Roxane Gay wrote a July 17 New York Times piece asking why people are so awful to each other online, suggesting it could be due to the role of loneliness and the insufficiency of cyberspace as an adequate substitute for in person connections. Heather Cox Richardson followed up with additional questions about the horrible ways we treat each other in person. It raised questions about what norms for public behavior should be.
I suspect most of us have a sense that the nation’s social atmosphere is polluted with more unkindness expressed out loud than it used to be. Internet trolls, talk radio, and certain cable news outlets are prime examples of publicly broadcasted expressions of virulent unkindness. It shows up to a lesser degree in routine internet comments, letters to the editor, and even in small group conversations among people we know. It appears toleration for nasty expressions of our collective suspicion of one another has become an unflattering new norm.
Of whom we are suspicious depends on who we identify with and against. Very conservative friends are certain they’re losing freedom and rights to an ever encroaching federal government egged on by leftist intent to abolish capitalism and erode America’s culture of individualism. Very liberal friends are certain they’re losing freedom, rights and a chance at the American dream. They see white supremacists and powerful corporate interests intent on making the nation an autocratic oligarchy. What the two have in common is a deep fear of losing freedom and rights. What they distrust about each other is that one looks to government for help, the other looks to government as the enemy. Those in the middle are suspicious that both are dangerously unrealistic, and in the case of the right wing, just plain dangerous.
Suspicions aside, everybody seems anxious about the future because tomorrow is so unpredictable. Before the Trump era, no matter who was president or what traumatic tragedy the nation faced, one could plan for tomorrow with some degree of certainty. In the worst of times there remained confidence in American resilience. What happened? Talk radio created national marketplace in which angry mistrust was the main product. The internet added space where the angriest and most mistrustful could could network with each other, barricading themselves against verifiable data contrary to their vision of the world. It became a contagion making it difficult for anyone to know who or what to trust. The internet and cyberspace enabled the instantaneous spread of unverified news and rumors that used to be limited by interpersonal word of mouth. Robust interpersonal space served as something of a buffer, but the pandemic shut it down, leaving the least reliable, most easily abused form of communication to do its worst
The recovery is slowly reviving interpersonal space, but we’re left with a new cultural norm of mutual mistrust tolerating abusive language doing serious damage without fear of recrimination. We need something better, and I believe Christians have an obligation to show the way by word and deed. Followers of Jesus’ way of love are called to live in the better way made known to us by God’s self revelation through prophets, and directly through God’s Word made flesh, Jesus. From the beginning God has made it clear that there is a way to live in prosperous harmony, and it’s not complicated.
Honor the best of the legacy bequeathed to you by your ancestors. They made lots of mistakes, but they also provided wisdom that has stood the test of time.
Don’t kill each other. Put away your guns. You’re not protecting anyone. There might be such a thing as just war, but they’re rare. Most are destructive wastes of life and God’s creation.
If it’s not yours and you don’t have a right to use it, don’t take it.
If it’s not verifiably true, don’t say it. Don’t say things intended to humiliate and demean another’s human dignity.
Don’t let someone else’s good fortune become an emotionally harmful burden to you.
This fragile earth our island home is not ours to possess. Our obligation is to care for it as an inheritance for future generations to enjoy.
God has said in plain language that we can live in prosperous harmony if we want. All we have to do is follow them. Hard to take God seriously or not, Christians are commanded to follow in the better way. They’re not piously unrealistic platitudes. They’re commandments from the creator and sustainer of all there is. Even more important, Christians are to live life by doing that which shows love for God, love for self, and love for those among whom we live. God’s Word was made flesh in Jesus to show us what that looks like in daily life. It has everything to do with actions that heal, reconcile, and break down barriers that separate us from each other.
Too often, the way of Christian love is mistaken for weakness, a willingness to be inoffensive in order to keep the peace and get along. To love God, self and neighbor, it turns out, means to boldly stand against every form of oppression and injustice, which can’t be done without becoming political. To follow Jesus is to non-violently confront political systems where they are most unjust, even when the consequences are dire. To follow Jesus is to confront the awful and horrible without becoming awful and horrible in return. It means, insofar as possible, creating islands of prosperous harmony wherever with whomever. In the God’s words as recorded by Paul in his letter to the Romans, it means to “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves…. No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12)