It had to happen, I suppose. On the same day, two posts appeared on my Facebook timeline. One featured the announcement that following Pope Francis’s Twitter feed would result in one spending less time in Purgatory. I suppose we might consider that a “virtual indulgence.” Although I can’t be sure, since the word “virtual” generally indicates a computer generated reality which mimics the actual reality. So not exactly certain what a computer-generated escape from a proposed location — that being Purgatory — which is not part of our reality would look like. I’m not even certain if that previous sentence makes any sense.
Within moments of that, another item appeared purporting to oppose domestic abuse — the least that think that’s what it was — bearing the title “End It Now,” and the hashtag #enditnowNAD. “It” being abuse.
I want to stress that, especially since my wife was a victim of abuse as a child, I take this very seriously. I do not wish to make light of either of these posts. If I believed in Purgatory, I would certainly be glad for any opportunity to escape time there. As for myself, I find following almost anyone’s Twitter feed its own form of purgatory. I will effect my escape from Purgatory by not following the pope’s Twitter feed.
My concern is that we have increasing numbers of people who believe that by posting something on social media or creating a hashtag, or even by joining a protest march and holding up placards, we have accomplished something. My experience tells me that it does not.
Regular readers — if there are any — of this blog, know that some years ago I was involved in changing the law in the state of Iowa to make homeschooling legal. We did not have social media. We did, however, have protest marches. Multiple times homeschoolers rallied at the state capital, and speakers roused them with condemnations of the law limiting parents freedom to teach their children, eliciting rousing cheers and genuine applause. When a court ruled that the state’s law concerning “equivalent instruction” was too vague, I was among hundreds who jammed a meeting room in the Education Department building. For hours, people vented their anger at the government, and specifically at the Counsel to the Education Department, a woman lawyer present at that meeting.
Three years later I was selected to represent homeschoolers across the state. It was then I discovered the fruit of all those demonstrations: among 150 legislators, we had about 10 friends, and 30 or 40 entrenched enemies, infuriated by the treatment they had received at the hands of homeschoolers. I quickly discovered that our political influence was essentially a negative number. The support we had was heavily outweighed by the anger and resolution of those opposed to us.
Although this was before the Internet came into common use — even AOL did not yet exist — our group had become in essence a virtual lobbying group. We expressed our opinions among ourselves, reinforced our feelings of both persecution and righteousness, we spoke darkly of the presumed motivations of those who disagreed with us, and congratulated each other on the purity of our commitment.
To the degree that all of this accomplished anything, we had unknowingly increased polarization on both sides, and made eventual accomplishment of our goals far more difficult.
Sadly, I see a lot of this happening among Christians today. We care passionately about our memes and our hashtags, we express our positions with devastating wit and sarcasm, we “like” and “share” with like-minded people, and congratulate ourselves on our virtue: we have become social media Pharisees. We proclaim our wisdom loudly on the social media street corners, but treat those who disagree with us with contempt.
I do not mean to say that the #enditnowNAD movement is Pharisaical–not at all. I am saying that flawed human beings such as I am can take a good cause and misuse it to our own detriment.
Rather than actually finding common ground, we make it uninhabitable. All of our passion having been expended in these self-congratulatory posts and tweets, we contentedly sip our herbal teas and lattes and commence to binge-watch Netflix.
This “Virtual Christianity” is a sort of religious videogame. We may decimate the enemy robots and zombies on our screens, but when the pixels fade we have accomplished nothing.
Next time I will describe the alternative.
P.S. On second glance, I see the #enditnowNAD is for a pastoral summit online. Excellent idea. Not all hashtags are equal. But the general point still stands.