13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. -Galatians 5:13-15
9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. -1 Thessalonians 4:9-12
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:4-9
If you’re looking for a sadistic and blood curling piece of drama from a famous playwright, you need look no further than William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The play is a tangled mass of deceit, revenge and murder which would make even the most depraved modern reality show go running for the exit. The main characters in the play spend their time nursing their grudges and contriving vengeful plots against one another. The climax of this evil spectacle comes with Titus murdering the two living children of his primary enemy before grinding them up as Titus “plays the cook” and feeds them back to their mother in secret. When the truth is revealed in the play’s final act, a final, grisly bloodbath ensues, leaving nearly all the characters dead and a single character standing. Encouraging and edifying, it most certainly is not. Encouragement does not typically spring from the aftermath of hatred, revenge, and violence, and it certainly does not here, unless you’re looking for encouragement to become a sadistic murderer (in which case you’re disinvited from my home, permanently).
So why on earth would I begin my first blog in nine months with such an introduction?
I had to do something last week that I have never done since I began in engaging in social media: I had to turn it off.
Considering the cest pool that is sometimes (okay, maybe usually) the internet, I hope you’ll understand that this was no small thing for me. The denizens of the internet had finally done something which drove me from my screen and into dumbfounded and blissful unawareness. I am frequently chastized by friends who can’t understand why, given my pessimism about so much, I continue to expect so much in random anonymous (or not-so-anonymous) comments on the internet. But it wasn’t the rampant sexual objectification or crassness or standard trolling and re-trolling that had me hovering over the “x” in the upper right hand corner of my browser.
It was because I despaired about the tone of discourse I was seeing. The internet has always had more than a little bit of the “wild, wild west” feel to it, and with that comes trolls. Where there is no law and no standard of decorum, there will always be some ingrate who takes every opportunity to channel their own displeasure and dissatisfaction at the world onto others. It is the price of doing business (or whatever it is we do on the internet). But this was more than just trolls–it was as if half the world had become so frustrated and angry that they decided, in concert, to declare war on everyone else simultaneously. It has been getting progressively worse over the summer, and it is continuing to get worse even now.
I’m not smart enough to understand the reasons why this is happening. Perhaps it is the combination of cultural unrest and political campaigning that has stirred everyone to a fevered pitch. Perhaps there are economic factors at work. Maybe the weather has been bad. But whatever the reason, people are freaking out and taking out their rage on one another nearly everywhere they can, and the internet is a safe, fairly anonymous way for this rage to find its way out.
Amazingly, the phenomena has extended beyond the normal blogosphere, where freaking out reigns, to precincts where it does not normally venture. Today, on the conservative website First Things, an article was posted by Maureen Mullarkey on her blog which had been hosted there which took aim at Pope Francis. The article almost immediately was met by a hail of strong negative comments from those who read it before it was quickly taken down. In a blog posted later this afternoon by the editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, he explained that the removed post from Mullarkey did not live up to First Things’ standards of respectful discourse.
First Things is the journal of the Institute for Religion and Public Life, an ecumenical group whose primary function is to combat the idea that religion has no place in public life. The pieces hosted on the webpage frequently comment on matters on which all people of faith could or would agree, from the varied perspectives of the authors. While there is sometimes disagreements between the various writers for the publication and the blogs hosted on its website, it is hardly customary for an author to be unceremoniously removed. I did not read the post, but can only assume the content must have been vile to receive the kind of response it did from the editors. Even First Things, it would seem, is not immune from the contagion which is spreading.
A more typical example can be found in a post on social media today from Christian blogger Matt Walsh. In response to the testimony of Planned Parenthood on Capital Hill before a Congressional Committee today, Walsh penned a vitriolic status update saying, in part about PP and those who support it:
…these people lie about everything. This is the level of dishonesty we’re dealing with. Total. Complete. Pathological. They could stare at a brick wall two feet from their faces and tell you it isn’t there (of course, I would then insist they run into it headfirst to prove their point). As noted late term abortionist Adolf Hitler once said, if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it. Planned Parenthood tells the same lies every day, all day, unrelentingly, and the dupes in this country choose to believe it.
In other words, if you support Planned Parenthood for any reason, you are a pathological liar and a moron. Oh…and you’re the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler.
I understand Walsh’s vitriol about Planned Parenthood and abortion. To my way of thinking, the continued existence of the practice of abortion is THE human rights issue of our time, and PP is one of this country’s leading “vendors” of infanticide. What I do not understand is Walsh’s thought process (if indeed there was one) in addressing people made in the image of God in this way. To be certain, there are things which deserve to be decried in public as evil. But the operative word in the last sentence is “things” not “people.” For someone who feels compelled to define Christianity for others, Walsh seems very keen to ignore Christ’s teachings about giving respect and seeking peace, even with (and perhaps especially with) those who disagree with him. If we understand Walsh’s post as directed either towards Christians or non-believers, he is faced with the same problem. If the goal of his post was to convince those who disagree with him, he is hardly likely to do that by calling them buffoons or pathological liars or Hitler proxies. If the goal of his post is to edify Christians, he is likely to fail there as well because he is not promoting peace in the body, and fails to embody the Gospel in his rant. It is good at increasing page views, but not good at building the Kingdom.
Walsh has his detractors, but I’m not here to join that chorus today. I suspect if we sat down and talked, he and I would have a many things in common, though not everything obviously. Neither am I here to figuratively murder Mullarkey in a blog few will ever see. I’m here to suggest that the old truism of the internet: “Trolls are everywhere” is becoming, increasingly, true, and that some of the trolls are people who we would not expect.
I don’t have any illusions that I can speak to the entire culture regarding the standards our discourse have fallen to, and I don’t even really have any hope of reaching more than a person or two who stumbles across this blog. Certainly Ms. Mullarkey and Mr. Walsh are not in my expected audience. But I do want to address the few of the people who may stumble across this blog: Christian people and/or friends of mine.
So, hear me well: if you’re a Christian and you’re actively attacking people on the internet and making statements about their value as human beings, you are desperately wrong. As a follower of Jesus Christ, you should never be featured on the hypothetical Tumblr blog, “When Christians Attack.” If you are participating in behavior which disrespects another person, it is time to turn off the computer and repent.
The problem with everyone having a platform is that it multiplies the temptations to misuse our communication abilities. James warns us about our tongues, but that was before our fingers could speak in a way that everyone can hear. So let me lay out a few key reasons why attacking people is the wrong thing to do.
- “They” are the battleground, not our opponents. The purpose of the Gospel is to reach the lost and edify other believers, not to provide a perch from which we can rain down abuse on them. Denigrating another person never serves the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
- The Scriptures command living at peace with all people, if it is possible. Attacking others, by definition, is a willful destruction of peace. (Notice Paul does not say to live at peace with “some people,” or “just the people we agree with”).
- The Scriptures command minding our own business and being a positive example. There is no way to construe going out and attacking people as minding your own business or being a loving example.
- The Scriptures command giving an answer for the hope we have. It does not command (or commend) verbal attacks. A personal verbal attack is actually an argument AGAINST the Gospel from your counterexample.
- Using verbal attacks on people made in God’s image is Satan’s tactic, not God’s. Paul commends tearing down arguments, not people. People are due respect as image bearers of God, no matter what they have done. This is the beginning of living out the grace that we preach and the forgiveness we depend on ourselves. If there was a moral test for deserving respect, no person living would pass.
- It is bad for you. If you repeatedly and sinfully go after others, it will damage your relationship with God, and you will distance yourself from the God we depend on to sustain, guide, and sanctify us.
- It is bad for the community of faith. Paul warns the Galatians that if they continue to speak badly of one another, they will “devour one another.” If your tongue is sharp, it is only a matter of time before you cut into the bride of Christ. I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to explain why before the Throne. (See the Galatians quote at the top of this post.)
- It will not ultimately serve to advance (or defend) the Kingdom of God. If you feel compelled to go on the attack because of an assault on or offense to the Kingdom, be careful. It is likely not God’s Kingdom you are defending.
Let me be clear here as I move towards finishing this little opus: I am not saying that you should not be prepared to speak the truth and dispel falsehoods. I am saying that you should separate wrong ideas from the people who espouse them. Arguments and ideas are to be debated. People are to be cared for and built up to the extent that is possible. If there is going to be someone “playing the cook” it should not be you as a representative of the Kingdom of God. Instead, let us be wise and careful with our words, so that we can provide safe harbor to those who are wounded by the barbs of our increasingly dysfunctional discourse.