The recent scandal surrounding the treatment of a boy from Covington Catholic (Kentucky) has prompted much rumination on social-media usage. I just wrote an essay on this shameful cultural moment for the Center for Public Theology; what follows is an attempt to make more practical my response. Basically, I am arguing for the treatment of other human beings as conditioned by their image-bearing nature (Gen. 1:26-27). The doctrine of the imago dei, in other words, necessitates that we as the church treat people differently than non-Christians do (though we do not always live up to this standard, alas).
Toward that end, here are four thoughts for Christians on social-media engagement in an age of great confusion and division.
First, don’t stereotype people. The major problem in the coverage of the strange standoff between Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips (which we still may not fully understand) was that many judged Sandmann without understanding the situation. (Don’t take my word for it; take Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic article for it, which is in truth not an article but a reckoning.) It’s the strangest thing, because we’re supposedly in the age that has left stereotyping behind, and yet we seem quicker to judge than ever before. Any person who writes a good bit online as I do will know the hint of frustration that nips at you when someone publicly critiques your material without reading it. We seem to have gone still further than this basement standard, and now we judge people based on a single photograph. This sorry state of affairs could not be more ironic–in the age of tolerance, all it takes us to know a person, apparently, is their facial expression.
This is even seeping into the gospel-loving church. It’s becoming common for professing Christians to see people as a block, a group, a stereotype. Few practices could be more damaging to our functional application of the imago dei. The imago dei signals that the human being is unique, made by God, an individual. They are not good with God; they need Jesus Christ in a desperate way. And yet this doctrine teaches us that every human being has value, dignity, and worth before God and man. This doctrine forbids us, then, from seeing people as mere crumbs in a loaf, a loaf we either love or detest. As Christians, we treat each person as they are. We take them on their own terms. We do not do what our flesh urges us to do, and dismiss people because of the way they look, the place they come from, the way they talk. We may disagree with people we engage in very serious measure, yes, but we do not dehumanize them.
We need to recover these truths. Perhaps we would do well to embrace afresh the beauty, weirdness, mystery, irony, and paradox of this strange and strangely beautiful world. Maybe we can once more get to know people as people. They’re not stats. They’re not embodied stereotypes. They’re not beasts. They’re people, and though fallen far from the grace of God, they are still made in God’s image, and they are still able to be redeemed as God allows. Even if no one else lives by these kind of convictions, let the church never lose them.
Second, don’t go after children. You would think we wouldn’t need to say this, but apparently we do. Let us not tear people up online; if they commit crimes or do wrong deeds, let us leave them to be handled by appropriate authorities that rightly–by ordinance of our just and holy God–dispense justice. But Twitter mobs–like real mobs–are not authorized by God or by the state to punish evil (consult Romans 13:1-7). Twitter mobs–like real mobs–are tremendously dangerous. It can be exciting to be in one; you feel the rush of the crowd; but if the mob turns against you, you see just how scary such a group is. Don’t be part of one as a believer. Especially don’t join one if a child, a teenager, is involved. Step back. Breathe deeply. Even if the Covington Catholic children didn’t act appropriately, they should not be doxxed and vilified and shamed online. That is cruel, and it is outside the bounds of justice.
Again, here is where Christianity intrudes on the anger common to humanity (to you and me!). Christians in the Reformation period and following helped societies to see that children should be treated with care and dignity. Children are not the same as adults; adults should not engage children as if they are adults. As our society gradually loses sight of any vestige of the Christian ethic–and as journalists like Dan Levin, smelling blood in the water, now foment distrust of Christianity through hashtags like #ExposeChristianSchools–we will see adults attack children in public. Again, this is not right. If children do wrong, they deserve discipline from appropriate authorities. But this discipline must be carefully meted out in right proportion. (It’s almost as if Christianity has helped form a marvelously nuanced legal code over the centuries of Western civilization.)
By the way: there is a certain irony to the public attack on Sandmann, a teenage boy. People today say it is wicked for a loving father or mother to spank their child, and yet many of those same people feel no hesitation about torching a boy in public. The irony is lost on many–but not the damage done to this child and this Catholic school. (The boundaries between adults and children are buckling in our day–the NOMAP phenomenon is real, and deeply disturbing.)
Third, pursue strong mental health. We are complex creatures, human beings. God made us so. We have nuanced and sometimes very complicated emotional, psychological, spiritual, intellectual, and physical experiences. We are not machines; we are not robots; we do not neatly conform to scientistic laws. We are more fragile than we would like to admit. I see this with particular regard to social media. Using social media a ton messes with your brain (it actually rewires your brain according to this prescient book, as pornography does as well–see Mohler on this). It begins to warp you. I don’t know why, exactly, as I am not a neurologist, but I can see in practical form that too much social media is bad for you and for me.
People who are always on social media do not usually dwell in a calm and peaceful state. Many seem to adopt a pseudo-battlefield mentality. They get paranoid. They freak out. They lash out. They become less like sojourners, wandering through life and appreciating the beauty of this world, and more like feral hunters. Or they get manic and comedic, and seemingly cannot restrain themselves from commenting on everything that enters their feed. People who would never stand up on a table in a restaurant and tap-dance do the equivalent on social media; they relentlessly call attention to themselves, using self-deprecation and funny images to do so. They tell everyone when it’s their birthday, which is–again–something most normal adults would not do in their workplace. Social media has a weird tendency to warp us and effect us and drag us down into a reductively neurotic version of ourselves. Perhaps most of us don’t need psychotropic drugs to see what we would be like in an “enhanced state”; Twitter has already done that for us. (The results are not commonly pretty.)
Here’s an idea, then: pursue strong mental health. Do normal things. Take walks without your phone. Talk to your spouse for an hour without (repetition alert) looking at your phone. Play with your children for a couple hours outside without (here we go again) engaging your phone. Read a book for a long time (start with this one and also this one). Read poetry, and muse over every line. Sing great hymns of the faith, loudly and if necessary off-key, in the shower. Do your devotions for longer than six hurried, distracted minutes. Listen to a book in your commute, and cry at the death of the hero. Think of a funny joke and keep it to yourself, enjoying privacy and quietness. Observe a conflagration break out on social media and withhold comment, instead praying for the salvation of all involved. Be measured and careful with the Internet and with social media. Engage it sparingly; break from it frequently; detach altogether for days, weeks even, throughout the year. Remember what version of yourself you become when you’re continually plugged in, and as much as you can spare your family, friends, church members, and loved ones the awkwardness and pain of dealing with that version of you.
Fourth, don’t take yourself so seriously. As I said in my CPT essay, we’re all self-anointed pundits now. I am all for engaging the God-made world in all its fullness and strangeness. But I do wonder if many of us would do well to take a step back. Things in America are not in a good place, to be sure. But I sense we’re litigating the apocalypse nearly every given moment of every given day now. Maybe we should chill a bit. Maybe we should not believe the hype. Maybe we should stay quite skeptical about any praise we get, continually remembering that we are not the hero–Jesus is. We are not the savior–Jesus is. We are not the king who will make all things right–Jesus is. Remembering this very high-level theological truth on a regular basis will surely shape our daily conduct.
It’s almost as if <hushed voice> all theology is practical.
There’s more to say on these matters. We all fail in many ways, but thankfully, the Lord is working on all of us. God is cultivating the fruits of the Spirit in his blood-bought people: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against these things, there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23). The public square continues to burn in our time; much as we wish we could put out the fire, we cannot. We are not responsible for doing so, ultimately. Only Christ can. As his children, however, we can do this: we can use the functional anthropology, the sound doctrine, the Bible offers us everywhere we go. We can treat human beings, men and women alike, as if they are made in the image of God–because they are. We can preach the gospel with a glad smile on our face every chance we get. We can pray for sinners just like us.
These things may not feel revolutionary, friends. What feels revolutionary is joining a mob, after all. But the true revolution is not led by pitchforks, whether physical or virtual. It is led by Christ Jesus, and no man–and certainly no social media campaign–can stop it.
If you want to learn more about the image of God, look for my forthcoming book in Fall 2019.
If you want to focus more on your spiritual life, and grow closer to God, here’s a daily devotional resource I wrote: Always in God’s Hands.