I’ll be honest, I’ve kinda lost it online in the last couple of days. Something is bugging me a *lot*. And I’m hoping I’m not alone in these thoughts. So, can we make a real New Year’s resolution, my Christian friends?
First, to get rid of any shaming, let’s start with a beautiful verse in the biblical book of Lamentations (3:22-23). In my opinion it’s best sung:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
We can just make this a resolution for each new morning, because I suspect we’re going to mess up.
What resolution are we making, you ask? It’s this. Can we agree that this will be the year we act with more grace towards other Christians on social media?
I think maybe it starts with refusing to press ‘share’ on articles about how other people’s worship style is wrong. And it ends with a deep hospitality of the ‘other’, which leads to radical love. You know, the type of love shown by Jesus.
There’s this rule I’m holding myself to now. I’ll only comment online about what I know is true. I want to be the comment that turns each thread towards graciousness. I guess this is a version of the Golden Rule of reciprocity used to argue for religious tolerance. But I’m not trying to tolerate, but instead love people better – because I’m a Christian.
It’s a pretty high bar, but you can keep me accountable this year. You can say ‘hey! that wasn’t loving’ or ‘that wasn’t very true’ or ‘that just wasn’t beautiful’. And if you want me to watch for your comments, let me know.
I’ve learned a lot from the discipline of social anthropology – a scholarly study (not of ants but human people and cultures i.e. anthro). Broad generalizations are not always true in reality. All black people don’t necessarily like rap music. All white men don’t love their guns. Even if we can say the majority of them do, some black people despise rap, and some white men refuse to use guns. If we keep it just at the level of generalizations, those realities are silenced.
Similarly, broad generalizations we find online about churches or religions aren’t always true when you turn up. Some points may be valid. But, culture is contested. Development scholars say it this way, “community is a myth” (Guijt and Shah 1998). That just means that in every culture you’ll find people both for and against any issue. But we’re sold a certain structure: elites who abuse power, and the majority who are duped and passive.
Every religious community is diverse, it is a living organism. There are influences that move it towards good, and also away from it. But in the online space, it’s hard to verify anything. Personal experience is key. And so, by retelling stories about people we don’t know and cultures we haven’t learned to read, we only become more attuned to the facts that reinforce our pre-existing perceptions.
This changes us, into seeing a bland majority rather than a beautiful, diverse and complex reality. More importantly, it’s hard to be attentive to themes of redemption or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases Phil 4:8, “things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”
I’ll make this personal for illustration’s sake… my church has had lots of press in the last six months; everything from a bad Christmas carol through to gay choir directors (if you know the Arts world, wow a huge shock right?), to police removing critics from the venue and prosecuting them. Pastors have been called to the stand for events in 1999 resulting in a censure from the Royal Commission, and a berating from the weekend paper.
Some (not all) of this stuff is normal to churches. If you’ve recently been a pastor, you’ll know most have an AVO (apprehended violence order) list in the foyer, that the choir don’t always sing in key, and that Christians aren’t perfect. In this list we’re scraping the tip of an iceberg on what people are capable of, and messes they get themselves into.
But it’s weird because it’s different when it’s posted online. I’m reluctant to put forward what I know, or even say the name of the church on my blog, because it’s easily replicated out of context. There’s a certain website I’m trying desperately to stay out of, that will publish what I say. It doesn’t deserve promotion, because some of what it says is not true, and those parts are crucial. So when you hear about my church, you hear it from critics or publicists rather than ordinary people like me.
I’m not saying everything in this list is good. And, over a coffee I’ll sit down, and tell you what I think – and let you tell me what you think too.
But it’s not easy to know what the end game is online – what is an ordinary attendee supposed to do with these articles, other than force them upon their leaders, or disassociate by leaving? When I spend time talking with critics, especially Christians, they want the pastor fired, or the organization to go away. But I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.
This has been a fascinating window to see how social media works. After interacting a lot online and trying to present the facts as clearly as possible, I’m starting to realize that people have emotion associated with my church’s name. And that emotion is very difficult to change. It’s generated within images and posts that have accumulated over a long period of time. Whether true or not.
It taps into how they feel about contemporary worship, and how betrayed they feel about clergy abuses. It’s how they feel when told about pastors who own houses in wealthy suburbs when they work so hard just to get by. But this emotion has little to do with the reality of the ‘other’.
I’m not writing this because I’m trying to deflect from real issues. There are all kinds of things I find deplorable in this world, and that I believe deserve to be denounced. Sexual abuse, every time. Violence in the home. Genocide. But we have to work out how to do this. And I think yelling about carols is simply a distraction.
Christians have developed a passive-aggressive way of dealing with things and people we don’t like (everything from Islamic violence, halal foods, to boring worship songs and PEOPLE NOT SINGING IN WORSHIP).
It’s become a new liturgy for us.
We practice the art of critiquing things online, and claim we are justified in doing so because The Reformation. And The Bible. But it doesn’t really add up with biblical verses on judging others, or Paul’s hopes for the church as a new and different community.
I’m not sure why this behavior is now definitional of Christians. But I suspect it’s because we want to feel like we are righteous, meaning ‘in the right’. Righteousness is an important part of the Christian faith. Posting things about other people deflects from problems in our own lives and churches.
It’s sad, because that’s not really what Jesus was on about, is it?
It’s only self-righteousness that we’re generating.
We are working as hard as we can to turn right attitudes and thoughts into right behaviors. But I think maybe we should go back to the beginning, and draw from what the church does best – liturgy, or worship. Worship is about practicing right behavior, not just once but regularly, until it shapes us. In Christianity, we’re measured primarily by our actions, not on our attitudes or ideas.
We desperately need a better online liturgy. Because we will become righteous by behaving right, which will eventually change into right attitudes and thoughts.
This year, let’s stop and think about what we’re posting.
Let it be grace. grace. grace. grace.