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Christians, social media, and (in)civility

We live in a world saturated with information and news. We have more information at our fingertips at this very moment—with our smartphones, email inboxes, and 24-hour cable news—than entire generations in the past could access in a lifetime. There are many God-glorifying benefits to this access, but in this age of social media, we often prize immediacy over accuracy, and tribes over truthfulness, to the detriment of our society and culture.

James 1:19 reminds us that, even in our technologically-rich world, Christians have the responsibility and mandate from the Lord to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” The wisdom found in this text reminds us that we, as creatures, do not know everything and that our desire to speak quickly to public issues can lead us in ways that dishonor the Lord and betray the humanity of our neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39).

This especially rings true in light of the controversy last Friday afternoon between a group of Covington Catholic High School young men, a Native American elder, and Black Hebrew Israelites, all in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. The reaction and retractions since the viral footages went live have been astounding and are a vivid reminder of why Christians, of all people, must pursue wisdom in how we communicate, the news we share, and the opinions we give in a world infatuated with social media.

Quick to hear and slow to speak

Our current culture has produced a mentality that we must respond to and comment on everything that takes place in the world, immediately. Social media isn’t the specific problem; we know that what we see online is just a symptom of a deeper, older issue that has been ravishing our world since the Fall. Technology itself is neither good nor evil. Instead, it provides an avenue for us to pursue and play out our age-old sins of pride, arrogance, and the pursuit of self-righteousness. Our ancient ancestors, Adam and Eve, were deceived by the devil in the garden as they sought to trust themselves rather than what God said (Gen. 3). But the Fall doesn’t just show us how broken we are and how our sin has produced unholy desires in our life. It also reminds us that we are not God even though we so desperately long to take his place.

The temptation of social media is that we feel more informed and connected than ever before as a society, even though we still do not have full knowledge of any given situation. James’ exhortation to us in his letter is to “be quick to hear” because we are not gods and never will be, regardless of what our devices try to tell us. Our lack of information should humble us and give us pause. We are all fallible creatures who serve an infallible and perfect God. He alone has all of the information and context. We fool ourselves into thinking that we know everything the moment a controversy ignites online.

The way to combat this temptation is to remind ourselves of who we are as God’s image-bearers. We can be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” because we recognize our limits. Furthermore, we are called to these things because of how they affect our neighbors.

Pursuing civility

Being civil with others is not a new concept, but it’s being discussed more frequently due to the breakdown of tasteful discourse in our society. Often, it seems that passionate people on both side of the political aisle are unable to engage in debate with the concept of another’s dignity in mind. We categorize those who differ from our positions as “monsters,” “bigots,” and a host of other derogatory names that betray the humanity of God’s image-bearers.

Every generation believes that the time they live in is of utmost importance and that the debates they have will forever alter the history of our world. Reading historical accounts, however, is a helpful way for us to be reminded that the days in which we live are often not the most consequential in the arc of history. While significant events and debates are certainly taking place, we should avoid the posture that everything we face is superior and worth demonizing our neighbors over in order to “win” the debate.

We can both treat those with whom we disagree as people made in God’s image and have rigorous debates about our beliefs and various positions. We must pursue truth and love at the same time, a balance that Christ himself modeled perfectly for his people throughout his life. This balance of truth and love is the model for civility we should follow and will be a natural byproduct of those of us who seek to be quick to hear, and slow to speak.

We pursue civility in public discourse because all people, even the ones we might vehemently disagree with or be offended by, are made in God’s image and must not be treated as enemies. Christians know that we only have one Enemy (1 John 3:8; 1 Pet. 1:8-9; Eph. 6:12) One of the ways that we can fight against the powers of darkness in our world is to treat every human being, regardless of political position, party affiliation, or supposed worth to society with the value bestowed on them by God (Acts 26:18).

Taking time to listen and process the things that we hear, read, and experience will lead us to better conclusions and more God-glorifying discourse. James’s call for the church in the social media age is to pursue and proclaim truth as we love our neighbors. That often looks like God’s people taking time to slow down, listen to our neighbors, and demonstrate love as representatives of the King to a world that desperately needs to hear the message of salvation more than the latest hot-take.

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