My grandfather used to say that the habits or faults of other people that annoy us the most may be ones we are also guilty of. I guess that was his atheistic Quaker version of Luke 6:41. I am very often reminded of that lesson and it has been an important part of my maturation process and growth in faith. It’s a lesson I have to relearn over and over again. It’s painful; the saying is true – no pain, no gain.
There are times (too many to count) God puts me in a situation in which I find myself correcting someone for a fault I too am guilty of. Sometimes I get sort of a “spider sense” feeling as I reprove a friend, knowing all the while that I’ll learn Pop-pop’s lesson before I’m through. Other times, I’m too blinded by my own self-righteousness to see what’s coming. It’s a very humbling a experience either way.
What I’m trying to say is that the irony of this post is not lost on me. How can I reprove others for a sin I’m just as guilty of? This isn’t going to be a self-righteous lecture. If you insist on believing it is, then imagine me as the recipient rather than the deliverer.
If I had to summarize in one sentence the main reason I blog and how I choose what to blog about, I’d say that I’d like to help people stop begging questions, talking past one another, and calling each other silly and rude names, and start thinking critically, listening to one another, and treating each other with, at minimum, the same love they’d ask for themselves. That, of course, is easier said than done. Popular legend has it that G.K. Chesterton, among other eminent authors of his time, was asked by a newspaper to write an essay on the theme “What’s Wrong with the World?” His reply? “I am.” When it comes to the kind of acerbic and caustic blogging that I believe is poisoning the Body of Christ, and the rest of the world for that matter, I too am guilty.
Recently, a troll disrupted a conversation related to an earlier post on this blog. I’ve had a troll before, but last time he was an atheist. This one is a Christian. Worse yet, it’s somebody from my church. That bothers me. A lot. I have been wondering for several days what I did or said that earned this person’s scorn. Then the thought occurred to me that the whole affair might have simply been a huge misunderstanding. Perhaps the troll was trying to be funny and didn’t noticed he’d crossed any lines.
“According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I’ve only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they’ve correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time.”
“‘That’s how flame wars get started,’ says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University. ‘People in our study were convinced they’ve accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance,’ says Epley.”
“‘People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they ‘hear’ the tone they intend in their head as they write,’ Epley explains.”
“At the same time, those reading messages unconsciously interpret them based on their current mood, stereotypes and expectations. Despite this, the research subjects thought they accurately interpreted the messages nine out of 10 times.”
I’m certain everything learned about email in this study could be applied to blog post and comments. So maybe my would-be troll was misunderstood by and/or misunderstood his fellow commenters. Then again, maybe he was exhibiting cyber-disinhibition.
“Communication via the Internet can mislead the brain’s social systems. The key mechanisms are in the prefrontal cortex; these circuits instantaneously monitor ourselves and the other person during a live interaction, and automatically guide our responses so they are appropriate and smooth. A key mechanism for this involves circuits that ordinarily inhibit impulses for actions that would be rude or simply inappropriate — or outright dangerous.”
“In order for this regulatory mechanism to operate well, we depend on real-time, ongoing feedback from the other person. The Internet has no means to allow such realtime feedback (other than rarely used two-way audio/video streams). That puts our inhibitory circuitry at a loss — there is no signal to monitor from the other person. This results in disinhibition: impulse unleashed. ”
“Such disinhibition seems state-specific, and typically occurs rarely while people are in positive or neutral emotional states. That’s why the Internet works admirably for the vast majority of communication. Rather, this disinhibition becomes far more likely when people feel strong, negative emotions. What fails to be inhibited are the impulses those emotions generate.”
“This phenomenon has been recognized since the earliest days of the Internet (then the Arpanet, used by a small circle of scientists) as ‘flaming,’ the tendency to send abrasive, angry or otherwise emotionally ‘off’ cyber-messages. The hallmark of a flame is that the same person would never say the words in the email to the recipient were they face-to-face. His inhibitory circuits would not allow it — and so the interaction would go more smoothly. He might still communicate the same core information face-to-face, but in a more skillful manner. Offline and in life, people who flame repeatedly tend to become friendless, or get fired (unless they already run the company).”
Rey, of The Bible Archive, seems to have figured this out a long time ago.
“For some reason, when people go online and put on the veil of anonymity they tend to ignore any of the rules that govern common society. Civility gives way to sarcasm. a Patience gives way to brevity. The tongue is fully unleashed through the fingertips and the typist revels in his own wisdom.”
Regardless of whether either of these scenarios is true of our offender, thus making him not a true troll, it’s certainly not the first time such undesireable behavior has been observed on blogs and comboxes. It’s a pervasive problem.
“Reinforced negativity, reflexive commenting, and a relentless appetite for gossip are all found in unhealthy concentrations in St. Blog’s. In part, that’s the nature of Internet communication, but I think there’s a belligerent spirit swirling through American Catholicism these days that amplifies the belligerence. If we see the church as ‘Us’ against ‘Them,’ then the more ‘Us’ gather in one circle of blogs and ‘Them’ in another, the more polarized and less charitable the discussion becomes.” – Tom Kreizberg, Disputations, via Ignatius Insight’s “The Problem With Blogs”
“A sense of superiority—my own need to be right—can actually be completely divorced from truth, and still give one the euphoric feeling that God is on their side. I’m sorry to say that I’ve justified things to myself—and to others—that were not only wrong, but harmful and destructive. I’ve tried to persuade myself and people I knew that my way was right, even when it clearly wasn’t.” – Sean Herriot, Meet Joe Convert
“Barbarism likewise threatens when men cease to talk together according to reasonable laws. There are laws of argument, the observance of which is imperative if discourse is to be civilized. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice . . . when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues . . . when the parties to the conversation cease to listen to one another, or hear only what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories; when defiance is flung to the basic ontological principle of all ordered discourse, which asserts that Reality is an analogical structure, within which there are variant modes of reality, to each of which there corresponds a distinctive method of thought that imposes on argument its own special rules. When things like this happen, men cannot be locked together in argument. Conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of the dialogue.” – John Courtney Murray via Christopher Blosser
Just because it’s common, doesn’t mean it’s right, though. This kind of nastiness ought to have no place in the Christian sector of the blogosphere. To say otherwise would be like saying that since roaches are unlikely to be eliminated any time soon, we should stop trying to rid our homes and businesses of them. Again, Rey agrees.
“Brothers and Sisters, this should not be the case with we who believe! We are in the world, yes, but we are not of the world. We are to remain different from the world, keeping the flavor of our profession before men – otherwise what use are we? We must not appear like other men, who professing to be wise do horrendous things in the name of their wisdom, following their own so-called knowledge and desires. Let us stand apart from the crowd evidencing the light of the life of Christ within us. This light is not to be hid, but to shine – not so much the light of ‘my-knowledge’ or self-proclaimed wisdom but the love of Christ that abides in those who are saved.”
“Fellow brothers and sisters, I beg you, control your tongues in this public forum. Those words you type are your only testimony here in the virtual world. It is your only tangible evidence of Christ in you – why trample it underfoot and unleash all those prohibitions that are so evident in scripture?”
“I don’t speak of ‘testimony’ only towards those who are in the world. I imagine if they stumbled on one of these sites and saw the way that Christians call each other everything from ‘unwise’ to ‘blaspheming heretic worthy of hellfire’ they would sit in their scorn saying ‘ah, they’re no better than me.’ This is sad in itself. Rather I speak of the fellow believers who may not be as strong as the rest of you. Christ spoke of washing each others’; feet not simply in keeping each other’s doctrine or walk pure, but in loving each other as Christ Himself has loved us, set aside the joy that was before Him and humbly gave Himself for us. ”
“If you offer correction, do it in wisdom and honesty of your own predispositions. Christ heaps a heavy warning at the person who decides to judge another: the same scale will be used against you, He says. If you’re to look at another believer’s actions and you tear into him with violence, Christ might call that a beam in your own blurred vision. If you offer a perspective, do it with honesty knowing that the Holy Word of God is inspired—but your interpretation and mine may not be.”
Such undignified behavior could indeed be a scandal, a stumbling block, to fellow Christians and those who we’d like to become Christians. Pondering similar thoughts, Richard Hall once asked an important question. “How should Christians respond to one another when we find that we have deep disagreements that apparently cannot be reconciled?” His answer was so good, I’ll quote it here in full (I hope he doesn’t mind.).
“One response is simply to shrug and say it doesn’t matter. You go your way and I’ll go mine. Live and let live. In my view, ignoring our differences this way is dishonest and unwise. We may be able to travel that way for a while, but eventually a point will be reached where to ignore the opinions of another would be a betrayal of our own integrity. Everyone, even a horrid namby-pamby, hoity-toity, keep-your-voice-down, don’t-upset-the-neighbours, pink’s a -nice-colour-isn’t-it liberal has their limit.”
“There’s another way, of course. Denigrate your opponent. Pour scorn on his arguments, but in no circumstances address them directly, because to do so concedes that there is a debate to be had. I’m right. I know, because God told me. If you disagree, you’re either a fool or an apostate or both. I must say, this is a very satisfying way to conduct an argument, because you begin with iron-clad defences and a fully-stocked ammunition cabinet. Shouting louder usually does the trick, and if you really want to press home a point, crank up the anglo-saxonisms a notch or two. You can emerge the victor every time and it feels great. I know. The trouble is, for every person that shouts ‘Amen!’ there’s another shouting ‘No way!’ The Body of Christ is divided and weakened. (‘Can the eye say to the hand, I don’t need you?’) If we fall out of fellowship with one another, we all lose.”
“The better way is to face our disagreements openly, with the humility to be willing to learn from one another. Of course, in any argument I’m going to be sure I’m right. And I’ve got an opinion about everything. But I hope I’ve acquired sufficient wisdom to know that I won’t be right about everything. It’s in dialogue with one another that we learn and grow – that’s how the Church has always operated from its beginning. Talk to me. Say your piece and, I hope, let me say mine. The internet offers us more channels for communication than we’ve ever had before, more opportunities for individual Christians to ‘meet’ across geographical and cultural boundaries. It’s up to us whether we use the opportunity to promote growth or deepen our divisions.”
- Remember who you are debating [i.e., a person made in the image and likeness of God].
- Remember your relationship when debating a fellow Christian [i.e., members of the household of faith].
- Remember who you are [i.e., a sinner].
- Remember how little you really know.
- Remember the Burger King Principle. [I’ll let David explain that. ;)]
- Argue with what has been said, not what you think should have been said.
- Read and listen sympathetically.
- Be careful with the “reductio ad absurdum” [i.e., leave room for unstated qualifiers]
- Be careful about the use of invective.
He also offers the following quote from John Newton (author of the hymn Amazing Grace).
“As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write. If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: ‘Deal gently with him for my sake.’ The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.”
The article is a first-rate example what good blogging is all about and I heartily commend it to you. In fact, go read the whole thing and come back when you’re done.
Experienced Godblogger Adrian Warnock recently outlined some principles for maintaining peace among Godbloggers. After some summary points that echo David Wayne’s sentiments, he adds a thought that seems to pick up where Newton left off:
“Finally, and most importantly: When angry, by all means bang out a quick witted response, but before you hit SEND, save a draft, go have a cup or glass (one only!) of your favorite beverage (beer if necessary!) talk to your wife if you have one, and PRAY before sending it.”
“You will probably feel the gentle tug of the Holy Spirit to prove yourself to be more loving, to self sacrificially allow them to walk all over you making you look bad, to rather be wronged than wrong and yes to pray for the ones who seem to be your enemies.”
“So why not bin that post and then write another one that responds with grace where there is arrogance, humility where there is snarkiness, peace where their is rancour, and yet doesnt shy away from tackling the many difficult and important issues we can helpfully discuss online.”
“I do feel that it is vital for blogger to be accountable offline for the personna they have online. I am so glad that my pastor knows about my blog and reads it from time to time and whats more that bloggers could easily find his email and drop him a line if they felt I was out of line. Thats accountability. Some of the blogs that get into the biggest hot water dont have that level of offline accountability available to their readers because they are totally annonymous.”
Amen. By the way, should anyone happen to be wondering, my spiritual director does indeed read this blog. He’s been known to gently reprove me in person for uncharitable things I’ve said, too. 😉
I’ve offered a fair bit of commentary and advice from fellow bloggers. We shouldn’t forget, though, that there are strong Scriptural bases for these ideas. Let’s start with the words of Christ Himself and then listen to St. Paul.
“I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them. And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one…I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” – John 17:9-11,20-23 [emphases mine]
If we fail to show love to one another and are not unified, we are failing to faithfully show God’s love to the world. If our deeds do not match our words, we misrepresent the Gospel.
“A little leaven leavens the whole lump…I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves! For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.” – Galatians 5:9,12-26 [emphases mine]
Ouch. I don’t I need to add anything to what St. Paul said. 😉
“I…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift….And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love…Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:1-7,11-16,25-32 [emphases mine]
Again, St. Paul has said what I want to say with far more eloquence and force. Now, how should we apply these teachings to our internet endeavors? How do maintain unity, build each other up, and impart grace with our words? Richard Hall has a suggestion.
“Christians should conduct all their conversation with what has been called ‘interpretive charity’. It may well be a familiar turn of phrase to you, but it’s a new one on me and I’m grateful for being introduced to it. It means beginning with the assumption in any disagreement that your opponent is not only sincere but is also rational and holds those opinions for sensible reasons. She is not being wilfully stupid. Secondly — and this is by no means easy — it means restating those views to yourself in the most persuasive way that you can, which for Christians always means seeking their Biblical basis. In other words, the task is to take your opponents strongest argument and really listen to it so that you can restate it even more persuasively. It means looking at others in the best possible light.”
That ought to sound awfully familar to someone familar with Scripture.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13
What relation does this have to interpretive charity? Well, the Greek word for love that’s used here, agape, is used in Scripture to denote sacrificial love, such as described in John 15:13, and is sometimes alternately translated as charity. Let’s try giving each other some slack and loving each other as Christ commanded us.
In practical, nitty-gritty terms, though, how do we go about doing that? The Jollyblogger comes to the rescue again with some Chestertonian advice gleaned from J. Fraser Field.
“A Christian journalists’s duty is to inform, edify and even entertain; but even more important, it is to reveal to his reader the face of Christ.”
“In purerly practical terms the Christian journalist should never make the mistake of undermining his credibility by overstating his case with exaggerated generalizations that don’t follow from the evidence. Let understatement trump overstatement.”
“At the very least, don’t come across as frustrated and never rant.”
Here are three principles of writing that Field gleans from Chesterton.
“First, his writing – no matter how serious the subject matter – was always suffused with Christian joy and hope. Second, a detached playfulness always marked his writing and he was always personal, never taking himself too seriously. Third, although Chesterton was not averse to a little good-hearted ridicule, the emphasis was always on ‘good-hearted’; he was never vindictive. And most important, within his own style and personality, Chesterton’s writing comes from a place of such child-like innocence that it always manages to be a beautiful reflection and reminder of the Lord’s own voice.”
How often are your posts and comments joyous and hopeful? Do your fisks show detached playfulness? Do you take yourself too seriously? Are you vindictive or do you remind your readers of God’s voice? I don’t know about you, but I’m guilty on all counts.
Feeling rather ashamed, I’ll end this tome with some words of wisdom from Tom Kreizberg.
“Given the choice, I personally would rather be in a Church with confused, ignorant, and overly protective troublemakers than with well-catechized and theologically educated people who don’t give a rat’s ass about the confused and the ignorant.”
“But I’m not given that choice. I’m told there’s only one Church, and what ultimately determines whether I personally am in that one Church is how well I love others, the troublemakers and the self-satisfied included.”
“At this point, I don’t do that very well. So either everyone is going to have to become a whole lot more lovable, or I am going to have to become a whole lot more loving.”
I know the feeling, Tom.