We've talked about this so many times, and yet it never seems to change. Why are we so horrible to each other online?
We're pretty comfortable in church circles with the idea that 'taming the tongue' is important, and that what comes out of your mouth is often the best witness to what's really going on inside your head. Yet for some reason, so many of us still seem to struggle to translate that to our online behaviour. It's as if because we're not using our tongues to shape the words, we kid ourselves that it doesn't count.
It's hardly breaking news that people are mean on the Internet; nor is the strange way that social media both heightens our ability to take offence, and seems to blunt our sense of causing it. Propelled by an anger that we have self-justified as 'righteous', we can set about correcting people for both their content and their tone, and often assume a condescending, unpleasant voice of our own. That's kind of the culture of the Internet these days; an endless vicious cycle of pettiness enabled by the distancing of digital engagement.
So when those renowned Internet 'trolls' throw out their ugly barbs of unkind cultural commentary, they're almost always met with even more vile responses. And when leaders, writers and other influencers share their latest thoughts on life, there are almost always some aggressive and unpleasant responses among the affirmations. If you say something online and people notice, then some of those people will almost certainly come gunning for you.
Before you think I'm describing a wider cultural phenomenon however, I'd argue that this behaviour seems to be just as present within the church as outside it. Of course we Christians see things differently; that's both a natural reflection of our individual uniqueness, and the wonderful richness of a broad church. What's strange however is that in the Internet age, we seem so uncomfortable with that difference, and so very comfortable with arguing about it. And when I say arguing, I'm not picturing Lewis and Tolkien politely debating predestination over a sherry*.
A megachurch pastor suffers a moral failure, and Christian web users acts as if it's open season on kicking him when's he's down; a writer diverges from orthodox thought on human sexuality and is publicly thrown to the wolves ("she was always a heretic, I knew it all along"). Sometimes an unkind response isn't even provoked; users simply take the opportunity of access and broadcast offered by social media to decry a certain leader's theology, preaching or personal life. It sounds like it should be an exaggeration, but it really isn't; this is the state of so much Christian internet engagement in 2016.
The trend isn't limited to one particular wing of the church, or even seen more clearly there. It seems to me that it's equally present among more liberal voices and those who are more conservative, and in both younger and older people, male and female. Some people might lean hard on a scripture-backed telling off; others might more regularly call out injustice and inequality. But as they do so, it seems that everyone is prone to the same pitfalls: unkindness, name-calling, and of course, Godwin's law (which states that after a while, every Internet argument sees someone or something compared to Hitler).
When we take a step back and think about it, we know this isn't okay. The Bible is packed with references to the way we talk to each other, from Paul's encouragement to 'not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths (/keyboards) but only what is helpful to building each other up' (Ephesians 4:29) to Jesus' warning that 'what comes out of [a person's] mouth is what defiles them'. Yet when we get online, and sucked into a discussion which challenges our fiercely-guarded worldview, or even offends our sense of justice, it's like we forget that these verses apply to our fingers now too. Had Jesus and Paul been addressing the Internet generation, I'm pretty sure they'd have spelled out the exhaustive version.
I think it's really important that we challenge the narrative of 'righteous anger' at this point, and perhaps to stop hiding behind that one story where Jesus flips the tables over in the temple. Yes, we know he did that, but it's one reported instance of losing it, in the context of hundreds of stories of how he held it together, like even when he was having nails driven through his hands. Similarly, we shouldn't imagine that by correcting people we don't agree with on Twitter, we're somehow echoing Jesus' rebuke of the Pharisees. The problem with that is that he was operating from a position of sinless perfection and total omniscience; he knew that he was right, and that they were wrong, because he himself was the personification of absolute truth. That's not true of us; it's not even of the Pope. To suggest we're correcting the Pharisees of our generation is actually just an arrogant dereliction of our duty to holiness.
Of course we should disagree. Our communal and individual understanding of God is driven forward by debate and discussion, by 'iron sharpening iron'. But let's not forget to be kind and patient with one another as we do; to imagine the best intentions in each other, and even be willing to concede when we might not be entirely right. As Paul writes in Colossians 4:6, 'Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.' It's one of the ways that the world will know we're different, and that we follow a God worth knowing.
*I've no idea whether they differed on this, or if either man drank sherry. But if I'm right, I'm sure many people will now rush to correct my stupid mistake.