I’m a very lucky man. I was raised by loving parents in a house full of books and magazines. I survived middle school and high school, and had a wonderful career as a teacher. I retired and have stayed very busy. For years, I resisted the temptation to participate in social media. I had been a high school teacher, so I’ve seen enough drama.
Instead, I established a web site as a place to store and publish my thoughts about faith. One reason to go public was that I miss my brother. Like two of our uncles, he was a pastor, and any time we met, in person or on the phone, we debated theology. Oh, what wonderful discussions. Now he’s gone, so I hoped that somebody’s search would stumble upon my blog, and he or she would find something provocative, inspiring, or enraging enough to react to me.
Well, most of the comments have been spam, so I thought of maybe getting on FaceBook, which, I should explain for some of you, is like Instagram for old people. Maybe it would help steer traffic my way. Now I’m filtering through inane, repetitive posts about politics, news, and cute animals that often lead with clickbait but deliver little substance. And even though my web address is displayed on my cover photo, the rarity of comments makes me think I get very little traffic.
But reading comments on Facebook makes me think I’m living a sheltered life. One of my favorite bumper stickers describes Ithaca as ten square miles surrounded by reality, and I’m learning that reality is filled with immaturity, ignorance, and hate. Commenters seem unable to remember that they’re addressing humans with feelings. They seem comfortable with the vilest name calling and displaying a perverse pride in their lack of knowledge. They sound impulsively violent, and perpetually enraged.
These same people often call themselves Christians. Many of them even go to church. In a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, they claim to follow the Prince of Peace while supporting exclusion and violence against people who are different.
So what are we to do? If we are practicing Christians — and let’s remember that like the phrase “advance planning,” “practicing Christian” is redundant. Got that? You can’t call yourself Christian if you don’t do something about it. “By their deeds you shall know them,” you know. Anyway, if we’re Christians, we must do something, or leave social media. We can’t just label these trolls as ignorant. For one thing, they’d take instant offense, because too many of them probably think that ignorant means dumb, when it just means you don’t know something. For instance, when it comes to the game of cricket, I’m very ignorant.
We need to remember that most of these angry, abusive people are afraid, and they need reassurance more than they need fellow haters. Here’s why they’re so nasty. It’s perfectly natural for us to fear the unknown. And what’s different from ourselves is often strange, or unknown. What we fear, we often grow to hate, because loathing looks easier than learning. So hate, including the mild form we call prejudice, is usually a cover for fear.
For example, suppose you’re poorly educated, white, and stuck, with little hope for change. Then along comes a President who has a Harvard law degree and darker skin than yours, and a mosque is going up across town, and immigrants are buying up the cheap housing, and a big family with two mommies moves in across the street. In their position, how would you feel? It’s as if everything you always thought is now wrong.
When you feel threatened, your natural impulse is to defend yourself. In the face of so much that’s new, and disorienting, you don’t have the time, money, or desire to get educated and learn to live with it, so you can join forces with the new and become stronger. It’s simpler to live against it.
Many of the trolls on line, maybe most of them, live in fear and behave like cornered animals, spewing poison and pain. It makes me sad. But back to the question, as Christians, what do we do? I have five suggestions.
One, if someone says something horrible to you on social media, try not to take it personally. The troll has forgotten you are a real person whom they might like if they got to know you. You’re just an abstraction they throw things at in a futile attempt to make themselves feel better. Remember, chronic rage is a symptom of mental illness. You can neither beat them nor cure them with a simple tweet. So don’t get upset. You could pray for them.
Two, choose your battles. As a Christian, you can’t fire back at pure vitriol. I reply to a comment only when it’s constructive, or it has a kernel of reason to engage. Then we can discuss, and perhaps disagree, but respectfully.
Here’s a recent case. Someone said in a post, “I’m not racist, but…” I couldn’t leave that alone, and I reacted with
‘”I’m not racist” and “There’s not a racist bone in my body” are two clear indicators of racism. The best we white folks can say is that we’re recovering racists.’
I stand behind that statement, which sounds provocative, but I mean it in the same sense as recovering alcoholic. You may behave perfectly, but then you might let someone’s bad joke pass without comment. And I intended to provoke discussion. It worked. A new person jumped on my comment with,
“Speak for yourself. “We” are not racists. We as a group do tend to have more than our share of racist idiots, but to paint the entire group as “recovering racists”… what an utter pile. Sweeping generalizations made in reference to skin color ARE THE VERY BASIS OF RACISM. And if you’re judging “white people” by their skin color, you’re judging other skin tones too.”
Touché. I love this. Sounds like my brother and me. I replied,
“I do speak for myself, and you have a valid point. My world may be limited, because I haven’t heard of a white person who doesn’t feel an uneasy “otherness” about visiting a Black home or a Black church, or a Muslim neighborhood, or about racial intermarriage by one’s own children. You give me hope.”
Very nice,right? But this lady wasn’t going to let me go that easily. She said,
‘”uneasiness” is not prejudice. It’s simply ignorance – a state of not having learned something yet. It’s natural to fear the unknown. Where “prejudice” enters in is how we react to that uneasiness. We can run from it or view it as a chance to learn. Always embrace those chances to learn something new. That way you never stop growing. :)’
At that point, we agreed we were on the same page. Notice the lack of name calling.
Three, comment only as a Christian, although you don’t need to advertise your faith. Remember, ethical atheists can behave just as Christlike as Methodists! Simply try to imagine Jesus reading over your shoulder.
Four, get over yourself. The world isn’t waiting to see whether you liked every post, or to see a dozen pictures of the clothes you just bought. And if you comment, remember Jesus looking over your shoulder? Ask yourself, will my comment actually add to the discussion? Or at least make someone laugh? And maybe someone has already made your point, so read the top few comments at least, and support the ones that sound thoughtful, constructive, and kind.
Five is another application of the Golden Rule: Make your point, and keep it short. Like the debate I quoted just now. How much do you like posts that don’t get to the point but tease you to click on something longer, that takes forever to load? Kathleen Parker is one of my favorite pundits, but if her column were on Facebook, I wouldn’t read it. Social media aren’t made for deep discourse. Just say what you need to say in as few words as possible.
I’ve already said far too many words, so I’ll close by saying that as Christians, we can make a difference on social media. It’s only a drop in the bucket? Right, and if you’ve seen rain, you know those drops can fill that bucket. And remember, Jesus might be looking over your shoulder.
Copyright©2016 James L. Evans
[Delivered as a sermon June 26, 2016]