it is a hell of a thing when a collective of (umm?) religious scholars look deeply into the pages of their preferred religious text and reaffirm that, yep, they were the right ones all along, that their beliefs should remain unchanged and unchallenged, and that it is everybody else who owes. There is no point in arguing the theology underpinning this; we can leave that to the Christians who now, apparently, no longer count as Christians, the ones who might be rightly galled for being cast out of their own faith because of their insufficient bigotry.
It is worth noting that Burks sees what he is advocating as a form of love, often the defense of bigotry offered up by the bigoted. “We love these people so much that we want them to change who they are, and to suffer in service to us. Also, we do not make the same offer in return.”
We labor for moral clarity on the point not so that we can say to sinners, “Keep out!” We are standing with our arms wide open saying, “Please, come in. Come to the waters of life available to any and every sinner who turns from sin to trust in Christ.” But we cannot make plain the path to life to those who think they don’t need it.
But here we again see the same selfish demand that we witnessed writ large in Osteen’s initial response to Hurricane Harvey’s deluge: that the world owes sacrifice, be it theological (and personal) in the Nashville Statement’s case, or financial in Osteen’s case. And, in return, those sacrificing can expect all of the following: absolutely nothing.
Those abandoning their friends and their families and their beliefs to embrace the Nashville Statement will get no kindness, no decency, and no understanding from their new friends. They will be told that those friends and families were sinners unwilling to suffer in the way that the Nashville Statement’s authors and backers demanded, and that they were simply never worth or worth wanting in the first place. In exchange, the Nashville Statement’s backers will do nothing different than they have done before, nor will they even consider the possibility of doing so. Nothing about anything should substantively challenge the statement’s authors: how they live, how they think, how they believe. That work is for other people.
So too with Osteen. Yes, his parishioners can be expected to sacrifice weekly, offering what they have to Osteen, who returns their investment by living a life of opulence. But asked to return the favor in his parishioners’ worst moments – in which their lives literally float away on a rising tide that they had done nothing to create – Osteen refused. He saw no obligation to return their charity in any meaningful way. So he kept his church’s doors shut as the waters rose until the threat that he truly cared about – the one that might affect his bottom line – became too overwhelming to ignore.
The Nashville Statement’s champions will continue to cheer it, even as its bigotry fails to sway progressively larger portions of the population, not because of anything they are doing, of course, but because they are being failed by those around them. Osteen’s church is up and running now too, shamed into charity by thousands of voices who rightly and loudly observed the man’s failure, but still insisting that it was everybody else’s fault but his own.
Accepting responsibility, it would seem, is as anathema to these guys as sacrifice is.