Doing What Jesus Taught—Even on Social Media

Did anyone know it would get this bad?

Yesterday, two of my friends, beloved friends, chastised each other in a Facebook conversation: “You’re a dismissive idiot,” said one. “You’re an arrogant jerk,” said the other. This from two men I’ve long respected for their devotion to Jesus in their respective communities.

Lately, I’ve felt like social media accounts have become an airing place for my Christian friends’ deep and un-dealt-with biases. One man condemned a woman pastor to hell’s eternal flames because she attended the Women’s March on Washington. On November 9th, one Christian woman wrote, “people just need to get used to [the n-word].” Yikes!

I keep asking myself, how did it come to this?

Cyber-bullying has been in the average person’s lexicon for some time, but it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve noticed it take widespread root in people who I’ve previously regarded as Christian exemplars. It’s not easy to overstate how disastrous this feels to me personally.

The heart of my calling and vocation has been to call my Christian brothers and sisters to the ideals of Jesus’ life. A little bit of scrolling through my news feed these days and I feel like I’m a toothpick in a tsunami of disrespect, emotional theologizing, and pitiless polemic.

The more I look at all this, the more upside down Jesus feels: victory through death, a king born to a penniless virgin, love for enemies, respect for prostitutes, and disrespect for admired religious leaders.

The church has long been struggling to infuse the daily lives of Christians with these upside-down sentiments, but I think it’s time to apply Jesus’ counter-cultural character to what has become our social media crisis. And so I humbly submit five upside-down ideas for your social media usage:

1. A Personal Invitation

“Why does he eat with sinners and tax-collectors?” – Mark 2:16b (NRSV)

Let’s start with a straight-up crazy idea. Instead, of having it out online, ask an opponent to coffee and be slow to speak and quick to listen. I did this back during the N.C. bathroom bill craze. I’m not sure if I was the sinner and he the tax-collector, or vice versa, but I’m sure Jesus was with us.

I looked in his eyes and heard his concerns and he honored me by returning the favor. We left with a much deeper appreciation for one another’s perspective, and a realization that we were not as far apart as our online footprints made it seem.

There’s just something different about looking someone in the eyes. Christians have long struggled with what academics call, theological anthropology. We look at groups of people different from our own and ask, “Are they really, fully human?” We are not as far apart as our online footprints made it seem. Click To Tweet

You can trace a documentary history of theologians and politicians arguing over whether Native Americans and people with dark skin were or were not endowed with the image of God, and therefore fully human. Once you decide that a group is not fully human then the typical standards of treatment need not apply.

Now we acknowledge in theory that all people are fully human, but our actions online belie an unchecked conviction that social media profiles exist outside of the humanness of our philosophical opponents. But when you see the whites of their eyes and can feel the warmth of their body in a hand shake, it stirs something . . . a conviction that this person deserves dignity.

2. Pray instead of comment

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. – Mark 1:35 (NRSV)

Sometimes silence is golden . . . even when you think the situation demands your voice. Memes intended to guilt us out of our silence pervade the internet these days. It is true that we cannot be wholly silent in the face of certain issues, but the truth is that commenting on everything isn’t healthy either.

Sometimes we need to go to the deep well of God’s wisdom and ask for his shepherding hand. This is a slower process than spouting our thoughts, but it is rich and enables us to re-engage on a deeper level. Sometimes we need to go to the deep well of God’s wisdom and ask for his shepherding hand. Click To Tweet

Just after Jesus retreats into the desert, he leaps into the darkest reaches of his age—casting out demons, healing an ostracized leper, and giving a lame man’s legs strength. Perhaps a prayerful break yields good results.

3. Argue about the right things

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for human kind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” -Mark 2:27 (NRSV)

Have you ever noticed that most of Jesus’ arguments are structured to make a humanitarian point? We tend to think about Jesus arguing with the Pharisees on every subject under the sun, but his big beef with the Pharisees was that they valued policy and procedure over the welfare of humans.

So that, the next passage in Mark is about Jesus healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (3:1-6). The Pharisees and Herodians see this wounded man as bait for Jesus’s compassion. Jesus heals the man, but in the process, he scandalizes the Pharisees’ convictions.

Their anger is so great that they go immediately to plot his demise. All he wants is for them to value the welfare of a human over their scrupulous convictions concerning the law.

And yet, how often do we argue about policy and procedure in our online conversations? Maybe it’s time to let some arguments go. Let’s save the weight of our words for the moment when there is a person in the shadows, being withheld humanitarian aid for the sake of policy convictions.

4. Post a Prayer for Goodness

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” – Luke 6:27-28 (NRSV)

There is perhaps no more upside down statement in all of the human record, and no more ignored dictum in all of scripture. So how do we integrate a love for enemies into the twittersphere? I suggest posting an unapologetic prayer for the good of someone everyone knows you disagree with.

We live in a strange world where saying something positive about someone is akin to supporting everything they’ve ever said or done (more on this below). I think that perspective is absurd and directly counter-productive to Jesus’ work in the world. Take courage that praying for God’s hand to do good to an opponent is not the same as weak capitulation.

The key to this is to leave your argument out of it and to target a public figure rather than a person in your sphere. In Walter Wink’s provocative book, Jesus and Nonviolence: a third way, he relates the story of civil rights marchers in Selma, AL singing about their love for Jim Clark, the infamous local sheriff, who was about to release the dogs on them. The marchers were adamant that they could not succeed if they did not use love and action to change people like Jim Clark, who did change (pp. 64-66). I suggest posting an unapologetic prayer for the good of someone everyone knows you disagree with. Click To Tweet

5. Defend the Humanity of an opponent

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble . . .” – Luke 19:5b-7a (NRSV)

Make no mistake, the people had good reason to grumble over Zacchaeus. In their world taxes were oppressive. Remember that industrialized farms are two millennia away. These people scraped by; ever flirting with having less than they needed to survive.

Imagine, giving yourself to back-breaking work six days a week, having just enough to feed your kids, and along comes Zacchaeus, asking for twenty percent—when you know the real tax is less than that.

But, such is the scandal of Jesus’ grace. He defends people who are guilty. He does not defend Zacchaeus’ misuse of his responsibility, of course. He defends his suitability as a partner in table fellowship. He defends his worthiness to be included in social hospitality. And apparently, Jesus’ subversive request speaks directly to Zacchaeus’ deepest needs, because it elicits a radical change.

I tried this recently, partially because I didn’t want to write this article without having practiced these suggestions. I defended my secular humanist friends against the claims of a video that I saw as slanderous to them. I got an email or two from people concerned I had become a secular humanist.

That is bizarre to me, but I know making such assumptions is a cultural perspective not unique to the Church. Jesus’ desire to eat with Zacchaeus doesn’t make him a greedy tax collector any more than my defense of secular humanists makes me one.

Those people who are dehumanizing you in the comments, they deserve to be treated humanely. Be the prophet who defends their dignity, without an ounce of fear that doing so diminishing your own commitment to Jesus and his way.

Following Jesus is not a guarantee to stop the negativity. If anything, it might just increase. Remember, Jesus was so upside down that the world hated him. To act on the upside-down impulse is to ruffle the system that is right-side-up. But take heart, for he has overcome the world and will take care of you . . . even if you feel like a toothpick in a tsunami.