A provisional Christian ethic of social media use: part 1
Much has been said and remains to be said about the dramatic events that took place at General Synod this past June. Live streaming it from home, I found myself encouraged, dismayed, bored, embarrassed and astounded.
I also found myself feeling deeply disturbed. Not by any particular discussion or decision, but by the level and tone of discourse amongst Christians in general. If Jesus meant it when he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35), then we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and ask why we can see more love at the local dog park than among those who claim to be Jesus’ disciples.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on social media, the crown jewel of the digital revolution-which in this case might be more accurately described as a digital civil war. It was amazing to see priests and laity of every piety and political persuasion entering the fray, posting messages characterized by the deadly sin of wrath: bullying, racism, homophobia, colonialism and vague expressions of disdain and hate.
Of course, there were notes of encouragement and gratitude, praises and prayers to God found amidst the bile. We need to remember that. However, we cannot write off the maelstrom of malevolence that manifested on Facebook and Twitter during General Synod as the responsibility of a few. Our collective Christian witness is compromised by our use of social media.
I confess: it is compromised by mine.
I wish I could write this from a place of being a virtuous user of social media, but far too often my own Facebook comments are characterized by imprudence, if not outright wrath. And even when I resist posting my snarky comments, it doesn’t change the fact that I have thought of them. As 1 John 3:15 reminds us, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.” I may not have clicked “post” on that disdainful comment I mentally drafted, but that doesn’t matter to God, because I have already posted it in my heart.
So what is a Christian seeking faithfulness to do? Should I log off social media forever? The answer might be yes. “If your [Facebook] or [Twitter account] causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life [digitally] maimed or [socially] lame than to have two [social media accounts] and to be thrown into the eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8). Seems like an easy choice to make.
But there might be another way. That encouragement and gratitude, praises and prayers to God were present-even amidst the maelstrom of malevolence that was my social media feed during General Synod-leads me to conclude that God’s grace is present and working through Facebook and Twitter, and that we can indeed be conduits of that grace online, with God’s help. There are faithful witnesses on social media-I have seen them-and I would like to purify my heart so as to become one of them.
Over the next few months, I will be using my column to put forward a provisional ethic for the use of social media by Christians. Drawing on the Scriptures and patristic sources, I hope to present a way of walking digitally as disciples of Jesus characterized by love, humility and a reticence to judge. After all, “what does the Lord require of you [on social media] but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
I’m calling this ethic “provisional” because I cannot claim that what I will be presenting here is comprehensive, or appropriate to every situation. To do so would be to stray from the very humility I think our use of social media needs. It is rather a “working ethic,” which will hopefully provide some simple guidance on how to post, how to reprove a brother and sister when they have sinned against you by their social media use, and the kind of spiritual disposition we need to cultivate in order to keep us as faithful followers of Jesus in our online life.
If we can be more mindful and prayerful about our social media use, we may find our Christian witness online strengthened. If we ignore the problem and social media continues to cause some of us to stumble, we may just need to cut it off and throw it away.