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When the Ugliness Gets Personal

When the Ugliness Gets Personal

With just over two months to go before the election, most sane people are thoroughly sick of the propaganda, the spin, the accusations and the dishonest rhetoric that we’re being fed through all forms of media, obnoxious robo-calls, and especially through those shameful ideological email forwards that we’ve somehow not yet learned to stop forwarding. As a society, we’ve got a lot of room to grow when it comes to disagreeing civilly.

It’s true that we need greater civility, and that civility starts with ourselves. Nowhere is this more obvious, and more personal, perhaps, than in the comment sections of blogs and columns. Every time I post about the climate crisis—and there has been a lot to write about here lately—I have come to expect critical comments. These used to bother me a lot at first. As a non-confrontational people-pleaser by nature, I cringe at conflict and controversy, and I tend to take critical comments personally. I feel an urge to either give up dialoguing, or else lash back out and defend myself.

Over time I’ve grown better at sifting through the chaff. Every once in a while, I’ll read a comment that is more thoughtful. But often, the negative comments are spiteful and baseless.There is something about issues like global warming or immigration reform that really bring out the fury and passion in some people. It can get harsh—especially online where things are impersonal—and there is little accountability or few long-term consequences, at least for the critic. I guess I’ve gotten used to dealing with the pushback.

It’s more than just online comments, too. Sometimes the opposition is more organized and intentional. A recent fundraising email blast from a group opposing climate action publically targeted the group I help lead, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, with harsh criticism and untrue claims. See how we responded here.

Being an activist makes you a lighting rod for opposition. As many of you know, it’s rough and can be surprisingly hurtful. But here’s the thing: taking a stand is often going to be unpopular. We cannot expect to take faithful stands and avoid controversy. Standing up for what is right and good—which is always about standing up with Jesus in the end—comes at a cost. Jesus Himself warned us about this. And, like the early Church, many parts of the global Church today actually face heavy persecution. While things might not be pleasant for us, we really have no right to complain. Rather, we have every reason to push on faithfully, commanded by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to treat even our enemies with love. For when we were still God’s enemies He loved us so much that He gave the life of his Son to reconcile us back to Him.

So don’t avoid taking a moral stand on issues because they are controversial, and don’t be discouraged when you face opposition for doing what is right. Expect such things and move forward anyway. Here are five thoughts on how I am learning to more constructively approach opposition and criticism:

Pray. The first thing I (try to) always do when I face opposition is pray. On one hand, it helps me to stay more humble, loving, and teachable. On the other hand, it reminds me that, while I am a people-pleaser by nature, my hope is to be like the Apostle Paul—ultimately committed to seeking God’s approval (Galatians 1:10).

Value good criticism. This usually takes intentional practice for me to do well. But thoughtful criticism—especially when offered with sincerity, civility, and charity—has helped me learn and grow a lot over the years. We all make mistakes and have blind spots; we can all benefit from constructive criticism if our pride and stubbornness doesn’t get in the way.

Engage respectfully. Good constructive criticism deserves to be engaged when feasible. If possible, I respond directly or in the same venue to the individual, and always first run my response by wise people who I trust to be fair. I’ve found that sometimes criticism is a matter of misunderstanding or miscommunication that can be clarified or otherwise resolved. But it is also okay to engage sincerely with each other and still not come to agreement. When interacting with fellow Christians, I’ve found it particularly meaningful that we are still able to remain united in love for God and each other in spite of significant disagreements.

Ignore the vitriol. There are a lot of malicious comments being thrown around out there. Sometimes people act like real jerks—especially online—when they disagree with you. Whether the content of the criticism is off base or the tone is inappropriate, it’s tempting to be intimidated or discouraged when others lash out. Don’t be. And don’t lash back out in return. Stand firm, brush it off as the nonsense that it is, and keep moving. If possible, I don’t even respond at all. It’s usually a waste of time and the attention just further encourages such shameful behavior.

Be joyful. Again, do not be discouraged. Remember Jesus’ advice: “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you, and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way” (Matthew 5:11-12, NLT).

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