Beyond “What-about-ism” – Bradley Jersak

“What is that to you?”

Jesus’ final words from his final conversation, recorded in the final Gospel (John 21:23) were gentle rebuke to the apostle Peter. “What is that to you?” is the rhetorical question form of “None of your business!” 

The same reply rings through the centuries to our current era, when our society has a knee-jerk reflex that some call “what-about-ism.”

“What-about-ism” is a typical form of deflection when we feel the discomfort of our complicity in some wrong. It is a defensive strategy where we are tempted to react, “What about them?”

“What about them?”

“What-about-ism” tries to redirect attention elsewhere, especially when our own conscience is stricken. But it’s nothing more than a false and rather obvious shield (not the shield of faith). Jesus knows that it’s an old and rather tired form of denial that lacks subtlety. We see politicians use “what-about-isms” all the time when they’re under scrutiny. But do we recognize that impulse in ourselves?

The basic dynamic in any “what-about-ism” is comparison. Specifically a negative comparison. When the heat is on, if we can just point the finger at someone else (someone worse than us), then we can say, “Well, at least I’m not like them!” A sure sign of pride. But the self-righteousness of deeming someone else as less-than-me is not the righteousness of God. It’s actually just a not-so-subtle function of the Accuser.

There’s a hypocrisy in that approach which Jesus addresses elsewhere. From his Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 7:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

 “You, follow me.”

In Peter’s case, Jesus had already dealt with the shame of his three-fold denial. I don’t know if he was still stinging from that, but when Jesus prophesied Peter’s coming trials, Peter suddenly got nosy: “What about him?” Jesus: “What is that to you? You, follow me.”  

In other words, “John’s journey is not your business. Your concern is your own path with me. Just stick to following me.”

This bit of advice… no, it’s actually a command… has been of great importance to my wife Eden and me. As wonderful as it is for a married couple, family members, friends, or Christian siblings in the faith to walk together in unity and harmony, our journeys are not always in lock-step unison. Our desire for sameness frequently becomes a need to make the other conform to our way of seeing it. And what if we don’t?

My friend David saw this as a potential conflict between Eden and me. Many of our faith convictions are in sync, but what happens when we see things differently? Do I feel the need to pressure her until she agrees with me? When we hit an impasse on a point of view, does it mean we need to become hostile or even part company?

David addressed this with a brilliant bit of wisdom: “Eden must become completely convinced that you are completely convinced that the unique path she is on is holy, and that God has her there and is with her there, and that it is not for you to dissuade her from it.”

We honestly listened. And the results were beautiful! When Eden became convinced that I was convinced that her way of following Jesus need not conform to mine, it not only freed her to be herself and to flourish in her faith. It also meant she could afford the same liberty to my own strange and meandering journey with Jesus.

“What about her?”
“What is that to you? You, follow me.”

Now we can enjoy the maturity of “holding difference” in love with respect. And the added beauty of that is that we can now exercise it in our marriage as a kind of greenhouse so that we can practice it beyond our marriage with others whose faith differs from ours even more dramatically. Little by little, we’re growing beyond our instinct for “what-about-ism.”

“What about them?
“What is that to you? You, follow me.” 

Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More