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I think it’s safe to say… oh no, wait. Nope. Never mind. Nothing is safe to say in 2021. Everything is politicized and you’re constantly walking on eggshells. It seems like even if you express public opinion on what type of toast is best, you’re likely to incur wrath from the whole wheat crowd and enrage the ire of the plain white mob - and forget about any civility from the rye bread group, they’re nuts.
Of course, I say this tongue-in-cheek to point out the obvious: that we live in an age of outrage. The issues of our day seem to be blown up and more volatile than the Hindenburg on its maiden voyage. Express any concerns or opinions over topics like race, vaccines, COVID lockdowns, masks, politics, education, or even Dr. Seuss stories and you might find yourself on the sharp end of a merciless tirade of name calling, slurs, accusations of selling out or collusion with the enemy. No longer do you just have a difference of opinion, but now you’re called “a denier”, “anti-whatever”, or “one of those people.”
What causes people to get so worked up with people they’ve never met or even worse, with people that are supposedly their ‘friends’? More importantly, what’s the cure?
We’ve got no chill
I think there are several factors which have led up to our current crisis of a lack of chill pills in life’s medicine cabinet. To try to pin it on one issue would be as futile as trying to nail jello to a door. This is a multi-faceted problem that has been brewing for some time now but I’ll briefly consider just three here and then look at one thing which may be of some help in these tense times.
Our 24 Hour News Psycho
Perhaps some of us may be old enough to remember a time when the daily news program only happened twice a day. Actually, the most important news was typically at the 6 PM newscast where I grew up (in Trinidad) and it was a big deal to make sure to not miss out on it. However, this has radically changed in the space of only a few decades. We’ve gone from one or two major news updates a day to several per minute it seems!
Today, the advent of 24 hour news channels seems to be as normal a fact of life to us as if it was always this way. But one must ask whether there is legitimately enough new news to fill a 24 hour news cycle. With that much air time to fill, the news media has to hunt even more for a fresh story and the temptation to make one up has increased with the demand. This doesn’t even start to factor in the fact that a channel’s ratings depend on creating a spectacle to attract eyeballs. Nuance is not rewarded in this market. There is a great incentive for the news media to sensationalize every story. Everything now is the latest outrage or crisis. Partisan politics dominates over nuanced debate. The other side is always painted as the demon with the longest horns. Panic sells and keeps people glued.
No wonder we’re more on edge than ever before! Thus, there's good reason for us to take a minute to critically analyze what we see or hear on the news.
The Inflated Modern Self
Hyper individualized. That would be one of the best descriptions of a large portion of our culture today - we’re fixated on ourselves or the individual. However, I think perhaps the more accurate assessment may be that our culture has an inflated view of the “self”. This overlays atop of the 24 hour news psycho mentioned above...
We’re fixated on our own viewpoints and encouraged to be narcissists by our culture’s slogans. Think of a few of them: “You do you”, “speak your truth”, “you gotta look out for number one (and they’re not talking about God)”, “you gotta love yourself”, “I need a me day”, “you deserve it.” It doesn’t help that social media revolves around creating your own platform where you can boldly proclaim and assert your existence, share your glamorous life, and tweet your opinions on a wide variety of topics to the cyber-world. This is what has been called the culture of “expressive individualism”. Social media can tend to make us very “me-focused” on self-promotion, even if you don’t own a business or provide a service. This often affects the way we express our opinions or arguments - only concerned with our own viewpoints and only listening to the opposing viewpoint to prepare our next counter attack.
This may be contributing to our culture’s lack of chill - especially online. If you tweet or post something, and someone challenges or disagrees with it, they’re not just attacking that idea or thought. They’re attacking you. Your name and virtually projected self is attached to it. Thus, even simple disagreements or dialogues can sometimes feel like a personal attack. This can turn even the mildest mannered introvert into a radicalized keyboard warrior behind the glowing screen. Add to this the fact that social media and online communication tends to be “tone deaf” (because you can’t hear the tone something was said or see the facial expressions) and you get a form of communication that’s great for sharing cat videos and not so great for expressing meaningful ideas and engaging in tough conversations.
Although we have a radically inflated view of self and prize personal autonomy, we also have seen a sharp increase in tribalism. We’re becoming tribalistic expressive individuals. It’s a sort of group narcissism that highly reinforces one’s own biases and portrays any dissent as heresy by straying from the group’s accepted orthodoxy.
Jonathan Haidt, in his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” observed that,
“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.”
This sort of group-think perpetuates the villainizing of the “other” side and can lead to speaking about people outside of your perceived group who share your perspective on a topic as less than human. There have been studies which show this phenomenon in action - that people actually are less empathetic to people they see as outside their group. Our digital age increases this sinful tendency by making it super easy to find and become locked into a particular affinity group on any number of topics. For example:
You’re a single vegan mom who is highly opposed to vaccines and likes pet parrots? There’s probably a Reddit thread for that. You’re a Chinese dad who likes crochet, who is also libertarian, hates government bailouts and loves Ford Pintos? There’s a Facebook group for you too!
It’s concerning that a lot of these interest groups can be primarily defined by what they’re against. Furthermore, because of how social media algorithms work - to show you more of the content you like to keep you glued - you can end up in a virtual echo chamber that only serves to reinforce your biases and hinder you from seeing the other side. In this world of tribalistic group-think, you’re never wrong, those who dissent are seen and referred to as the ‘other’ and you’re incentivized to signal your virtue for your group’s approval.
So is this the loss of all hope for meaningful public dialogue about important topics? Should we just not talk at all about these things? Should we self-censor because the worst thing you can ever do today is be wrong about something publicly?
No. I hope not! I still believe that we as Christians can engage fruitfully in public on important topics. Indeed, I believe we must! Because to forsake that would be to remove our witness from those spheres.
The Lost Art of Graciousness
There are many, many more factors that contribute to our culture’s lack of chill these days than what I’ve explored above and I may explore them in a future article series. However, for now, it’s not important for us to lay out an exhaustive list of all the maladies. I simply want to make an honest appeal for something which is basic to Christianity - graciousness.
There are many places in Scripture where we could go to talk about graciousness. Here are a few that have been helpful to me along with some personal reflection.
Quick to Respond or Slow to Speak?
The book of Proverbs has much to say about being quick with our words…
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge. The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:2, 13, 15, 17 ESV)
So, when we’re tempted to be outraged at how ridiculous and naive or stupid we think another fellow-image bearer of God is being by expressing their opinions on lockdowns, or vaccines, or social justice, or whatever - maybe stop for a minute. Perhaps they may have some reasons as to why they believe what they do. Is it possible that they’ve read some studies or observed some trend that I have missed? Maybe they have some information that I don't, which affects their conclusions. A little listening and a few clarifying questions can go a long way in advancing fruitful conversation as opposed to the usual name calling and shaming plaguing today’s dialogue. Who knows, you may change your mind when you hear their side… or not. But at least you’ll understand instead of assuming motives.
Likewise, James echoes similar wisdom:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
Our outrage culture does not produce God’s type of righteousness. Tribalistic group-think does not help me be quick to listen. The immediacy of our culture’s news cycle and social media’s trends can make us forget this bit of Biblical wisdom. In the rush to be relevant, we can end up being foolish.
A Quarrelsome or a Gracious Teacher?
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses... (2 Timothy 2:24-26)
How many times have I been just simply quarrelsome? Am I able to kindly teach, even endure evil while seeking to correct those I think are wrong with gentleness? Is my goal and desire that God would use my gracious interaction to lead them to a knowledge of truth or just to win the argument? Would my opponents describe my interactions with them as kind, gentle and patient - even if they disagree with me? One of the markers of the tribalistic group-think of our culture is the tendency to find unity in a common enemy. However, as Christians we should instead see a common unity in sharing the image of God with every person, and specifically sharing the Name of Christ with every brother or sister in the Lord. This should affect how we interact with others - to see their humanity first, instead of as an enemy of our position.
There is, of course, an important place for Christian rebuke (Luke 17:3; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:15) and “correcting . . . with gentleness.” However, our criticism has a limited place. Whatever authority we may have to speak into people’s lives, the goal is always building up, not tearing down. As Paul said:
For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down. (2 Corinthians 13:10).
Do you give as much grace as you expect from others?
Paul said it this way in Ephesians:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
Sometimes when engaging on a topic that we’re passionate about, we can forget the goal of all Christian engagement. We can use strong rhetoric or sarcasm to forcefully drive our point but not be sensitive to just how sensitive the situation might be or what level of importance it plays in the big picture. However, we should make it our goal for our speech to be:
appropriate for building up
fitting of the occasion
give grace to our hearers
How much different would our conversations about important topics be if we asked ourselves if they held up to these 3 criteria? This is how we would like people to engage with us. This is how Christ deals with us. So, do you give as much grace as you expect or have received?
Let your speech always be gracious. (Colossians 4:6)
Always? Yep, always. Why? Because we bear the name of Christ as Christians. Gracious words marked him. The people “marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). Therefore, if we’re clothed with Christ, gracious words should also mark us.
Frustrated or Patient?
Paul’s first characteristic of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is that “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Paul even considered patience to be a mark of his own ministry (2 Corinthians 6:6; 12:12; 2 Timothy 3:10) and he often commanded church leaders to “be patient” (1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Timothy 2:24). And if we still didn’t get it, he repeats in 2 Timothy 4:2 to show, “complete patience”!
Christ has been exceedingly patient with us all. Even after giving us His Word, teaching us His will through it by many faithful preachers and teachers, we still forget and blatantly disobey. Yet he does not cast us off. How then can we expect that others would “just get it already!” or be frustrated for their seeming lack of understanding that you have? None of us came to our understanding in an instant - it was a process - and people are at different stages in that process. We should be patient as we seek to help them along, even if it is slow progress. Play the long game.
Carl Trueman, in his book, "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" has noted that,
“Every age has had its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.”
We must understand our culture’s problems - and there are many which need to be addressed and discussed! However, we must also do so graciously as representatives of Christ.
I know I fail often in all of these lost arts of graciousness and for the times I’ve failed I humbly ask your forgiveness and graciousness. It is all too easy to get swept up today in the flood of outrage. However, as Christians, we should bear different marks than those around us because we’ve been bought with a price, forgiven at great cost, and made new in Christ. The point here is not to just “chill out”. There are a lot of things in our world that should concern us and dispassionate apathy is no more holy than outrage. I’m not arguing for public disengagement from important issues or giving up on dialogue. However, it is a shame when the watching world sees Christians squabbling and name-calling each other over these issues. We can show the world a better way and a better witness if we recover the art of graciousness.
Lord help us.
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