Monday, April 27, 2020

Christians Living in an Age of Mockery

As a result of my interest in apologetics, I enjoy watching YouTube debates between Christians and skeptics and videos made in response to issues raised by each side. Sometimes, I will venture into the comments section and even offer my own response when I feel it is appropriate. While a generalization will not accurately represent every individual, it has been my observation that skeptics and atheists are much more prone to use mockery and ridicule as a rhetorical tactic. They will often dismiss thoughtful Christian responses with retorts that mock Christians for believing in a "magical sky wizard" or "following a book written by Bronze Age goat herders." This approach can be seen in the writings and debates of atheistic spokesmen such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens and the videos of many skeptical YouTube creators. If you are interested in taking a deeper look at this issue, I recommend this video by pastor and apologist Mike Winger that examines the scoffing and mockery that is commonly found in atheists' responses to Christianity. While certainly Christians sometimes fall into the same patterns, I believe that the use of mockery as a rhetorical tactic is a divisive way of the world and one that Christians should not mimic.

Over the past six weeks, as I have been confined to our apartment in Spain during the COVID-19 lockdown, I have been more active on social media in an attempt to stay connected with friends and family around the world. I realize that communication on social media is not known for being thoughtful, patient, and empathetic, but it has been discouraging to see some Christians posting mocking and scoffing memes and responses to express their views on important issues related to COVID-19 and other Christians giving "thumbs up" or laughing emoticons in agreement. I have observed this on both sides of controversies, whether it be from people protesting the government response or from people criticizing the protesters, just as an example. To be clear, this exhortation is written to Christians on all sides of any issue.

I need to clarify a couple of points before diving into the heart of this post.  First, I am not speaking out against Christians using humor in general. Even Jesus used irony and sarcasm in the gospels. Also, I am not discouraging Christians from debating issues in the public square and strongly voicing their opinion when necessary. There are going to be a lot of important conversations over the next couple of years and Christians should clearly articulate their position. It is not unloving to disagree with someone, however, there is an unloving manner in which to disagree. What I want to specifically discourage is the use of mockery and scoffing to promote one's position or to attack another's perspective on any issue.

Like many contemporary issues, the Bible does not provide a proof text on how Christians should conduct themselves on social media. However, it provides general principles about how Christians should conduct themselves in a fallen world and several specific principles about how Christians should use their speech. These will provide valuable insight about how we should engage in debate and disagreement in a variety of contexts.

I would like to start by highlighting three principles that should influence not only what we post on social media, but how we live our entire lives. The Westminster Catechism provides a succinct summary of the purpose of the Christian life: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. One aspect of glorifying God is living in such a way that we shine as witnesses of God's character, causing others to praise God for our good works and to hopefully be attracted to follow him. We are called to be ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8), shine among (the world) like stars in the sky (Philippians 2:15), and do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31, Colossians 3:17). Our ultimate purpose is not to win debates on social media, even over important issues, but to "make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:19).

As we strive towards this goal, we are to live in the world, but not be of the world (John 17:14-16). So, yes, Christians should be actively engaged in the weighty matters that are unfolding around the world, but we should not wage our battles in the same way as the rest of society. Paul urges the church in Rome to "not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Romans 12:2-3). We cannot use the pervasive toxic environment on the internet and social media to excuse our use of mockery to attack others. If we find our conduct mirroring the pattern of the general culture, we have to ask ourselves whether we are really walking according to God's will.

Finally, Christians are called not just to love their neighbors, already an impossible task without God's grace, but also to love our enemies. Let us allow Jesus' words to speak for themselves and challenge our hearts.

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:27-36).

These three broad principles should be part of a foundation that impacts not only how we engage with issues on social media, but every area of our lives. However, the Bible also gives several specific principles that apply to how we use words to communicate with others. 
First, we should recognize the power that words carry and make every effort to control our tongues...or our typing. The Apostle James warns, "the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark." (James 3:5). He continues to point out the sad irony that with "the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness." (James 3:9). We must acknowledge the power of our words to destroy those whom God loves and refrain from posting or responding to messages in a cavalier fashion.
Also, we should take heed of the Bible's strong rebukes against dissension (Romans 13:13, Galatians 5:20); slander (1 Corinthians 6:10, Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8, 1 Peter 2:1);  discord (Galatians 5:20); and quarreling (1 Corinthians 3:3). In a letter to his protege, Timothy, Paul identifies the following characteristics of people in the last days: lovers of themselves, boastful, proud, abusive, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, treacherous, rash, and conceited (2 Timothy 3:2). Unfortunately, these are words that often describe normal behavior on social media. This does not mean that we cannot passionately advocate for our viewpoints or confront those we disagree with, but we should not exhibit any of these qualities in our discourse.
Instead, we should use our words to "build others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Ephesians 4:29). As we do this, we should bear with others and demonstrate compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Colossians 3:13, Galatians 5:22-23). We should "slander no one," but instead strive  "to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone." (Titus 3:2).
Finally, we should recognize how Christians are called to interact with each other with respect to disputable matters. This is not to say that there is not a "correct" response to the current COVID-19 crisis, but to acknowledge that there are going to be both Christians and non-Christians on both sides of every contentious issue that we will face in the coming years. A major issue of debate in the early church was whether Jewish Christians should continue to follow dietary restrictions and observe specific Jewish holy days. The Apostle Paul's advice was to "not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister" (Romans 14:13), but to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification" (Romans 14:19) and to "accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you." (Romans 15:7). I am afraid that if this issue was debated in the current social media environment, it would be accompanied by mocking memes attacking both perspectives. The presence of contentious and controversial issues is unlikely to diminish in the coming years, but Christians can choose to respond to their opponents with patience and grace.
With these principles established, let's take a look at a recent controversy related to the coronavirus. One side believed that the shutdowns mandated by various state governments were too authoritarian, feared that precedents were being set that would threaten civil liberties, and were concerned that economic damage caused by the shutdowns would outweigh the health benefits. The other side believed that strict shutdowns were necessary to protect lives, feared that people protesting the shutdowns would only help the virus to spread, and were concerned that opening economies too soon would undo any gains that had been achieved by the shutdowns. I want to reiterate that this post is not supporting either side, but instead addressing the manner in which both sides defended their position and attacked the opposition. While there were certainly many Christians who shared their position with clarity and compassion, I could cite several examples on both sides of memes and sarcastic comments meant to mock or ridicule the opposing view. That is my concern.
These types of posts, comments, and responses fall well short of the general and specific principles described above. How does a meme mocking protestors show gentleness and compassion to the person whose small business is facing financial ruin and wonders how they will be able to provide for their family? How does a sarcastic comment scoffing at those who would so easily "surrender their freedoms to the government" seek to be considerate and peaceable with those who have genuine concern, not only for their own safety, but also for the most vulnerable members of our society? How do either of these responses demonstrate a love for "enemies" that causes the church to shine as a light in a dark world and motivates people to praise and honor God?
I write these words not only to the church, but also to myself. Even if I don't post mocking messages, I do sometimes feel disdain in my hearts towards those with opposing opinions, and Jesus warns that harboring such hatred in our heart makes us subject to judgment for murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Yet, I do hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will use this post to prick the conscience of some Christians who have been either posting or approving the use of mockery on social media. If this is you, I encourage you to read through the scripture references that I included in this post and to allow God to speak to you through them.
Now, some may say, "What's the big deal? Lighten up. It's just a little humor." The book of Proverbs offers some wisdom to this type of reaction: "Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is the one who deceives their neighbor and says, 'I was only joking!'" (Proverbs 26:18-19). While mocking may be the norm in the online culture and viewed as acceptable by some Christians, I think that scripture clearly exposes it as a sinful behavior that we should reject.
Others might say that I am being too sensitive. If I am being sensitive, it is not to protect my own ego, but to protect the pure gospel witness of the church. I cannot think of a better outcome than to have the watching world wonder why Christians are so sensitive to the feelings of others, so gentle and patient towards those with opposing views, and so gracious and compassionate in their online comments and responses. What a great opportunity to share the hope that we have in Christ! Hopefully, that is something that all Christians can agree on.

No comments:

Post a Comment