A Pastor’s Dilemma: When People Are Wrong on the Internet

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Someone was wrong on the internet this week.

I will let you have a couple moments to calm down from that shocking realization before I tell you who it was.  .  .

It was a wonderful human being with a heart of gold.   They were perusing their feed when they read something they found fascinating.  The title probably made them laugh and they thought they could brighten your day by sharing it.  They were probably in a hurry, having more important things to do than obsess over the facticity of Facebook memes.  So in a moment of weakness they forgot to run the article’s title through Google or Snopes before posting it and now it is out there for everyone to see.

And you judged them!  Or chances are you did.  After all, I did.  I read their dumb meme while thinking to myself, “I don’t see anyway on earth that that could be true.”  Because I apparently have nothing better to do with my time than obsess over the facticity of Facebook memes, I took a minute or two or thirty to read the incredibly lengthy Snopes explanation of why this meme is mostly false.

After that I went back to Facebook, with the copied Snopes URL in hand (or in the cloud) ready to prove my superiority over that kindly but naive person who still has not learned to use the internet.

They won in the end on account of being a decent human being, albeit a less informed one.

None of that really happened to me this week but I have done it in days past and I see people doing it all the time.

And yes, we should be careful about what we retweet, repost or rehash for each other.  A lie is a lie no matter what media we share it with.  Yet at the end of the day there are greater sins than being wrong on the internet.  Take for example, the sin of judging people who are wrong on the internet.

In fact the other day I was reading over that Matthew 7 passage about not judging people.  I found that after Jesus’ rather blunt command, (Judge not!) he has a lot of fun with a plank of wood and a speck of sawdust.  I am not quite sure what Jesus would have classified as “plank” and “sawdust” but I am pretty sure being wrong on the internet has more in common with the latter.

Therefore I am trying to get God to heal me of my incessant need to prove my Snopes surfing abilities to all those who are wrong on God’s good internet.

Here are some guidelines that might help us all out with that:

  1. Don’t correct people’s spelling or grammar.  God did not invent the rules of language.  They are not legalistic markers of holiness that when violated give Satan keys to your kingdom.  They are just some silly but important rules we made up in order to communicate well with each other.
  2. Ask yourself if there is a legitimate debate to be had or just points to be scored for your pre-chosen side.  This especially comes into play in political debates.  Most of us are fact checking each other in order to prove our “side” was right all along.  Instead we should be seriously tackling and debating the underlying issues.  Yes, agreement on correct data is important for serious debate.  However, if I am willing to correct your data but not willing to let mine be corrected, than that is sheer arrogance.
  3. Be gentle and private.  If you feel you must really fact check someone, send them a private message.  Or better yet, bring it up with them in a one on one meeting (if people still do those).  It is much better to be rebuked privately than publicly.
  4. Don’t fight invincible ignorance.  In Matthew 7, Jesus adds,  “Don’t give to dogs what is sacred.  Don’t throw pearls to pigs.”  The traditional interpretation of this passage is don’t waste your time and energy arguing or judging those for whom it will do no good.  I am not entirely sure I like that interpretation but I do like another oft quoted maxim.  “Don’t argue with a 3 year old.  In no time at all those watching will not be able to tell the difference.”  Or even better, “Don’t argue with an idiot.  They will drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.”  No matter how I put it, there is much wisdom in choosing your battles and your opponents very carefully.

In closing. please use discretion and kindness when engaging your fellow internet travelers.

And remember another favorite cliche of mine, “You don’t have to show up to every fight you are invited too.”

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Beyond The Talking Points: Of Mayors and Subpoenas

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Before I launch into today’s topic, I want to issue an apology for not posting anything for two weeks.  Last week I was at a retreat in the mountains, learning about discipleship and becoming a better disciple.  The week before that I hosted a High School Cross Country meet that sucked away most of my time.

But I thought I would venture back into the blogging world by discussing the latest culture war to flit across my computer screen.  This one is about as juicy as they come, involving liberal mayors, conservative pastors, the ongoing homosexuality debate, subpoenas, petitions and a very bitter, yet delighted mob of Christians.

What happened in Houston, or rather is happening, is nebulous at best.  Even the bipartisan articles (like Snopes) are being accused of bias.  Many conservative Christians, riled up by a FoxNews COMMENTARY (not article), are jumping up and saying, “Yes!  We told you so!  We were right and we love being right!  And finally, someone is persecuting us!”  Although nobody really is persecuting us quite yet.

Meanwhile Houston stations and papers are trying to set the record straight.  But the problem is that the record is so complicated that setting it straight is impossible.  In fact, this situation is so entangled, curvy, and bent that to set it straight would be to deny the complexity of the world around us.

But first let me try to state the facts, as I have pieced them together.

First, Houston tried to pass a law that enforced non discrimination (especially against homosexuals).  This law exempted churches but not businesses that are run by Christians.

Second, many Houston churches and their pastors protested the bill and got 50,000 signatures on a petition to stop it from being signed into law.

Third, the city rejected the petition because it argued over half the signatures were acquired under false pretenses (which I think means the churches lied to people about what the bill actually said).

Fourth, the pastors filed a lawsuit AGAINST the city saying the signatures were valid.

Fifth, the city, in defending themselves against the lawsuit, did what everybody in a lawsuit does:  They subpoenaed everything the judge would allow them to, including sermons pertaining to the issue.

I want to put an aside here to say that if my church sued our city over something as banal as property usage, I would fully expect the city to subpoena any manuscripts or recordings of sermons or announcements pertaining to the lawsuit.  That is just how lawsuits work.

Sixth, Fox News published a commentary that made it sound as if the subpoenas were filed in offense (not defense).

Seventh, most conservative Christians were overjoyed and angry at the same time and posted the link everywhere with a gleeful “I told you so!”

Eighth, I read the Fox News commentary myself and was almost fooled by it until the last few paragraphs were suddenly an angry and hasty call to action with a hearty “I Told You So.”  So I decided to ignore the situation.

Eighth, a very prominent leader on my district whom I love and trust, saw the Fox News article, was fooled by it and emailed it to all the pastors, meaning my efforts to ignore it were thwarted.

So how should a devout, committed and sane Christian respond to all this.

I have zero idea.

But here is what I did.  I sunk my head in despair at the foolishness of it all.  I shook my fist and screamed in the air at the stupidity of those in my own faith tradition.  I tried to post articles that helped Christians understand the messiness of the situation, only to realize that most Christians have zero understanding of the American legal system, nor do they want to understand it.  They just want something to be mad at.  It is how they seemingly entertain themselves.

I shook my fist in the air again.  Then I went looking for someone in real life to argue this with, armed with all the facts, only to realize that even the best arguments would not stand against the invincible ignorance of my Christian siblings.  Instead it would only increase the aggravation and break down Christian unity.

I slammed my fist against the wall.  Then I started practicing what my response would be if someone brought this up on Sunday morning during worship, only to conclude any response other than, “yeah, okay” would violate my principles as a loving pastor.

I hung my head in despair again and prayed for the church.  I begged God to forgive us for our misinformed rage and our eagerness to break all of the commandments (like, “thou shalt not lie”) just to get our nation to litigate an obscure command in Leviticus.

Then I felt better and took a deep breath, reminded myself that Christians have been stupid for 2000+ years and yet the Holy Spirit has continued to do wondrous things through the church despite its very broken sinfulness.

Finally, I sat down to write this blog in the hopes of reminding my readership of two things:

1) The world is incredibly complex.  To boil a situation like the one in Houston down to words like, “persecution” and “right” and “wrong” is to engage in the sinful practice of lying and manipulating.

2) Despite how incredibly stupid and bitter the vocal Christians are, the Holy Spirit’s work continues unhindered.  We serve a big God who covers the multitude of our sins.

So take hope my friends for our God is much bigger than us!