Everybody Hates Joel
Don’t get me wrong – I have always despised health and wealth ministries, and I hated them even as I was training to be a preacher myself – but something about the hive-minding, mob-justice-style of dogpilling directed at Mr. Osteen just isn’t right. I felt the allure of the pitchfork, too. To date, I have ‘liked’ only one sardonic Tweet about Osteen, but rest assured, my fingertips hovered longingly over so many more. I wanted to hate Osteen. I wanted his nose to get bloodied in the public forum. I wanted him exposed for the self-serving rat I know he is. What was I willing to sacrifice to get that? What did others sacrifice to get it?
Five or six hours into the Osteen’s social media crisis, Facebook pictures began to surface from inside the church, showing some significant flooding, captioned with the haughty rebuke of a purported church elder who explained sneeringly that ‘our leadership makes these decisions for good reasons.’ The church wasn’t rendered inoperable by the weather, as it turned out, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that it had. What would that have said about each and every one of us, hate-tweeting the Osteens before we even knew if the building was safe?
The impulse to “name and shame” is attractive and appealing, like nearly all other harmful impulses. I miss the aroma of a lit cigarette desperately, and that particular habit would be easy to relapse back into. Rushing to judgement is fun, alluring, addictive, and once that habit starts, it is quite difficult to quit. I wanted to like the incisive, bitter, and mocking Tweets about Joel but pulled away, reflexively. I knew it was bad for me, inwardly. I knew it was counterproductive. It was the candy bar on the impulse buy rack; I wanted to partake because it would make me feel good, but I knew it was unhealthy.
Our Osteen-bloodlust is understandable, nearly forgivable, even. The Prosperity Gospel is predatory, conniving, and frustratingly popular. We are powerless to stop it. Some of us cannot make grandma stop giving her money to greasy weasels like Osteen, or Benny Hinn, or Peter Popoff, so we stew in our anger. We want retribution, we want revenge, and these desires can often make reason take a backseat. I have written at length about the American televangelist phenomenon in the past, and believe me, with every fiber of my being, I hate the Prosperity Gospel even more than traffic tickets or going to the dentist. Ministerial greed is everything I loathe in this world; it is painfully dishonest, tacky, and fatuous.
The theological fruit hangs so low that anyone can reach it. Of-fucking-course Joel Osteen contradicts the Bible. What tipped everyone off? Was it his $10.5 million dollar home, or his estimated $56 million dollar net worth? Jesus Christ would almost certainly laugh in Joel’s conflicted, distraught, and botox-laden face after telling him to first sell all he had before following him. Religious hustlers aren’t new. They aren’t special. They are grubby opportunists who wrestle spare change from the elderly. They have always existed, and they will always exist. This is a consequence of our long-enshrined separation of the church and state. The government doesn’t kick down the doors of churches, and doesn’t prevent dim-witted parishioners from being fleeced by wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Our knee-jerking can only strengthen Osteen. Shame has never changed the behavior of a religious businessman. Peter Popoff, for example, is still running his ministry decades after being exposed as a fraud. No publicity is bad publicity for them, and this experience will only widen Osteen’s audience, galvanize his supporters, and provide fresh content for a never-ending series of ghost-written books, webinars, and conferences for which Joel can charge top dollar.
What, exactly, is the value of our collective outrage? Joel Osteen acquiesced to the pressure building on social media and opened the doors to his expansive church after a few days. By addressing the concerns, Joel has used the hurricane to legitimize himself. He can now use words like ‘transparency’ when describing his ministries’ response to this tragedy. Joel gets more ammunition, not less, from this exchange, and he gets it because we liked how it felt to bash him. I don’t think that juice is really worth the squeeze. The public shame doesn’t stop the predatory minister, his laity won’t decide to leave the church because of it, and on account of our outrage, Joel Osteen is asked to appear on national television. All of this, every ounce of it, was as counterproductive as it was avoidable. Even the practically of the suggestion in the first place – that Osteen’s church should open its doors to hurricane victims – was really questionable at best.
Every second spent shaming a charlatan is a second often better spent elevating the profile of wholesome and forthright people. To the credit of the digital mob, they occasionally took a break from the Joel bashing to highlight the businesses who took in displaced Texans at their time of need. This is somewhat encouraging, sure, but I can’t shake that deepening sense of unease that has filled me since the beginning of the Osteen saga. I gazed into the abyss, and it gazed back into me.
I wanted to see the blood. I rejoiced in the spectacle, and desperately longed for Joel to be taken down a few pegs, to see his shtick exposed for what it truly is to the whole world. The actual truth, if only for a few moments, if only for a passing second, came in second to that desire. That scares me far more than the ravings of a spray-tanned charlatan, and it is an impulse that successfully ensnared so many of us. Emotions first, facts second. Isn’t that sort of reasoning exactly the problem with FOX News? Why are we falling into the same traps as our conservative counterparts?
If you believe I’m requesting crocodile tears for a televangelist schiester who had to be pressured into opening the doors of his church to victims of a hurricane, I fear you are missing the point. The break-neck speed with which the world rushed to judgement, the spigot of hatred that uncorked towards them in an instant; these expressions should concern us all. It is not karma, nor is it a case of a fraud getting what they deserve. This was brigading, dogpiling, and it was only a few small steps away from open abuse and harassment. This is the progressive, high-minded, and morally superior platform from which we lecture the likes of Joel Osteen?
And just in case you were wondering, I can absolutely guarantee that Mr. Osteen – a powerful and influential figure in an Evangelical community that already suffers from a delusional persecution complex – will exploit every inch of this social media deluge. He will hold it up as yet another piece of evidence that the secular world is out to get Christians. The right wing caricature of the political left as under-thinking, over-reacting goons begins to seem more and more reasonable, and doubly so in the minds of Christians who might be susceptible to the charms of the televangelist.