When I studied Celtic Christianity, I came across something humorous about the ancient Christian Celts who wanted to make a pilgrimage to Rome. The expression was a limerick informing the pilgrim that if they wanted to find God in Rome they had better take God with them. Granted, this limerick was a critical jibe at how Rome corrupted Christianity, and how the Roman system covered God in the customs of state, but there is something spiritual in the criticism. Recently, I came across a meme on a Buddhist site I follow expressing to the wanderer they will experience Zen in the monastery if they bring Zen with them. Generally speaking, many external things in this world are neither good nor evil, but become whatever we bring to the situation. Things like social media are neutral, but become monsters as we, in the privacy of our phones and laptops, unload all the things we mask in public.
That being said there are people who respect the overwhelming power of social media, and use the medium to further something good. One of my friends is a pastor at church on Indy’s near west side. The area he serves in is a poor area filled with desperation and self-medication through substance abuse. There have been times when he has received phone calls in the middle of the night from a scared kid who is alone in their home because their parents are God knows where and their sibling in the other room is shooting up heroin. After calling the police to take the kid out of a bad situation, my friend will go over to the house, check on the sibling, and keep the kid company until the police arrive. As a pastor he believes in the power of the gospel, but that power doesn’t come from an insightful exegesis or a brilliant hermeneutic. The power of the gospel, in his view, lies in the action of the Christian responding to hopelessness in their corner of the world. Jesus, as God incarnate, came to bring light to the world—especially the darkest parts and how he expressed that depended on the situation. My friend attempts to live up to that example through his life outside of the church and on social media.
In the last year, Facebook came up with a new thing called Facebook Live providing a forum for people to speak their stories with tone and nuance instead of a blank text. There is nothing wrong with text per se, but the meaning behind the words lie in our facial expressions and how we say our words. Facebook Live is a great medium, and I finally used it for the first time this week to address gender and sexuality issues. Participating in Facebook Live grants a position to influence our culture for better or for worse. My pastor friend uses Facebook Live once or twice a week to address his concerns over what he sees in the news, the behavior of many Christians, and what he is doing in his ministry. He doesn’t preach, but he does tell those of us who follow him, who profess to be Christians, what it means to be Jesus in our community. Little things like our attitude and a misspoken word can have life-long damaging effects on people we meet. Believing in Jesus and going to church is not limited to our eternal hope, but has a lasting effect. Jesus’ resurrection was God initiating the process of “his” kingdom integrating in our world. What we Christians do on earth lays the foundation for the life giving new thing God will bring about at the arrival of Jesus. Yes, being kind and helping those in need are good things, but they are not temporary and they are not limited to the here and now. My friend uses his voice on social media to encourage his fellow Christians in the work of God, and hope to those who do not believe or have lost faith from being burned by the church.
What my friend does is a good example of how to use social media, but most people, myself included, go to the darker side of social media and become the bullies who broke us. In the middle of the night, in that wistful moment where sleep is interrupted by a second’s consciousness, a thought rang throughout my head calling the monks to meditation: social media has become a dumping ground for all my insecurities. Specifically, Facebook, because my posts on Instagram and Twitter involve moments I catch throughout the day—mostly trees, flowers, and my cats. Ever since I went through the betrayal of my friends and fiancé (at the time) from my church, I went on an intellectual rampage. I returned to school so I could earn my degree in religion and philosophy, and to use my education in my war against Christianity. I exhausted question after question in class, pulling no punches, and offending a few Christian classmates. By the time I received my degree the frequency of my antagonistic outbursts had lessened, but the wounds never really healed. Whenever I posted something sarcastic about the institution of Christianity, I did so with the ulterior motive of picking a fight with my religious friends who were erudite. Why? When I returned to Indy, and faced those who had hurt me and heard their arguments, I realized how small they were. I never thought that this is the way of most people, but I roared and bellowed, and I had a song in my heart as I publicly embarrassed them. I had become the thing I hated. I had become the thing that hurt me. I had a point to prove. Unconsciously, I overcompensated for my insecurities rather than face them and hurt other people in addition to the ones who wounded me.
Alexander Dumas in Count of Monte Cristo argued against vengeance of any kind because, no matter how calculated, an innocent is caught up in the mix and swallowed by our demons. I know I’m not the only one who treats social media as a psychological vomitorium, and I’ve observed similar patterns from people across the social, political, religious, and philosophical spectrum. With the illusion of anonymity we have unleashed all of our weaknesses, wounds, betrayals, etc. on to the world via our devices. Through these immaterial signals we create a hideous material world where our ignoble tweets can instigate a nuclear war (Donald Trump), or cause someone to lose their job because someone wrote or posted something that went against our arbitrary values. I think the monster is out of control, but I also think the monster can be subdued if we stop feeding it. I know there are people who have quit social media because they were tired of the negativity, but their removal did not change their hearts or the issues they still carry. Social media isn’t a terrible thing, but what makes it terrible is what we bring with each click and clack on our keyboards. The solution can be found in mindfulness and breathing before we sit down and scroll through our feed. We don’t have to obey our mind, and 99% of the time what our minds bring us is bullshit. Let the thought inhale and react, and let it dissipate without it finding life in our text or speech.