By / Mar 11

We are swimming, drowning even, in a sea of words.

According to most estimates, there are around 6,000 tweets sent on Twitter every second. Facebook users, the roughly three billion of them, undoubtedly post even more, both in cumulative volume and character length. Add to this the ever-deepening deluge of newsletters and blog posts and articles (like this one) being published daily, and it’s not hard to imagine why many call this the “Information Age.” 

But as the Information Age has progressed, and each of us has been given a public platform from which to project our own voice, this information-rich age has been diluted. Profitable information, buried beneath the shouts and influencers and vapid words plastered on our screens, has become harder to locate. Social media, for all its personal and societal benefits, has served to replace our Information Age with the “age of opinion.” 

Opinion overload

If you do the math, on Twitter alone, 6,000 tweets per second comes to about 350,000 tweets per minute, 500 million tweets per day, and nearly 200 billion tweets per year. Though not all these tweets are opinion-generated, these are nevertheless staggering numbers that reveal just how much we love to hear ourselves “talk.” What is it that convinces us that our opinions, whether on matters of great importance or the latest entertainment gossip-talk, must be shared?

In a recent newsletter commenting on modern society and how we’ve come to find our way in it, John Starke discusses two terms helpful for this discussion: Expressive Individualism and Performative Individualism. Social media, regardless of what its founders set out to make it, has evolved into a platform that caters to our apparent hunger to express ourselves and to perform for whoever is watching. The sharing of our opinions and our experiences, and doctoring them up to get the most reactions, is often a sort of performative self-expression driven by the need to be heard or, as Starke argues, “to be loved”—even when we’re saying what’s right and true.

Contributing also to our glut of opinion-sharing is the way the merger between the Information Age and our “age of opinion” has developed what Andrew Walker calls “a growing cultural trend of presumed omnicompetence.” Because we have expansive amounts of information at our fingertips, we sometimes assume that a quick Google search offers us the necessary level of expertise to knowledgeably speak to a number of topics and issues that we actually know very little about. And when this presumed omnicompetence is mingled with our compulsion to perform and express ourselves online we find ourselves contributing to the superfluity of social media posts. 

Silence and fruitfulness

If we’re serious about emulating the way of Christ, about “submitting what and where we are to God,” as Dallas Willard wrote, then the way we speak (or tweet or post) ought to be of great concern to us. This includes the amount of speaking that we do. To that point, Solomon in his collection of Proverbs says that “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19). It is not merely that an abundance of words offers ample opportunities to say something unkind or ill-conceived or ignorant, but that logorrhea is a habit of pride, a presumption that our words are needed and definitive. So, in this age of opinion, of performative self-expression and presumed omnicompetence, what does it look like to approach social media with prudence?

  1. Self-Imposed Silence

“It is very, very freeing to not comment on all issues. Self-imposed silence is a gift of wisdom…” says Walker. In an environment where we are affirmed and valorized for our tweeting and posting, and which feeds our craving for the public display of our competence and our piety, self-imposed silence is a way of prudence too often omitted. Neither Walker nor Solomon are advocating for utter silence, but rather for silence where it is appropriate and wise. Like long-winded writers working to meet their word count, we would do well to impose our own similar restrictions.

  1. Fruitful Dormancy

Where Walker advises his reader, in resistance to the “growing cultural trend of presumed omnicompetence,” to war against the compulsion to “say everything about anything,” Starke, responding to the performative self-expression we’ve already discussed, advocates for a “principle of hiddenness,” employing a term he calls “fruitful dormancy.” In a culture that lionizes the public and performative life—a practice that Jesus himself tells us to beware of (Mt. 6:1)—Starke reminds us to “aim our lives towards ‘the Father who sees in secret.’” As it relates to our online life, this is a call (as the term suggests) to embrace a sort of dormancy or temporary inactivity. It’s a call to do an about-face, away from the public life we’ve so carefully curated and toward our God “who sees what is done in secret” (Mt. 6:6).

Maybe this means we should abstain regularly from social media and impose some sort of daily usage rule. Or, maybe it means we delete our account(s) altogether. Perhaps it simply involves asking ourselves a set of questions before drafting posts online or responding to others, questions like: “Why do I feel the need to say this?” or “Is my voice and opinion really needed on this topic?” or “Will this contribute to the conversation positively?” How these ideas are applied will vary, but for the sake of our spiritual health and the public witness of the church we must discover how best to control our “lips.” 

In the secret, in the quiet place

As John Piper has said, “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.” While this article is not aimed specifically at prayerlessness, it does seem that we’ve contented ourselves with exchanging the quiet of prayer or the quiet of study or the quiet of relative obscurity and anonymity with the noise of social media and its promise of being seen and heard far and wide, even by people we don’t know. Our addiction to this noise has frayed our attention, has impeded our ability to think, and it has convinced us to participate in the charade of performative self-expression. And more than anything, it has withered the roots of our life with God. 

The way forward seems clear. The call of our day, for many of us, is to retreat from the cosmos of social media where we so often, even unbeknownst to ourselves, practice our righteousness before others, and instead go to our Father in secret, with whom there’s no need to perform, to whom we can express ourselves, and from whom we can receive true competence, the wisdom and understanding founded in the fear of the Lord. It is there, in the hidden place with God, where our need to be known and loved is truly satisfied.

By / Mar 23

Last week, the Obama administration ended its long silence on the question of whether the so-called Islamic State has been perpetrating a genocide against Yezidis, Christians, Shi’a Muslims and others. To its credit, the administration forcefully declared that the Islamic State is guilty of genocide, the strongest word we have to describe the desecration of human dignity.

What is especially significant about the administration’s declaration last week is that Christians were included in the declaration. There had been rumors for months that the administration was planning to declare that the Islamic State had committed genocide, but only against Yezidis. Secretary of State John Kerry’s inclusion of Christians in the declaration is important and legitimizes the indescribable suffering that our brothers and sisters have faced in Iraq and Syria.

Defining genocide

Genocide is a term coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin, and the term combines the Greek root genos with the Latin cide to mean the killing of a tribe, family or race. In short, the term genocide is used to describe a program to completely exterminate a people, to wipe them out of existence.

There are a number of different legal definitions of genocide, but the most authoritative definition comes from the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Under the 1948 Geneva Convention, genocide is the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group through any of the following acts:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It is often difficult to prove that a genocide has been perpetrated, in part because the intent to exterminate a people is a tricky thing to prove. The Islamic State, however, has made its intentions very clear, such as when the organization lined up 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians on a beach in Libya, killing them only for being Christians.

The shame of failing to condemn

This marks only the second time since the passage of the 1948 Geneva Convention on genocide that the U.S. executive branch has invoked the word in the midst of the conflict. In 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that a genocide was being committed against non-Arabs in the Darfur region of Sudan. The war in Darfur continues today, and the International Criminal Court has so far been unable to secure a conviction of genocide.

The U.S. did not, to our great shame, invoke the term “genocide” during the Rwandan genocide, which left between 500,000 and 1,000,000 dead. Indeed, in a now-infamous discussion paper, the legal team at the Department State specifically warned against making a declaration of genocide, because this might “commit the [U.S. government] to actually ‘do something’” to stop the genocide.

Burned by the disastrous operation at the Battle of Mogadishu, the Clinton administration decided to stay out of the situation, letting the body count rack up rather than get involved.

That situation is not unlike the one the Obama administration faces today, and we applaud the Obama administration, despite the fact that the country is weary of and burned by lengthy engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, was willing to do the right thing here.

Recognition comes with obligation

As President Obama says frequently, there are no good options in Syria and Iraq. This much is self-evident.

What is easy to miss in this discussion is that simply saying something really does matter to the international community. As the world’s lone superpower, what the United States says—or doesn’t say say—creates, defines and clarifies international norms on what kind of state behavior is acceptable.

But of course, if there are no consequences when norms are violated, there never was a norm in the first place. And thus comes the Obama administration’s obligation to actually “do something” to help those who are being systematically exterminated from the territory controlled by the Islamic State. Whether the solution is a safe zone in the Nineveh Plain, or forming and supporting militias to protect endangered minorities, or some other solution is for others to say.

But what we can say is that President Obama should now do two things. First, he should articulate and advance a clear strategy to bring the genocide to an end that goes beyond the platitudes of “utterly destroying” the Islamic State. Second, he should set the United States on a course to hold those within the Islamic State accountable before an international tribunal when the dust has settled on this conflict.

Moving toward word and deed

Those of us who have advocated for months for this genocide declaration must give the Obama administration credit: they had the opportunity to remain silent. There was certainly enough precedent to convince themselves that silence was the wisest option. But the Obama administration did not remain silent, and we give them credit for that. And now we urge them to intensify U.S. efforts to do something about the genocide taking place even today.

In the meantime, let us continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq who face choices that are unimaginable to us. Let us pray that God would give them wisdom to know where to go and when. In their time of need, let us pray that God would feed them more abundantly than the birds of the sky and clothe them more radiantly than the flowers of the field. But most of all, let us pray that the power and presence of God would be manifest among them.