Any hands left unraised?
Facebook says they don’t keep “unfriending” statistics, so we don’t have quantitative data on how many social media friendships were ended over the course the last year or so. But qualitative data is all over the place. The 2016 election hit the internet like a steamroller, leaving behind a trail of broken relationships. Articles were shared, soapboxes were mounted and the “angry” button recently introduced by Facebook was given an intense workout. We may not know exactly how many relationships were damaged, but it’s clear that the impact was broad enough that it’s reached nearly every single one of us in some way.
And let’s be honest—Christians were just as involved in this as anyone else.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with feeling passionate about what you believe, or even getting angry when you see wrong being done or promoted. But as Christians, we’re called to a different way of engaging with people—even people we disagree with. And if we look at the Bible (which seems like a good place to look), we’ll see that it has some pretty clear things to say about this.
Love your enemies.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
This is about as clear-cut as it gets. If you have an enemy, love them. If you have an antagonist, love them. If you have a ridiculer, an opponent, an outspoken uncle, an annoying Facebook friend, a neighbor with a yard sign you’re not a fan of, love them.
Side note—how many of us really have “enemies”? We all have people we disagree with, people we don’t like, but how many of us really have someone we hate so much that we’d call them an “enemy”? It’s about as harsh a word as Jesus could choose, even being used to describe Satan in other places in the Bible. But He uses it anyway. And if we’re commanded to love our enemies, then how much more easily must that command apply to people who make us mad on the internet?
Now, obviously, this isn’t to say we have to agree with their opinion. It’s not even to say that we shouldn’t confront them, if the situation calls for it. But if we say we want to take Jesus seriously, then his command is pretty clear—we have to love them.
Live at peace with everyone.
In the book of Romans, Paul instructs:
If at all possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone … ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12: 18, 20-21)
Before getting into what this passage says, let’s talk about what it doesn’t say. It would be easy to take the phrase “as far as it depends on you” and turn it into an excuse to descend into any type of nasty conflict presented to you, just as long as you’re not the one who started it.
But that is not what’s being communicated here. Even just the first four words—“if at all possible”—tell us that the only way we should accept anything less than peace is if it’s impossible. Not inconvenient, not unlikely. Impossible. And from that perspective, “as far as it depends on you” places the responsibility for peace almost entirely (and immovably) on our shoulders. And by the way, we’re instructed to live at peace with everyone. The word “enemy” gets brought up here again, too. So, yes, Paul really means everyone.
Jesus says that people will be able to tell that we’re his disciples if we love one another (John 13:34-35). If we’re able to respond to hostility with love—to “overcome evil with good”—then we have a chance to show people how powerful Jesus’ love is, even in the midst of conflict.
Be quick to listen and slow to speak.
In his letter, James writes:
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20)
The internet is like a dysfunctional relationship—no one is ever really listening, just waiting for their turn to talk. How many conflicts would be so much more easily resolved if both sides decided to listen first and talk second?
Of course, the format of the internet itself works against this. If someone says something you don’t like, it’s easy to just scroll away or click “unfriend.” If you have an opinion to express, you’re just a few keystrokes away from sharing it with the world, often with a (false) sense of anonymity. There’s really no incentive to listen, but there’s plenty of incentive to talk—hot takes, name calling and knee-jerk reactions get attention on the internet, and with that attention comes the feeling of instant gratification.
This might be the clearest example of how we, as followers of Jesus, are called to something higher than the type of communication our culture has resorted to. The instruction James gives here is really clear—listen first. If a friend says something you think is crazy, ask them why they think that. If a relative asks you how you could possibly believe what you believe, be just as interested in why they believe what they believe. Even when you hear someone say something offensive, it’s possible to correct them in a kind, loving way that will accomplish the same thing that yelling at them would, but might actually strengthen your relationship with them.
The Bible doesn’t prohibit disagreements. It doesn’t discourage us from sharing our opinions or standing up for what we believe in. But it is really clear about a few things. We have to love our enemies. We have to do everything we can to live at peace with everyone. We have to avoid foolish arguments. We have to be kind.
If we call ourselves followers of Jesus, we have to take His Word seriously. But if we are engaging in arguments (political or otherwise), we really have two choices: follow the instructions that we’re given in the Bible, or acknowledge that we call ourselves Christians, but are only really interested in following God’s commands that fit into our preferred way of living.
These tense political times offer many opportunities to sink down to a really nasty level of discourse. But they also offer us, as Christians, an incredible opportunity to swing to the opposite side of the spectrum—to speak with humility, to show grace and to demonstrate that no matter how different we may be, God’s love is available to everyone.