01.13.2023 – Jesus and Whataboutism

Document storage in our garage

Whataboutism. They say the word has been around since the 1970s, but I cannot recall hearing in much until the last few years. It is way overused, but I like it. I like the word, not the practice. 

Merriam-Webster defines whataboutism as “the act or practice of responding to an accusation of wrongdoing by claiming that an offense committed by another is similar or worse.”

We learn whataboutism at an early age – in the sandbox or on the playground. When a teacher or a parent catches us in some misdeed, we are quick to look around and point to a sibling or playmate. “What about Sally?” Timmy asks, seeking to deflect blame and attention from himself.

Whataboutism comes as second nature for the politicians in their sandboxes. We see it all the time and more and more often.

A political leader is accused of some wrongdoing – often an accusation that has all the signs of being true – and we say, “Yeah, but what about_________.”  If you are not sure about the issues involved, filling the blank with the names Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – or John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe — will probably do.

This week’s news is bringing a new round of whataboutism as we’ve been told that President Biden had a collection of classified documents stashed in the closet of an office he used after his term as vice president and before his election as president.There’s also talk of a different stash in the garage of his Delaware house. (Reminder to self – I still have some unpacked boxes from our move two years ago. I don’t think there’s anything classified in them, but who knows?)

A former office holder keeping a collection of state secrets is against the law. Now, we don’t know as many details of the president’s possible offense as we do of the ex-president’s problems, which seem myriad. We don’t know if the president himself knew of the stash(s) – he says not – or whether keeping them was intentional or not.  Hopefully all those issues will be sorted in due time.

But in the meantime, the president’s supporters and detractors are in full whataboutism mode. As a special prosecutor builds a case against former President Trump for the hundreds of classified documents he took with him to Mar-a-Lago after his term ended, Trump’s followers are already asking, “What about Biden?” And, of course, the president’s partisans dismiss the purloined papers incident with, “And what about Trump?”

You could call it a game of (false) moral equivalence, but I like whataboutism.

To be sure, whataboutism is nothing new. The Apostle Peter engaged in classic whataboutism 2,000 years ago as Jesus was telling him about the cost of discipleship. Peter looks away and sees the Beloved Disciple John.  The Gospel narrative tells what happens: “When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’” Jesus will have nothing to with whataboutism. He responds, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:21-22)

In The Horse and His Boy of the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis reflects on whataboutism and maybe the encounter between Peter and Jesus.

Shasta (the boy) is speaking with Aslan (though he does not know the name of the voice beside him on the dark path).  He asks what about Arvis, another character in the story. As Lewis tells the story we hear the voice of Aslan: “Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

Sally kicks sand in Timmy’s face, but she’d rather have us think about the time Timmy swiped her Tonka truck.

When Jesus reminds us that following him involves a cross, we would rather have him think about our neighbor who always sleeps in on Sunday mornings.

Jesus will have nothing to do with whataboutism.