Social Media: Weaponizing the Tongue

(A sermon preached on Ephesians 4:25-5:2 in the seminary chapel on August 8, 2018 by Erik Herrmann.

Video of the sermon can be found at https://scholar.csl.edu/cs1718/156/)

IN NOMINE IESU

Last year I got tired of the weeds and I was determined to do something about it. I live on an acre so weed control in such a lawn needs something a little more robust then a hand-held spray bottle. So I bought a 30 gallon pull-behind sprayer to fit behind my John Deere and then I went to the Farm store to buy some of the really strong concentrated post-emergent selective herbicide. Filled with a zeal to rid my otherwise perfect, uniform swath of green of these foreign flora, I “skimmed” the directions, mixed the batch up and starting spraying. It was very effective … but the mix was a little strong … the wind was also a bit strong … the spray was too fine … and I kind of took out more than just weeds: roses and hydrangeas curling and twisting as if writhing in agony, the black hills spruce had wonky needles, the gingko suddenly looking like a weeping willow. It was a massacre. Not a single weed though!  Actually, most of the plants survived and, after a rather sad looking summer, came back this spring … most things except my river birch. At first the birch looked fine – the usual lovely pink pealing bark, bright green leaves … but soon it started to change color, to wilt … one branch at a time. Upon closer examination I saw that the poison from the previous year had reached the core of the tree—it was completely rotten on the inside.

Naturally, I am telling this story not so that you feel sorry for my birch or envious of my John Deere but to draw a parallel to our text. The parallel is this: there is a poison that corrupts and rots away at the life of the church. And though Christians may use it out of a zeal for purity and truth, it is a poison nevertheless. It is our speech. Our words, our texts, our tweets, our posts, our comments, our blogs. Hear the words of the apostle Paul:

“Let no corrupting—rotting—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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. … be imitators of God … walk in love as Christ loved us.”

Of course, we know the pain that words can inflict. We know the damage that slander can do. The Epistle of James calls the tongue a fire, a world of unrighteousness … set on fire by hell … a restless evil, full of deadly poison. But I want to focus on something quite specific here: social media. Of course, we are bombarded with its abuse in the world of politics and entertainment, but I think we are long overdue for some hard thinking about how Christians use social media.

Leonard Sweet, in his book The Church of the Perfect Storm, reflects on the rapid pace of technology and its impact on ethics. According to Sweet we are now experiencing in many areas a “post-scale” technological world. To understand this, let’s use the technology of the weapon as an analogy. The advance from a club to a spear is to “scale up.” Hunting caribou or woolly mammoths became easier and more effective with the technology of the spear. Scale up further and we move to the bow and arrow, and then the cross bow, and then musket. In each of these cases, the moving up the scale can be handled as a net gain in efficiency and effectiveness. But as you continue to move up the scale from gun … to bazooka … to missal … to atomic bomb, you have suddenly crossed a threshold in which the old ethics and standards have become unusable. You have gone “post-scale” and a whole new set of questions and problems arise.

So it has become with social media. It has weaponized the tongue, transforming the unholy fire of gossip and slander into a weapon of mass destruction. Facebook comments and blog posts have now become the means by which people, groups, and institutions can easily and without risk or accountability be vilified, slandered, denigrated, and mocked. It is also, almost by its very structure, an invitation for others to enter into this sin and extend it through faceless comments and arguments. All of this together has placed our speech into a post-scale problem. How ought Christians, and especially pastors, approach such engagement on social media? We might think we are doing good, battling false views (heresies even!), but we are not. The bad far, far outweighs any good that we think we have done. We are bringing rotinto the sinews of the body of Christ. We are daily and with frightening speed and efficiency tearing down trust, dividing and rending the bond of love and forgiveness that is the church’s treasure. We are, Paul says, grieving the Holy Spirit, and bringing shame to the name of Christ. And I have witnessed (and you have too) pastors—pastors! — mock, sneer, insinuate, accuse, curse, condemn—and invite others into the same!—and all from the safe and cowardly distance of their church office chair. Oh it is justified as zeal for the purity or truth, but Paul is quite clear: the Spirit grieves for this tears apart what his love has brought together.

A few years ago an Orthodox monk wrote some reflections about an experience he had with some youth. Invited by a local parish to speak to youth, Abbot Tryphon spoke for several hours at a local café to high school and college students, and then later to preteen youth in a parishioner’s private home.  He writes:

“During all of these talks I shared of the joy and healing that is to be found within the sacred walls of the Orthodox Church. and the depth of an encounter with Jesus Christ that brings about transformation, and the restoration of the human heart as God meant it to be. The bright and earnest faces of these wonderful young people, seekers after a faith that will sustain them throughout their lives, was a joy for this aging monk.

The only dark moment during the entire day took place in the Cozmic Cafe. A middle age man who identified himself as an Orthodox Christian from Southern California, a good days journey from Placerville, attempted to use the precious moments that had been arranged for local youth, to go on a political and moral triad about the evils of the Obama administration, and the changing moral fiber of present day America, what with abortion and same-sex marriage. Ignoring my attempt to return the focus of the gathering to Christ, this man attempted to bait me, portraying my message of love and hope as some sort of liberal betrayal of Orthodoxy. Matushka Julia Steele finally reminded the man this gathering had the needs of youth as the primary focus. After continuing to use this youth gathering as his personal forum, the man finally left.

After a few moments of shocked silence, I managed to return the gathering to the focus of faith, and the importance of the Church as a hospital of the soul, where EVERYONE can receive healing. This man’s mixture of political rage, and religion devoid of love, demonstrated in a clear, if not unfortunate way, why so many of today’s youth have turned away from Christianity. There was nothing salvific about this man’s message, for hate dominated his every word. Nothing in his personal philosophy offered hope for either a young woman who has aborted her child, nor a young man struggling with same-sex attraction. No one could possibly have been drawn to this man’s brand of Orthodoxy, seemingly offering nothing but judgement, condemnation, and a political rage devoid of charity.

Not once during this man’s tirade did we encounter the love of Christ. His was not the message of the Incarnate Son of God Who condescended to take on our flesh, and share His Divinity with our humanity. Not for a moment did we see a glimpse of the Christ Who healed the sick, forgave the sins of the woman at the well, or sat down with tax collectors and sinners. All we witnessed was the angry face of a self-righteous judge, devoid of humility and love for others. The message of this man was one of hatred and judgement, and totally lacking any sign of hope. He left the coffee house in the darkness of his own sin, and the Light of Christ was not in him.”

Brothers and sisters, let us leave this darkness, this poison behind. Paul here has set forth a sharp line of “before” and “after,” of “old” and “new” that is both cosmic and personal. By the work of the Spirit, salvation history breaks into our lives. Christ has united the hostilities of humankind into a single body—his own. In the same way, the life of the “old man”—full of corruption and deceits—is to be divested in its entirety, even as an old garment is cast aside. And we are to be renewed in our minds, putting on the “new man,” “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Let us, therefore, walk in love as Christ loved us, pouring ourselves out for one another even as he offered himself for us—even as he offers himself to us. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice,” says Paul, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” If you can do that on Facebook, then go for it. But in all things, let us not give the Spirit cause for grief, but let us live in his gifts of eternal joy and delight. Amen

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2 Comments

  1. Todd Wilken 10 days ago
    Reply

    “And I have witnessed (and you have too) pastors—pastors! — mock, sneer, insinuate, accuse, curse, condemn—and invite others into the same!—and all from the safe and cowardly distance of their church office chair. Oh it is justified as zeal for the purity or truth, but Paul is quite clear: the Spirit grieves for this tears apart what his love has brought together. ”

    This is some pretty weaponized language itself.

    • James Gibbs 3 days ago

      And your point is? Do you agree with Dr. Herrmann’s point that social media are often used in ugly ways? Or do you just want to cry, “Hypocrite!”?

      How is someone decrying unjust condemnation supposed to express it? Are they not allowed to use condemnatory language?

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