I was a freshman in college when Facebook first came to our university. Back then, the brand new medium was fun, interesting, engaging, and primarily used to bring people together in ways that we had never thought possible before. Initially, in order to join the fast-emerging social network one had to have a college email address, so everyone on it was college or grad school aged. As you might imagine, the stuff that we young adults desired to publish at the time were pictures of frisbee tournaments, late night hangout sessions, and posts about the craziness that happened the night before. When it first came to colleges and universities, Facebook was a huge hit. It was popular not only because we could use it to connect with people across campus, but also because it was an innovation that reunited us with high school friends who had gone on to different schools as well as long-lost friends across the country and in other parts of the world. Though some chose to raise issues of political injustice and social consciousness, the space was devoted mostly to posting jokes, making ridiculous groups, and keeping up with people who would have been absent from our lives without it.
"What some intended for good, others intended for evil"
The first few glorious years of online social networks now seem short-lived and long gone. It is hard to scroll down one’s Facebook feed for more than one or two posts without seeing someone get on their high horse about this or that political issue or elected official, while simultaneously lambasting those who think differently than they do. Long gone are the days when Facebook consisted primarily of college kids having fun online, joking across time and space. Now it has become a bully pulpit for everyday, hardworking, decent people to berate and belittle others into acquiescing to their point of view. Levity in the digital world has been overshadowed by vitriol, mockery, and derision. Human connection has now taken a back seat to disunity, polarization, and partisanship. Though perhaps some users still mean to foster solidarity and commonality through social networks, the space is now full of those who would rather drive wedges between others than actually communicate ideas, perspectives, joys, and heartbreaks. Perhaps social media sites should be renamed “unsocial networks” for the lack of civility, unity, commonality and respect that they have fostered in society.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming the technology or the innovators who led us to this. Part of the reason that I reflect nostalgically on my initial encounter with Facebook is to point out how differently this all started. If you had told me back in 2005 that Facebook would one day be used by bullies to push others to suicide, by neo-Nazis and Klan members to organize and spread their racism, and by foreign governments to influence a U.S. presidential election, I don’t think I would have believed you. Who would have thought that the digital bridge formed by Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. would be used so effectively to divide neighbor from neighbor? Who would have imagined that people sharing pictures of restaurant entrees and weekend road trips would one day be overshadowed by people tearing at the very foundations of human decency during every hour of every day? But, alas, to paraphrase Joseph, what some intended for good, others intended for evil (Genesis 50:20).
(Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, by German painter Peter von Cornelius [1784–1867])
"Online, it is easy to judge and difficult to forgive"
The onset of the digital world, and social media along with it, has given people new ways to divide neighbors from one another and there are many who do exactly that. Some folks seem to thrive off of driving wedges between people by getting us to focus on how our differences divide us, rather than how our humanity forms bonds between us. Those who think that America is no place for immigrants can get others riled up about foreigners. Those who think conservatives are opposed to all forms of progress can get others to hate them before they actually talk to anyone who holds conservative views. Those who hate liberals can publish their disdain and pull together opposition to liberalism without any discussion or debate as to why people think the way they do or believe the way they believe. Christians, Muslims, Black Lives Matter, Republican, Democrat, immigrant, gun owner… the list of identifiers goes on; identifiers around which clear lines have been drawn as to who is with us and who is against us (whoever the "us" may be). While in other times people would take more time to understand their neighbors when they met them face to face, pre-conceived judgments are now delivered straight to our phones, computers, and even our television sets telling us who to hate, who to love, and who to fear.
God desires for us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), and we should not let temptations to insult others via the internet get in the way of that. Online, it is easy to judge and difficult to forgive. Sometimes, it is even harder to love somebody who has no real identity to us other than being a far away person whose ideas and perspectives seem even farther away than they are. Yet, behind every belligerent comment is a person, behind every tweet is somebody trying to express what they really think or believe, and behind every digital communication is somebody trying to relate to others. Obviously, there is not a lot of agreement in the digital world – otherwise the blogosphere and every opinion page would be full of cheery, uplifting, and encouraging comments! But, we must begin, once again, to recognize that we are communicating with and about people who were created in the image of God and are worthy of our love, no matter how obnoxious their opinions and views might be to us.
"Our hatred does not define who our neighbor is"
In thinking about the divisions of our time, it is helpful to reflect upon the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this famous story that Jesus shared with his inquisitors, a man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho. On the way, he was attacked by bandits, beat up, robbed, and left for dead. As the man was lying there a priest came along, but, instead of helping, the priest passed by on the other side of the road and left him to suffer from his wounds. A Levite (a member of the tribe of priests) came along and also left him there. Yet, when a Samaritan saw him he stopped, put the injured man on his own donkey, took him into town, and paid an innkeeper to provide for the wounded Jewish man’s well-being (Luke 10:25-37). Now, this Samaritan had been told long before he ever encountered the wounded man on the road that he was supposed to hate him. The conflict between Jews and Samaritans was bitter and fierce and both sides were told that they were supposed to hate the other. It was as if a white supremacist member of Unite the Right were lying beaten on the ground and a member of the Black Lives Matter movement saw his need and helped him, even though the victim would not be likely to help him in return. While these two groups are adamantly opposed to one another, like the Jew and the Samaritan in the story, our hatred does not define who our neighbor is – our compassion and mercy do.
It is my hope that we can, once again, use our digital technology to make real connections with real people, instead of using it as a platform to say that others are unworthy because of their differences. I pray that we may one day get back to respecting the people that we chat with, reply to, and talk about on our digital devices as though they were standing in the room next to us. After all, those we communicate with online are real people standing in a real place somewhere in the world, longing to be reminded that they are worthy of the love of their Creator – a love that is often revealed most clearly by the love of our neighbors. We should not let the digital world take that away from us.
Rev. Seth Nelson is a pastor and the author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. He lives in western Montana with his wife and two children.
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.