Did you realise you are almost certainly a member of a sinister mind-controlling cult?
But it's true, my friend – it's true. And what's more – you've probably never even realised it. This sinister network has no formal name or structure, but we could accurately call it 'the cult of relentless negativity' – and its tentacles are everywhere, including in the Christian world.
For the 'cult of relentless negativity' is the system of thinking that almost all of us have unwittingly bought into. See it on Twitter; see it on Facebook – the sarcastic comments, the knee-jerk negativity, the relentless tribalism where 'we' are always right and 'they' are always wrong. It's putting the worst possible spin, the bleakest interpretation, on the motives and actions of others – while presenting ourselves as the enlightened ones, the saints and heroes, who alone can see things clearly.
Hear it on the radio when pointlessly adversarial interviews are staged with two opposite views – because a negative clash is deemed more likely to engage listeners than a reasoned debate. All it does is leave both interviewees looking foolish – and the presenter as righteous ring-master. Hear it when interviewers constantly interrupt or harangue their interviewees, leaving an impression that the person being interviewed is stupid or inept.
Watch it on television when news reporters conclude their package with a phrase such as 'But critics will say...' without naming anyone, or indeed offering any evidence they have even spoken to such 'critics'. And there's that other lazy, negative journalistic sign-off – 'But many questions remain unanswered' – leaving the impression that whatever person or event has just been reported on, there's probably some sort of cover-up or incompetence yet to be exposed.
Observe it in politics in the nastiness between Democrats and Republicans in the US. See it likewise in Britain: witness the way people on both sides of the Brexit debate have spoken of the other. Or hear Labour MP John McDonnell who said he could never, ever be friends with a Tory – as though they are to be regarded as some separate species of human.
And sadly, of course, the cult of relentless negativity is in the church too. Read Angela Tilby's likening of Anglican evangelicals to Labour's hard-left 'Momentum' grouping in last week's Church Times. Why undertake any serious comment when you can just smear a whole group in this way? Meanwhile an 'inclusive' and influential Anglican website carries an article in which every member of the Church of England's 'Living in Love and Faith' sexuality project is declared 'guilty' on six counts (yes, six!) of 'evil' by the writer, namely 'prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy, prejudice and misuse of power'. Quite some indictment!
More conservative Christians can be the same. There are websites purporting to offer objective comment on Anglicanism which seem dedicated, relentlessly, to reporting and reinforcing a 100 per cent negative view. One wonders what it does to those who churn the stuff out. Some of the loudest online critics of the Church of England have alienated potential allies by relentlessly disparaging anyone who does not see things exactly as they do. How easy it is, as the puritan Richard Baxter observed, 'to tear our brethren as heretics before we understand them'.
At times all this makes me feel physically sick. The American Christian writer Preston Sprinkle summed it up well recently when he wrote on Twitter of 'the inability to humbly listen to the other side, the other tribe – those you are told are the enemy; the posture of seeing the world in black & white, good people & bad people, & refusing to love your enemy.' He was speaking, he indicated, of both 'conservatives' and 'liberals'. Whether he had in mind theology or politics (or indeed both), he was absolutely right.
Of course, it's easy to see this in others, but I know that if people were to work through every online word I have ever uttered I would have plenty of this sort of thing to answer for too. I guess some might even feel some of my words above are guilty of exactly what I am criticising. If that is the case, I apologise. We all have logs in our eyes. So what are we to do?
One of the most astute and wise attempts I have seen to counter 'the cult of relentless negativity' is found in the 'about' section of a blog entitled 'Gentle Reformation' which has writers from both sides of the Atlantic. It wants to encourage a way of speaking, especially online, which is, firstly:
'persuasive rather than polemical (seeking to avoid the condescending pride that is, sadly, too often seen... among those who, of all people, should be able knowledgeably to say "by the grace of God I am what I am")'
And which, secondly, seeks to:
'speak in a tone that is pastoral rather than pejorative (though Biblical faithfulness demands that we cry "Wolf!" on occasion (see Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29-31), we will be sure to do it only when warranted and not so often that we start sounding like that proverbial boy)' – in other words, the boy in the children's fable who cried 'wolf' falsely so often that when a real wolf did appear, no-one paid any attention to him.
That sounds like a good start to me. Dr Heath Lambert, executive director at the Association of Certified Biblical Counsellors, the largest biblical counselling organization in the world, also writes wisely, it seems to me, when he states: 'The reality is that, for most of us, our words are wrong before they ever even leave our mouths because they are generated from an arrogant, self-exalting heart. My ideas are correct; yours are wrong. My motives are pure; yours are suspect. My plans are wise; yours are foolish. When words are drawn out of this poisonous well they will not be spoken in love even if they are technically accurate because love does not envy or boast, and is not arrogant or rude.'
May God grant all of us the grace and humility to learn how to apply these things first and foremost to ourselves.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A