I work in Christian digital media, so I spend a lot of time online, particularly in the corner of the World Wide Web that might best be called the Christian Internet. It’s magazines and news sites but it’s also blogs, It’s Twitter, it’s even Facebook groups and that most dreaded of places, comments sections. The Christian Internet has always had its good and its bad, but recently I’ve noticed that something feels different. It’s in the (digital) air. Maybe it was always there and I willfully ignored it. But what was once played out in conversations and debates has turned toward full-scale war, with both sides fighting to eliminate the other not by changing their minds but by driving them out.
Why should I be surprised by people getting mad on the internet? We love to be angry, and the internet makes it so easy. Our computer screens give us unlimited access to so many opinions, about so many different things, that the challenge is becoming not what to do when we are confronted with offenses but which offenses to which we should respond, and how often, and in what venue. It feels so good to assert our own correctness, and to have that correctness affirmed by other likeminded people. And this gets tiring, all this correction and debate and engagement with people who just don’t seem to want to recognize how right we are.
So we follow people we like, we block those who disagree. We hide posts or unfriend people who annoy us with their opinions. These aren’t bad things; I have done all of them. But they create cultural vacuums, “safe” spaces where we never have to deal with people, and by extension ideas, that don’t affirm those we already have. Over time, I fear, we’re forgetting how to engage respectfully, and even worse, we’ve forgotten that on the other side of those ideas we hate so very much are real people who, more likely than not, are trying their best to make sense of their experiences and how they fit in this world we share.
Unity should be our goal, but unity does not mean conformity. It means remembering that we all worship the same God and we all have the same goal: to make Him known. We can have disagreements, and we should. There are injustices and abuses in the world and we cannot allow them to continue, especially when they are happening in the name of God.
What does it mean to be the light of the world and disagree with each other? I am still not sure. But I know that it means treating people like people, and that starts with showing each other good faith.
What makes us want to believe the worst in people we don’t know? That’s what it all comes down to. When we know someone, we can read beyond their words and see their heart, and even when we disagree we can do so lovingly. When we don’t know someone, we can project onto them the worst intentions so we don’t have to really deal with their ideas. After all, no thinking, loving person could possibly believe that. I have seen good friends attacked, swarmed, mischaracterized, ascribed opinions not their own and at times even the exact opposite of what they believe and live. It’s happened to me. And if I’m being honest, I’ve done it to others–I hope not in public forums, but I am certainly guilty of doing it in my mind. I am confident that none of these things would have happened had we met in a room and talked through our ideas together.
This is why community is so essential to Christian life. When we worship together, and eat together, and laugh together, and cry together, we cannot assume the worst in each other. Instead we see God working in places we would never have expected and certainly would never have looked. He uses people we would not choose, and when we are blinded by our rage we are also blinded to the fullness of His presence. Because we all make mistakes, we are all wrong, and He continues to not just love us but use our broken lives to reveal more of His love to others. Is there anything more beautiful and hopeful and humbling than that?