Social media has given voices to many that wouldn’t otherwise have one. But with that comes the danger of a bully pulpit, and as Uncle Ben would say, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
One such example of this came last week, when a standoff between a Catholic high school student and a Native American protester was misreported. The latter went on national news and said that the student refused to allow him to pass and was also hurling racial epithets at another group of protesters that was nearby. The outcry was extreme, with commentators asking “have you ever seen a more punchable face?” and the student’s personal information being released online to aid harassment (known as “doxing”).
But as it turns out, that wasn’t the whole story. As reported by Reason, a full two hour video surfaced which shows no racial epithets from the high school students. In fact, Phillips, the protester, approaches the students, and his path is never blocked.
Herein lies the danger of social media – many Christians and conservatives had joined in decrying the perceived actions of the high school students. Had those perceptions been correct, criticism would be more than warranted, but the level of criticism was extreme. It raises the question for Christians, how are we communicating in cultural debates, and how might we be swept up in mob mentality? The dangers of finding ourselves in such a mob are worth noting, for they impact the name of Christ, as well as our spiritual conduct.
When Everything is Outrageous, Nothing Is
The result of a constant outrage culture is numbness. There are constant incidents of controversy on social media, but each has a very short shelf life. There are exceptions – the #MeToo movement opposing sexual harassment is one example – but most online controversies are forgotten within a couple of weeks. So when something outrageous is garnering outrageous reactions, it’s simply business as usual.
Take that and apply it to a scriptural example. When Jesus ran the money changers out of the temple in John 2, it was an extraordinary reaction due to something truly outrageous – the house of God had become, in the words of Jesus, “a den of thieves” (v. 17). But if Jesus was always doing that for each offense he encountered, would the message of reverence for God and sobriety of worship have even registered?
A Christian Ethic of Social Justice Includes Grace for the Offender
A great deal of New Testament teaching emphasizes grace, not only from God, but from us as well. Jesus models this by praying “forgive us as we forgive others.” Paul emphasizes in a laundry list of sins, “and such were some of you,” and spends an entire chapter of Romans (chapter 3, and much of the book besides) driving home the point that we are all depraved sinners.
But the social media mob mentality recognizes no such grace. Rather than hoping for change, and extending grace to the alleged offender, we crucify them. Whether it is deserved or not is quite beside the point. The same Jesus who extended mercy and compassion to the oppressed and afflicted also told us to turn the other cheek. That doesn’t mean to shy away from pointing out injustice, but it does mean to pray for your enemies. When was the last time you prayed for someone you condemned in a Facebook rant?
“Judge Not,” Understood Properly, Urges Caution
Jesus’s words to “judge not, lest you be judged” are frequently taken out of context. But here, they do apply. The words of Jesus are not meant to prohibit any critical words, but to merit self-reflection first – “remove the plank from your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). When we send out a series of angry tweets, do we ever think to do a “plank check?”
The point of these objections is not, in any way, shape, or form, intended to mitigate our responsibility to care for the oppressed. It is, however, meant to urge is to caution when it comes to online communication. There are real people on the other side of our screen, who are on the receiving end of our words. Especially if the post is only to signal our support for one side or the other, we should consider whether there are more productive, and more grace-filled, ways to communicate concern.