Fake news. Social media outrage. Political polarization. Ideological bullying. These are just a few of the centralizing characteristics of our current social climate in the US. It should not surprise us, then, that our collective cultural head is spinning as we simultaneously attempt to hold together a persistent insistence on ideological tolerance and a call for radical justice outrage. One of the clearest examples of this problematic yet ever increasing norm in our society came last week when a group of Roman Catholic High School students--who happened to be on a pro-life trip--became the objects of social bullying and bigotry--and, all under the faulty lens of social media manipulation and slander. There has never been a more opportune time for Christians to reflect on the significance of the truths of the Proverbs than there is at present. In fact, it is long overdue for us to learn how to handle ourselves with wisdom and prudence with regard to that to which we listen and respond--especially when it comes to what is streaming across our televisions, computers and phones.
The acerbic reaction and irreparable harm resulting from the Covington High School fiasco is an example of our dire need to learn to put the Proverbs into practice. The wisest man who ever lived--our Lord Jesus excepted--gave us the following wisdom principles from Proverbs: "The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps" (Prov. 14:15); and, "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him" (Prov. 18:17). While these truths ought to strike us as self-evident, our failure to implement them on so many levels proves why God breathed them out to us in His word. How could the Covington debacle have played out, if there were wise men and women in the mainstream media and on our social media platforms?
A blogger from outside the US propagated false information on a fake twitter account by means of a selective video clip and a punchy tagline full of caustic rhetoric. On account of the ease and speed with which one can do such things in our technological society, we have all the more reason to pause when we first hear any such controversial accounts and remind ourselves of the following questions:
- Do we have all the facts?
This is, of course, the starting point to wise reaction to such stories. If I was not there, did not see the entire event unfold, have not read court documentation and do not have a double portion of the spirit of Elisha (2 Kings 6:12), then I probably should not be speaking about an issue. It doesn't matter how much i may have convinced myself of the depravity level of people who wear MAGA hats, it is foolish for us to speak without all the facts. Will we ever learn this wisdom principle?
- Have both sides had opportunity to speak?
Related to the first wisdom principle is a second. In order to have all the facts, we must let both parties speak. Until Nick Sandmann pled his cause before the court of public opinion (the worst court in which to be tried), he was already convicted, judged and tried by the social media jury. Why not rather wait to respond to anything that we hear online until we allow differing parties to speak? What folly to rush to weigh in on matters that do not directly impact us, nor involve our personal witness in any way whatsoever. There are abundant reasons why God's word sets out the evil and harm of slander. It is for our own good. Would we want to be on the receiving end of malicious misrepresentation on a global scale? The reputations of the boys from Covington High School may never fully be repaired in light of what one Brazilian blogger did from the comfort of his living room under a deceitful pseudonym on a social media account. Multitudes contributed to the smearing of these boys' reputations by receiving the story without hearing the parties involved.
- Is this a matter in which I must invest time or emotional capital?
This is the third wisdom principle that we must seek to apply. Does God require me to speak to each and every issue that springs up online. There is an account in the Gospel of Luke, in which some people had come to Jesus about a matter of social outrage (Luke 13:1-2). Pilate had mingled the blood of some Galileans with pig blood--a scandal of epic proportions among the members of the Old Covenant theocracy. Instead of speaking to that matter, Jesus appealed to two other accounts of injustice and then called everyone present to repent of their own sins. Jesus did not give in to every whim and fancy of the time. He was not lead by this news story or that news story. Instead, he was lead by a zeal to speak the greater truths of God to those around him. This serves as a model of that into which we should be seeking to invest our time and energy.
- Have I been motivated by a desire to glorify God in my response? Or, am I simply jumping on a bandwagon of outrage because it seems like the thing to do?
This is a wisdom principle that only I can personally answer. Others may speculate as to what my motives are in speaking to any public news story. However, God calls us to examine ourselves and to know why we are speaking on whatever subject we may speak. As Jesus said, "for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36). This means that I must always pause and ask myself, "What is motivating my speech on a particular subject." Just because I believe that Donald Trump embodies every ungodly principle in Scripture doesn't mean that I should speak in emotional reaction to some news story about anyone wearing a MAGA hat. It may be that I am simply reacting to my feelings and emotions, rather than acting on principle and on a desire to bring God glory in my speech and writing. This also is not wise (Prov. 29:11). It takes time to examine our own motives. It takes wisdom to do so as well. This should, at the very least, slow us down as we seek to know how to respond--or whether we even should respond to some particular story of social outrage.
- Am I truly seeking to better the society in which I live if I engage in lightening fast visceral reactions to each and every politically polarizing social media story that streams across my computer?
The final wisdom principle we ought to be seeking to implement in regard to our social media engagement is that concerning our commitment to build up those around us. Are we encouraging the fruit of the Spirit in our conversations? Are we building others up by pointing them to Christ and helping them grow into loving, joyful, peaceable, gentle, good, faithful and self-controlled men and women? If what we write or say is merely reflecting our own cynicism, sarcasm or disdain for others, we are simply passing that example along to those who read what we right and listen to what we say. This will not be long lived in a society that feeds on division and scandal. As David Brooks has noted, "It's hard to believe that people are going to continue forever on platforms where they are so cruel to one another. It's hard to believe that people are going to be content, year after year, to distort their own personalities in service to a platform, making themselves humorless, semi-blind, joyless and grim."
While we could ask a dozen other biblically formed questions to help guide us in the process of knowing how or whether we should respond to what we hear online on a daily basis, these principles should serve as a starting point for us to use social media in a more God-honoring way. The glory of God, the reputation of others, divine principles of justice and the good of society are on the line. That little snarky tweet in response to news coverage about a group of high school student in MAGA hats may have made your friends laugh and garnered you a few more followers, but it probably also aided in smearing the reputation of these young men--now putting them and their families in the threat of physical danger. Instead of getting outraged by MAGA hats, let's commit to making wisdom great again. We can start to do so by asking God for grace to put in practice the great wisdom principle of the Savior, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."