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Gentle, wise and polite are a few words that generally reflect the characteristics of a Christian. However, mean, argumentative and rude are unfortunately adjectives that might be more fitting in describing the online behaviour of some Christians. Why is this? Associate Pastor and blogger at www.7minutes.net, Chris Goswami reminds us why we need to start being more Christ-like online.
God on the Web
A lot of the time, online commenting is simply bullying- Bex Lewis (@drbexl)
When we go online it’s as if we leave part of our humanity behind. It all becomes cerebral and we cartoon-ise the people we are conversing with- Pete Phillips (@pmphillips)
Online anger is like road rage - physical separation between us and the other person means we caricature them – we assume the worst Glen Marshall (@theglenmarshall)
A few months ago I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with some well known theologians and commentators on the topic of online ministries. We weren’t there just to discuss Christian behaviour online but the topic surfaced every time. And to be sure, if you ever spend time reading the comments beneath Christian blogs; or if you follow Twitter conversations on Christian topics, or if you have followed a Christian Facebook thread on anything controversial … well you know what this topic is about.
online, it seems that being right is more important than being Christ-like
The Need to Look Good
Sometimes, it seems that when Christians are online, politeness and common courtesy fly out of the window. On these occasions any idea of Christian love, gentleness, or self-control seems to be overtaken by a driving need to show everyone we are right. As theologian Marguerite Bennett put it “online, it seems that being right is more important than being Christ-like” – whatever “right” might mean. Why is this?
- The immediacy of the internet - creates knee-jerk responses. Things we would not say face to face.
- The limited bandwidth of the internet (limited time, using only written text). - we can never get our whole selves online. Our conversations typed hurriedly into a tiny box lack the facial expression, the intonation, the meaningful body language that normally augments our words. (And yes emojis help – but only to a point)
- The anonymity and separation of the internet - the internet exaggerates our feeling that we are somehow anonymous and separate from the (real) person we are communicating with. We swallow the idea that: it’s just me and the keyboard …. and then there’s that idiot somewhere out in the ether. Unlike face to face conversation, we are insulated from the real effect our words have on the other person.
Of course it’s not just Christians who fall into these traps – but as Christians we have to take seriously the fact that, online, thoughtless comments and offensive remarks cause personal pain - as well as being a shockingly poor witness to anyone else who happens to drop by.
A need to reign it in
Mostly this is common sense, but in case it isn’t, here are some suggestions:
When you see a comment that makes your blood boil – don’t respond immediately at all. We are all temperamental beings but we will invariably regret whatever we write in a frenzy. Sometimes I do write a quick response but I email it just to myself - I don’t post it. Later, and with reflection and prayer, I come back and compose something that is a considered opinion. Of course this doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone online, nor does it mean we have to refrain from humour, wit or even sarcasm. It just means we have thought about it first
Proverbs 17 38: Even a fool is thought wise if he remains silent, discerning if he holds his tongue!
Remember whatever you write and post will be open to scrutiny by all. If you are dealing with someone who is offensive and argumentative, the rest of the community will see that – you don’t have to respond in kind. Your job is to maintain a civil and friendly tone – whatever.
Proverbs 12:18: Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
I also like Bex Lewis’s suggestion: before posting a comment or jumping into a thread ask yourself “what does the fruit of the spirit look like online?”
James 1:26: If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
And a need to be “authentic”
Authenticity is an interesting word isn’t it. We would all like to think we are authentic in our online discussions and writing. But what does it mean? There’s a lot out there on this word but one description I especially like is by author Brene Brown who has studied and written on the topics of courage and authenticity. Greatly summarising, she says: that authenticity “…is a collection of choices we make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen”. It’s about “allowing ourselves to be vulnerable”. In fact: “authenticity is about showing up with our whole selves”. She is saying that we should not have different personas / different identities online and offline. People who know us should be able to see that online we are the same person as offline.
… In which case it seems appropriate to end with theologian Marguerite Bennett again: “Practice not being a jerk in real life and your online behaviour will follow suit!”
Chris Goswami is Associate Pastor at a Baptist church in Manchester and blogs regularly at www.7minutes.net where a version of this article first appeared.