At the Gate: “But They Do A Lot of Good”

Sitting at the gate, I see the great loss that occurs when critical thinking is abandoned. We are seeing this abandonment in spades these days, in both the society and church. I live in a state (Florida) that is saturated with the demeaning and destruction of critical thinking, in conjunction with the larger “anti-woke” movement occurring today. Critical thinking is caricatured through a plethora of clichés, stereotyping, and lies. At its worst, “anti-woke” advocates try to get people to believe that being smart is dumb, that seeing what’s going on is being blind, and anything other than carte blanche agreement with them is a punishable offense.

One of the ways critical thinking dies is when people raise concerns, but then go on to say, “But they do a lot of good.” As soon as that claim enters the picture, it eclipses critical thinking and replaces it with magical thinking, where lies can be told as truth, history can be revised and sanitized but still claimed to be be valid, and where prejudices can be defended as virtues. Whenever you hear, “but they do a lot of good,” you can reasonably assume the whole story is not being told… design. Psychologically, it’s cognitive dissonance. Collectively, it’s systemic evil.

In this post, I limit my comments to Christians who use “but they do a lot of good” as a way of ignoring or minimizing the rest of the story, “but they also do a lot of harm.”

And here’s the thing, the moral/ethical foundation of critical thinking is in the phrase “do no harm.” It is the starting point for classic philosophy (e.g. Hippocratic Oath), and in healthy, robust, and mature religion it is too. John Wesley, for example, began the General Rules for the United Societies (the Methodist movement) with the communal commitment to “do no harm.” People and groups are on the right track to lead with this intention. Critical thinking begins here too.

Magical thinking almost always includes “but they do a lot of good.” It covers over harm, and when that happens, people allow harm to continue, likely never seeking to end it, but rather becoming passive with a “nobody’s perfect” justification. The voices of those who are harmed are muted by the hoopla and “P.R.” that takes center stage. When magical thinking takes over, no one is allowed to go back stage. Those who either go there anyway, or who come from there, are fired, excommunicated, or otherwise removed.

Christian fundamentalism/nationalism is protected, preserved, and promoted through “but they do a lot of good” justification. Institutions known for historic and longstanding prejudices and harmful environments are given fast-passes into acceptance without ever having to change. Image is everything.

I experienced this a while back in a conversation about a well-known leader in the Christian nationalism movement, a person whose tone (in the pulpit and in print) is vitriolic and vengeful. The person’s prejudice and animosity was acknowledged, but because he also heads up a charitable organization “that does a lot of good,” the conversation never included the harm he gets by with.

Each week, the Orlando Sentinel names restaurants that have failed inspections and been closed until the health violations are corrected. The perils are almost always in the kitchen, where critters and contaminates have put food safety in jeopardy. Inspections are not indictments, but rather indications that sub-standard things exist, and they must be rectified.

Critical thinking is that kind of inspection. It does not deny any good in a person’s heart, a church’s ministry, an institution’s mission, or a government’s actions. But critical thinking does not stop there. It goes on to name any bad that’s in the mix. Critical thinking tells “the rest of the story.” Magical thinking does not. It stops at, “but they do a lot of good.”

How do we move from magical thinking to critical thinking? By asking, “Who is crying out? How have they been harmed? Why has the harm continued?” Until we ask these kinds of questions, critical thinking suffers. Critical thinking hears the cries of the harmed ones (the Hebrew word is ‘anawim’ in the Bible) and responds to what they say.

Critical thinking is at the heart of true spirituality. It is found in what the Bible calls having “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17), moving us to pray, “search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked (hurtful) way in me. And lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Critical thinking takes individuals and institutions back to “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

Until we get there, ecclesial revivals and national reforms fall short of glory of God..

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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