It’s a given: we must never compromise the truth or the core issues of the Gospel. However, we do need to take care as to the manner, time and place of communicating what we believe to be true. Boldness and wisdom are needed in equal measure.
In my earliest days in India, I often had to enter overcrowded local bank branches to change money. Inside the bank would be a security guard, seated behind a wall of sandbags and armed with a twelve-gauge shotgun. It occurred to me that he may well hit any bank robbers who came in, but he would hit and hurt a hundred other people too.
Such is the case with social media. I am saddened by reading of ‘unknown’ Christians who have suddenly become public property, having stirred up a hornet’s nest and been bitten. Too often the response is along the lines of, ‘All I did was share my own personal opinion on social media.’ Yes, to thousands of people you don’t know, whose pain and hurt and anger and misinformed mindset you cannot know or understand, and to whom you can make no explanation.
There are those who troll social media to find opportunities to create pain for others. Warriors looking for a fight. Your little tweet might be picked up and turned into a global furore.
Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed ought to be a must-read for all social media users.1 (Or you can watch his TED talk on the theme.) In his book, he documents the experience of a young female executive, Justine Sacco, who tweeted a piece of satire, intending to make a point against insensitive white cultural thinking. She was about to get on a plane, so after having sent off her message, she was offline for the next twelve hours or so.
During those hours, someone misread her tweet. They missed the satire. They took it as a genuine pro-white, racist opinion. It was sent on, then on and on. It went viral. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of people were angrily reading her words, directed by the initial misunderstanding. Vicious, angry, brutal responses poured into her account from all over the world. A tsunami of worldwide opinion built up against her.
And she was completely oblivious. Eating, reading and snoozing on a long-haul flight. She arrived at her home airport and walked into such a storm of media and social media abuse that she was virtually destroyed. She lost her job, her reputation, almost her sanity as she faced horrific ongoing abuse at the hands of millions social warriors she had never met.
Why? Because someone misread satire for reality.
Why? Because the difference between the intended meaning of a few lines on social media and the ‘received’ meaning is almost impossible to control.
An advertising copywriter can spend many hours on a mere handful of words for an advertisement. Usually, the fewer words, the more time and skill needed. The message might then be tested for ambiguity, perceived tone of voice and clarity. Synonyms are sought, a verb tense tweaked, a minute rearrangement of word order… And yet social media has duped us into thinking we can accurately tweet or text quick messages or responses with a few seconds’ thought and have our meaning clear.
As Christians in a post-Christian age, we need to handle ourselves well. This will mean knowing our message, our audience, and our personal abilities and limitations. And to know when to speak and when not to speak.
Do you remember Jesus’ answer to the chief priests’ and elders’ specific question about his authority? ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’ What an opportunity missed! Jesus could so easily have declared the truth of who he was and his authority from the Father… But he knew what was on their minds and what the result of his response would be.
It was not the time.
It was not the place.
Proverbs tell us, ‘He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.’ And, ‘A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself.’ And many more… These are not absolutes. That’s not how Proverbs works. But they raise caution for when caution is needed.
The advent of social media has placed a massively powerful new medium into the hands of every Tom, Dick and Harriet who has access to a computer or smartphone; a huge, open invitation to be rash. To speak with haste and regret at leisure.
Like that Indian bank security guard—we can just about guarantee that we will hit and hurt a whole range of people we had never intended to hit or hurt.
My wife and I once had a young woman living with us who had been horrifically sexually abused in her family. She was placed in a foster home where she was also serially sexually abused. She ran away from home and with nowhere to go, at age thirteen lived on the streets. Prostitution and drugs became driving features of her life, the one to survive, the other to ease the pain of survival. An utterly broken person, she had never known love that wasn’t sexual or abusive. A sinner but also sinned against.
What message did she need to hear? Shall we sweep her up in a random, non-discriminating twenty-word social media spray about prostitution? What message would bring her weeping to the feet of Jesus, ‘wetting his feet with her tears and wiping his feet with her hair?’2
If you were dealing with just such a broken person in your own living room, you would assess her current situation, try to discover what she already knew about Christ, and gently lead her from her where she was to the feet of Jesus. You would seek God’s wisdom for each statement you make and each response you give so as not to quench a dimly-burning wick or break a bruised reed.
Social media cannot do that. It is a non-discriminating media; a brutal, uncontrolled environment—even when ‘private’. We have no idea who might ultimately read our words or, more importantly, how they might be read. People read new information through the filters of what they already know, think or perceive. And with the best of our intentions, things can go horribly, horribly wrong.
My wife, a trained Christian family counsellor, was dealing with a couple whose marriage had strained to breaking point. She raised the subject of communication. The response was that of course they communicate. They send each other up to 100 texts a day!
So when she sends, ‘I thought you would be home by now,’ is she dirty on him because he can’t even get his rotten body home in time to play with the kids? Or is she deeply concerned because he’s late and something may have happened to him?
When he texts that he has decided they won’t go out to dinner for her birthday, is he teasing her with a better birthday surprise? Or is he still angry at the crap way she dealt with him over breakfast that morning and wants to get back at her?
People who are hurting or angry or depressed view new communication on the basis of the hurts they already feel. Someone with a sexual orientation problem sparked by crippling childhood abuse will hear our words very differently from someone who is revelling in a chosen licentious lifestyle. But social media does not and cannot discriminate. One swipe hits all.
‘If anyone loudly blesses their neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.’ (Pr 27:14) That’s God’s way of saying, ‘Be wise! Time and place matter. There is more to communication that just words.’ As quoted above, ‘He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.’ And I might add, probably bring to ruin the reputations and lives of the other members of your family in Christ.
It may even be worth deciding that not everything new is beneficial, and that short-blast social media is an invention that we, as believers, would do well to leave completely alone. And if you have something important to say, face-to-face it, don’t text it. That’s been my choice.
1. Riverhead Books, 2015.
2. She did find Christ and I recall sitting on the lounge singing with her the old Gaither song, ‘… He made something beautiful of my life.’