Recently, a pastor said, “If some place is really dark, then you need to be the light.” He was talking about social media. Another pastor said, also about social media: “These are people who mean to do a lot of good—whether they’re on the right or the left politically, it doesn’t matter—but they’re just contributing to the noise, and it grieves my heart.” Both pastors are my friends, but it sounds like they’re saying completely opposite things. What to do?
Then there’s the classic Bonhoeffer quote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” I’ve repeated some version of “silence is complicity” to explain why I enter the fray on social media, like when I speak out against personal and systemic racism or what I have viewed for four years as the horrors of the Trump presidency. Then last week, I listened to a well-known evangelical, whose current theology and political ideology I find abhorrent, claim the Bonhoeffer mantle to explain why he continues to speak out about his belief that the election was stolen from Trump because of widespread election fraud- which DID NOT happen. I feel like we’re living in alternate universes when people at opposite ends of the political and religious spectrum invoke the same Bonhoeffer quote to explain themselves.
In fact, almost exactly three years ago, I published a blog post called Alternate Universes. Near the end of that post, I said, “The problem with living in alternate universes is that it’s difficult to talk to each other.” And it has become even more difficult in recent weeks as we transition to a new administration.
If I want to “be the light” on social media, as my pastor friend put it, how do I do that? When my Facebook friends and I can’t agree on basic facts, such as the truth about who got the most votes in the recent presidential election or the truth about who was involved in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building, how in the world can we talk to each other? I wonder how people I know to be intelligent, generous, kind, and morally upright in their personal lives can possibly believe all kinds of conspiracy theories of the Q-Anon variety. I’m sure they wonder the same things about me, because when I’ve tried to fact-check from reputable and non-partisan sources I’ve used for a long time, they’ve called me “deceived,” discredited the fact-checkers, told me not to trust my media sources, and in one case even blocked me. What good does it do to keep trying to convince them, and what good does it do for them to keep trying to convince me?
For more than 40 years, I’ve worked within the church context to promote peace and nonviolence and social justice, most often by my writing and editorial work. I have felt compelled (or “called,” in Christian language) to use whatever writing and editorial skills I have to speak out. We all have our gifts, and if writing is one of mine, shouldn’t I use it to speak out on behalf of what I believe is true and right and against those things I believe are false and wrong, especially when real people’s lives and well-being are at stake?
Almost 30 years ago, I wrote a book for the Brethren in Christ Church called Perspectives on Social Issues.” In the preface I said, “I’ve been extremely conscious of how little I know and how inadequately I myself measure up to what I’m calling others to do. I feel somewhat like Paul in Romans 7: ‘I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.’ I know what’s right and what I should do, but it is often difficult and costly.”
More than 20 years ago, when I wrote the chapter on the “Pursuing Peace” core value for Focusing Our Faith: Brethren in Christ Core Values, I ended the chapter with this confession:
Pursuing peace . . . is a high value for me and one that I have worked at all of my adult life because I believe in the deepest core of my being that God calls Christians to peacemaking. Having said that, I am also painfully aware that I have not always acted as though I believe it; I have not always practiced forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation. . . . [B]y choosing the word “pursuing” to describe what we want to do about peace, we are acknowledging that it is a continuous activity. We are always going after or chasing peace. Sometime peace is elusive, sometimes there are complications, sometimes there are obstacles to overcome. Maybe we will never capture peace, but we are always pursuing, always following after Christ, who indeed is our peace. . . .
Those confessions still stand, and the realities of my own shortcomings and imperfections continue to haunt me as I speak out on social media in ways that frustrate and anger others who disagree with me. I ask myself: Am I engaging in the same kind of behavior that I criticize in others? How can I speak the truth as I understand it and challenge others’ thinking while also being willing to consider other truth, other perspectives? What might I be missing? How can I speak out forthrightly but also with humility, compassion, understanding, respect, and love for those with whom I disagree strenuously? Is it arrogant of me to think that I can in fact “be a light”? What is truth anyway?
Social media (in my case, Facebook because it’s the only platform I use regularly) can be a force for good. I enjoy the connections with family members, close friends, former colleagues, acquaintances – learning about their lives and seeing the photos they post. I appreciate friends who are careful thinkers and who use Facebook to challenge and inspire others. I am grateful to be part of several private groups where we can support one another and feel safe to discuss what’s on our minds. I like having a way to share this blog with others who might not otherwise see it. I like being able to follow a number of individuals and reputable news outlets that offer a variety of perspectives on current events and provide links to other sources of information. I am grateful for a platform that allows organizations “free” advertising by way of their Facebook pages.
But it must be said: social media can also be awful, bringing out the absolute worst in human behavior. I ask myself regularly: What is wrong with people?
I think about something else I wrote awhile back: “Speaking Truth With Words That Give Grace.” The title collapses several verses at the end of Ephesians 4. I concluded with these words:
I confess that many many times over the years I have struggled with “speaking truth” . . . . I have remained silent when I should have spoken up (or written something). I have also struggled with the grace part, as I feel anything but full of grace for those whose words and actions I abhor or cannot support. Nevertheless, despite my failures, speaking truth with words that give grace remains a goal for the way I want to approach my life.
I take seriously my pastor friend’s challenge to “be the light” on social media, and I want to avoid what my other pastor friend said about many social media posts just “contributing to the noise.” Being a light and speaking truth without contributing to the noise is my goal. But is it possible?