On a recent Sunday, my pastor preached on the idea of the jubilee year as outlined in Leviticus, a time when debts are settled, slaves are set free, and land is returned to families. Last month, Pope Francis declared approximately Advent 2015 through Advent 2016 a jubilee year, the Holy Year of Mercy. “Let us not forget that God pardons and God pardons always,” he said. “Let us never tire of asking for forgiveness.”
When my pastor gave the Leviticus sermon, he said something along the lines of, “Imagine if you got a notice from the government saying that your student loan was forgiven, or your bank said your credit card balance had been paid.” Yes, thanks, that would be awesome! Yet as great that would be, an even more powerful metaphor for me was to imagine if my forty-thousand tweets could be deleted in one fell swoop, and every snarky, judgy thing I ever said anywhere online could magically disappear.
For modern first-worlders, one of the more powerful anxieties of our time has to do with, basically, Managing Our Profiles—managing the selves that we present to our friends, colleagues, and family on social media. For centuries, our stupidity and meanness and ego issues and neediness tended to flare up mostly in interpersonal interactions and among small groups of coworkers, family members, and church league softball teams. The primary recording device of our mistakes of speech was the memory of others, which is notoriously unreliable and, in the case of some blessed others, intentionally short.
Now, if we use social media or even email, our certainties, our complaints, our positions and platforms, our jokes and insults, our petty umbrage, our grammatical errors, our forgetting that Africa is a continent and not a country, our uncool musical tastes, our love for Entertainment Weekly, our judgments, and our mercies are on the permanent (and often public) record. We can find ourselves in debt in new ways to everything we’ve emailed, posted, tweeted, tumbled, liked, favorited, and Instagrammed.
Those of you who aren’t big social media users or have avoided email fights may scoff. But if you’ve ever been part of a Twitter controversy and know what a subtweet is, ever gotten into a long Facebook thread with a heretofore distant cousin about what was really meant by that one comment about the Affordable Care Act, or ever been trampled by your own bandwagon when you didn’t word something quite right, you know exactly what I mean.
The book of James says that the tongue is a fire and a world of evil, and can basically blow up your life quicker than anything else, so none of these problems are new. But the Internet means our words follow us around in new ways. They are literally recorded, archived, and undeletable—and findable by nearly anyone who cares to search, and definitely by the NSA.
Because of this, we also carry our online words inside us in new ways. It’s no longer just about what we think about what we say, or what we think God may think, or conflicts with the person or handful of people who heard us. Now we also worry about what our entire social world thinks. Whether we fear being misunderstood or being understood all too well, this worry can leave an unwashable residue of regret, shame, anxiety, insecurity, and need.
Andy Crouch’s cover story in the most recent Christianity Today is about ways social media has changed Western culture from one previously based on morality and guilt into something more closely resembling Eastern shame and honor cultures, but with a modern twist he refers to as a fame-shame culture. He says that this culture is based not on moral right and wrong, but on social approval or disapproval. We need to belong to a group, and we’re anxious if the group doesn’t approve of us. Worse, if we do or say something the group doesn’t approve of, we may be publically shamed for it and even shunned (or “unfriended,” as we call it now).
Andy Crouch, Leviticus, my recent Lent of looking at how I use social media, and the Pope all have me thinking what a jubilee year, a Holy Year of Mercy, might look like online. We can be pretty sure the Library of Congress isn’t going to stop archiving our tweets, and Facebook will never make it easy to go nuclear on your account. In terms of social media debts, we aren’t going to get jubilee settlement.
But what if a critical mass of people collectively agreed to approach social media with a posture of extraordinary mercy, always reflecting the extraordinary mercy we remembered on Good Friday? What if we come back to our computers now, after Easter, and took hold of the resurrection in every little corner of the Internet where we spend our time?
If we can’t forget the dumb or mean things we’ve said, maybe we can forget the dumb or mean things we’ve seen others say. We could forgive our old high school frienemy for the politically passive-aggressive Facebook comments. We could make it standard practice to stay out of the outrage of the day until we assess whether or not our words are truly needed. We could be more suspicious of our own cleverness, and choose kindness over being right.
The Pope-convocated Holy Year of Mercy doesn’t start until December, but I think I’m going to start practicing now. And when it’s officially over, I hope I won’t want to stop.
Sara Zarr is the author of five novels for young adults, most recently The Lucy Variations, which the New York Times called “an elegant novel.” Her sixth, a collaborative novel with Tara Altebrando, came out December 2013. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, the Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. In fall 2014, she received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at www.sarazarr.com.
Photo above credited to Jhameisviphotography and used under a Creative Commons licence.