I promise not to become a person who constantly critiques how we use social media simply because I’m pausing my own use of it. However, I think most social media users will admit some parts of it do deserve critique. Screens make it easy to treat people who do not share our positions with disdain. Memes reduce solid positions to straw-man arguments. Biting captions chew up and spit out those who may be wrong, but need our compassion. Disdain, treating people with contempt and as unworthy of respect, never wins people to our side or to the truth. It is more likely to gain applause from people who agree with us than to start conversations with those who don’t.
It is far more helpful to consider our words on social media or the internet in general, (this is my goal here as well) not as shouting from a stage in front of a cheering crowd, but as words across a dinner table with a person we love who holds a different viewpoint. Those are radically different conversations and tones and intentions. The goal of a dinner conversation isn’t to win or to convert, but to fellowship and know each other. You want to leave the table understanding something that you didn’t before even if you still don’t agree. These are the people who come to your house in the middle of the night during a medical emergency to sit with your kids or drop off coffee when you’re sick. Some of those people are hopefully not just like us. Yet we can learn to live well with them.
On social media, you can simply unfollow. You can sit in an echo chamber, nodding along with every post, digging your heels into poor arguments because you are never challenged. That is harder to do in a neighborhood, a church, a family. Unfollowing has a cost in real life; hard conversations must be weathered. I’m afraid we are being influenced in the wrong direction though. Instead of our real-life-will-learn-to-get-along-with-neighbor-because-we-live-together moving over to our social media, our social media habits are infecting our real lives.
The way we practice using our words becomes how we use our words. The attitudes we harbor toward people behind screens are the attitudes we will display face-to-face.
For believers, the stakes are higher because our words are part of our witness. It is difficult to claim to follow a Savior who laid down His life for others and asks us to love others as He loves us and also cut down people who disagree with us. Even if we refuse to face the dissonance of our lives, other people see it. They won’t let it go. Our words can ruin our witness.
I read an article by David French talking about the label of “evangelical” is becoming more of a political label than a religious one. More people who claim to be evangelical are describing their voting habits (Republican), not their theological beliefs. In fact, a portion of them don’t even attend church. French reminds us, “There isn’t a meaningful branch of Evangelical orthodoxy that is truly church-optional. Disconnection from the church doesn’t just mean disconnection from Christian community, it also frequently means disconnection from biblical literacy and Christian ethics.” Moving forward, believers must remember that many people who claim to be evangelical have no true understanding of the gospel or what it means to follow Jesus. The unchurched put on church labels, of course shifting what the labels actually mean.
A few months ago I read that the majority of people who did not claim religious affiliation and did not go to church were Democrat. The author was pointing out that Christians constantly mocking Democrats was defeating their intentions of displaying the love of Christ to them.
If we want to win people to Christ or restore the credibility of following Jesus, disdain is not going to do it. It’s not a method of the kingdom. It’s not a spiritual discipline. It’s a work of the flesh that we have to put aside. Disdain comes naturally. We are gifted at mocking other people, at finding the weak points in their arguments and exploiting them, at pretending that our side is always the virtuous, superior position. What we need instead is humility; we need to remind ourselves that we are often wrong and that even if our position is right, we can ruin it with our attitude. Christ has not called us to win arguments but to love.
Love, of course, doesn’t mean agreement. I say “of course,” but I often hear people act as those to love someone is to agree with them. They are not the same. So much of the work we need to do is quiet work, soaking in Scripture, teasing apart ideas, learning new ways to live and interact with others. This quiet work takes time. It doesn’t display well on the internet. It honestly feels like it’s not accomplishing anything at first. Yet it is necessary. It requires an unwavering commitment, “a long obedience in the same direction” to quote my beloved Eugene Peterson.
We learn to treat others with respect, no matter their wild ideas, because we believe they are made in the image of God. We are called to love the people around us, to want their good, even if we think they are wrong. A small, but significant, step is to refuse to call other people names. What if, in a disagreement, we refused to call someone an idiot, but instead imagined that they have some reason for their position. How would that shift our conversations? Maybe we never change their minds, but changing minds is not our goal. Our goal is be like Christ. Until we straighten that out, we will never change.
In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster shares a quote from Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy says, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.” We ignore the one person who have some measure of control over, the one person we are responsible for. Instead of seeking to change others, what if we participated in changing ourselves?
Disdain for someone’s politics or religious beliefs will never change that person. Our disdain may even harden them toward the gospel. As believers, we aren’t called to change people. It’s not our job. It is our job to reflect Christ, to be winsome about our faith. If someone is going to not like us, let it be because our actual faith is offensive to them, and not that we ourselves with our words and attitudes are offensive to them. May our words not ruin our witness. There’s a lot at stake.