The public square has gone digital. Ideas, opinions and perspectives (with all their counterarguments) are blasted back and forth across the virtual divide at a frenetic pace.
This contention historically found expression face to face. It is now on a screen, and our response can be immediate, global and, at times, viral and contagious.
In these responses, do we remember our desired emulation of Christ, or do we forget him, pick up our weapons of war and prepare for battle in a virtual arena?
Of all the opinions expressed online, undoubtedly there are those with which you agree or disagree, disregard or even find abhorrent. The question is not whether someone disagrees with you, because for every opinion you cherish, you will undeniably find someone online who vehemently opposes it. The real question is this: Can you maintain your Christianity in an environment where perspectives, opinions and viewpoints different from your own gain traction and go viral on a daily basis?
Dissenting voices may even cast harsh judgment with wanton disregard for your perspective and feelings. Too often, hurt feelings and exposed insecurities may lead you to prepare your counterattack and succumb to virtual road rage.
A warning: Prideful pitfalls threaten those who yield to contention and anger in these toxic online interactions. In the virtual world, where the human element is minimized, you may behave in ways you would never dream of behaving if confronting those same issues in person.
These online confrontations are varied and could be as subtle as using a “like” on Facebook that supports another’s statement or joining the war of words with a dissenting or supporting comment expressed in a status update, tweet or article. In each of these online interactions, we exhibit either our Christlike nature or our predilection to confrontation.
Consider, for example, how you respond to discussions on an issue you are passionate about, such as any of the hot-button issues of the day: marriage, politics or any aspect of religion. Ignoring the question of who is right and who is wrong, ask yourself: “Especially in my response to opinions different from my own, am I meek, lowly and humble? In a word, Christlike?” The true test of your Christianity online is how you respond to the opinions, perspectives and viewpoints that are different from your own.
At a time when the pride of one ancient people was at its zenith, it was observed, “Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God.”
How can we apply those words to our day and to our Internet communications? Railing could take the form of a rant, a taunt, verbal abuse, invective or a persistent complaint, and it might find expression in a Facebook status or in a comment on an online post or tweet. It may mock or hold up to ridicule those things you agree with or even something you hold sacred.
In response, do you rail, rant, taunt, mock and hold the opposition up for ridicule in a tit for tat where each side gains support and followers yet everyone still loses? To paraphrase Matthew, what benefit is there if in winning the online argument, you lose your soul?
The Christian rallying cry online should be meekness. Elder Neal A. Maxwell declared in a 1982 Brigham Young University fireside talk that meekness is “vital because one simply cannot develop those other crucial virtues — faith, hope and charity — without meekness.” Going further, he quoted the prophet Moroni, who said, “none is acceptable before God save the meek and the lowly in heart.” Even a change of venue from real life to a virtual world does not come with an exemption from the commandment to be meek.
The following five tips can help us maintain our love of Christ and our fellowmen, even when online.
1. Remind yourself a fellow human is behind the electronic screen and every word you write will either build up or tear down a son or a daughter of God. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland quoted from the Apocrypha in the April 2007 general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.” The same could be said for the stroke of a keyboard. Our online weapons of war are varied and can at times be lethal.
2. In all your online communications, emulate the attributes of Christ. Be kind and be gentle. The ability to rise above the fray reflects “certitude, strength and serenity,” as Elder Maxwell said.
3. If you feel impassioned about a particular issue, wait at least 30 minutes before hitting the button to post, send, update or share. If your chest is tight and an urge to respond fills your heart like an all-encompassing fire and even distracts you from what you should be doing, wait at least an additional hour, or maybe even the rest of the day, and then re-evaluate before responding.
4. Ask yourself the following questions: Am I meekly making room for others or am I making a space for me? Am I keeping one of the greatest commandments to love my online neighbor and even my online enemy? Will another feel the love of Christ through my interaction?
5. Remember, when confronted with some of the worst that mankind could do and when afflicted with all manner of abuse, lies and invective, the Savior was often silent. And he ultimately pleaded for forgiveness in meekness and humility on behalf of his accusers. Is the offense you received online greater than his or should you too respond as did the Savior: with silence and forgiveness.
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When looking at our online interaction, it might be helpful to remember the words of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf in the April 2013 general conference: “(W)hile the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God.”
By keeping this in mind and carefully crafting our online communications, especially with those whose opinions are different from our own, we will ensure that we are consistent followers of Christ — even online.
Ryan Jardine is a Brigham Young University economics graduate. He shares his often random, and sometimes quirky, take on "life, the universe and everything" at rytingchambers.blogspot.com.