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How can Christians resist the ethic of outrage culture?

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April 8, 2021

As 2020 ended, many anticipated that the turning of the New Year would bring with it a fresh dose of hope and a reprieve from the hardships that marked the last year. And, in some ways, it has. COVID-19, at least in America, seems to be trending in a promising direction, vaccinations continue at a rapid pace, and life is slowly beginning to look more normal. But while one pandemic seems keen on abating, another more insidious pathogen continues to intensify. 

I’m speaking of our “outrage culture” and the anger that fuels it. Outrage culture, sadly, is a phenomenon that has enticed us far and wide, even within the church. And, based on Tim Kreider’s commentary, “enticed” is the exact right word. He says, “Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure” (emphasis added). Pete Ross calls our anger and outrage an “acceptable and addictive drug of society” which convinces us that we’re smart, we’re right, and “we have the necessary ideas to fix everything. That we’re the ones that need to be in charge.” We apparently can’t help but participate in outrage culture because doing so feeds a Pharisaical self-righteousness that feels good. It coddles the pride that, unless God grants repentance, will result in disgrace and, ultimately, our destruction.

Proverbs and the way of wisdom

Sadly, among the Christian community, our outrage and self-righteous Pharisaism is often aimed toward one another. Dan Darling calls this “a kind of performative self-flagellation incentivized by a social media environment that rewards hot-takes, shaming, and appealing to tribes,” all of which spills out of a heart angered by the internet controversy of the day. And day after day, Christians, with unbefitting outrage, continue to “rhetorically sacrifice” their own brothers and sisters in the faith. 

If our anger and outrage—forms of self-righteous pleasure-seeking—are rooted in pride, then the book of Proverbs shows us a better way. Proverbs 11:12 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” The way of outrage culture is the way of belligerence, the way lacking in self-control, the way of slander and self-righteousness; it is the way of pride. But the way of wisdom is the way of humility and charity, of compassion, of patience and long-suffering; it is the way of holiness. 

But, the question remains, can Christians resist the enticements of outrage culture? From the Proverbs of Solomon to the book of James, the Bible answers this contemporary question with a resounding yes. By the power of the Spirit, humility and charity are the first two steps forward. 

  1. Humility

Rick Warren, in his best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life, said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less,” which is generally a fair statement. But, in the case of outrage culture, where the tendency is to lambaste our opponents because “we’re right and we need to be in charge,” thinking less of ourselves and the primacy of our expertise is an effective place to begin. Biblical humility, though, does not advocate for a self-deprecating view of oneself. Rather, it advocates for a right view of oneself, recognizing that we are creatures, recipients of God’s common grace who are offered God’s saving grace found in Christ, just like those we’re raging against.

Further, because we know that “pride goes before destruction,” as Solomon warns, we can be sure that if we practice the ethic of the outrage culture, with its furious fits and spats, any authority that we possess or hope to possess will ultimately be taken from us. In so doing, we will have proven ourselves unqualified. There is no attribute or behavior more unbefitting of the kingdom of God than the sin of pride.

Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Unimaginable honor and authority await those who have humbled themselves before God. We will not show ourselves capable of entering God’s kingdom or exercising the rule he promises to entrust us with until humility becomes our fundamental orientation toward our Father in Heaven, our brothers and sisters, and our neighbors, whether online or in-person.

  1. Charity

Scrolling down a Twitter feed or a Facebook timeline, it’s often hard to imagine that Christians take Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Though he was clear on the mountainside that day that he expects his followers to love not only our neighbors but our enemies, this has proven to be an elusive standard. Even the most intuitive act of charity, “loving those who love you,” often seems too ambitious for the people of God in our online interactions.

But, Jesus and, later, the Apostle Paul, were not offering quips or suggestions to be implemented at our discretion. They were showing us the way of righteousness, the narrow way of the kingdom, the way of the children of God. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “For he (God) is gracious to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35). “Charity is kind,” says Paul, “it doth not behave itself unseemly . . . is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil . . . beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” (1 Cor. 13:4, 5, 7, KJV). “This is the way,” God is telling us. “Walk in it” (Isa.30:21).

God the Father, through God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit has commanded and empowered us to live our lives with a charity that is other-worldly and that we learn from him. Thus, as we seek to resist the lure of outrage culture and embody the way of Christ, let us take seriously these words of Andrew Murray: “Let our temper be under the rule of the love of Jesus. He alone can make us gentle and patient. Let the vow that not an unkind word about others will ever be heard from our lips (or read in our writing) be laid trustingly at His feet. Let the gentleness that refuses to take offense, that is always ready to excuse, to think and hope the best, mark our dealings with all.”

Outrage toward indwelling sin

Not all outrage is off-limits for the children of God, though. A Christian ought to be appalled at the lingering depravity and brokenness of the world; it is our native response. In fact, to pray “thy kingdom come,” as Jesus taught us, is itself a statement of outrage against the world’s fallenness. But woe to us if we believe it right to do violence against God’s image-bearers with uncharitable and outrageous words.

There is a place where the full force of our outrage can be levied: Toward indwelling sin. John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Rather than adopting the ethic of outrage culture and spewing rage at one another, and taking pleasure in it, we would do well to redirect our attention inward, toward the indwelling sin “waiting to destroy everything we love,” as Matt Chandler has said. The Apostle Paul says, “if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Life and death are before us. Shall we yield to the pride of our flesh and join the carnal chorus of outrage culture, a culture that loves its sin and hates its neighbor? Or shall we aim our outrage inward and, by the Spirit, put to death these self-righteous deeds of the body?

Brothers and sisters, may we be a people who embody the ethic of God’s kingdom, not that of outrage culture. May we be a people who keep the commands of Jesus, all of them. And, humbly, may we begin by loving our neighbors and hating our sin.  

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author