“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” --Genesis 1:27
The creation account is both marvelous and sobering. We human beings are exalted above the rest of creation in that we are made in the very image of God! We alone have been set a little lower than the angels and have been given the responsibility to care for creation.
And yet, how quick we are to do violence to each other.
In the digital world we--myself deeply included in this “we”--wage war against our fellow image-bearers often with the ironic intention of the defending the dignity of other image-bearers.
Righteous indignation can be a good thing, and as Christians we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ and to pursue justice. However, the means by which we pursue this justice is just as important as the ends we are trying to reach. In fact, more often than not, if we pursue justice via unrighteous means, we will often derail our efforts for our righteous end and never attain it at all. Or, at the very least, we will create more problems along the way to our goal.
In his short, yet thoughtful book, How to Think, Alan Jacobs recounts the story of Megan Phelps-Roper. Ms. Phelps-Roper was a member of perhaps one the most unsavory congregations of people to come to the foreground of public attention in recent history: Westboro Baptist Church. In addition to the standard church-practice of picketing of funerals with signs which made horrifying declarations such as “God hates fags,” she became active on Twitter.
As Alan Jacobs tells the story, it was on Twitter, strangely enough, that she first encountered the sort of kindness that initiated her exodus out of that church. It was not the people who condemned her that made her rethink her core beliefs. On the contrary, it was Jewish man named David Abitbol who made the decision that he “wanted to be really nice so that they [members of the Westboro Baptist Church] would have a hard time hating [him]” (Jacobs, 32).
Of course, Ms. Phelps-Roper’s decision to leave Westboro Baptist did not happen overnight. In fact, she would still picket more funerals to come before she finally left in 2012.
The critical element to understand in this situation is that Phelps-Roper did not leave because someone shouted loudly enough to finally break her out of her stupor. She left because someone gently nudged her to start thinking in a different way; and they did that by having a conversation, being kind, and approaching her with grace.
Last year, NPR’s All Things Considered came out with a story about Daryl Davis, an African American blues musician who was influential in causing over 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan to hang up their robes. His method? Becoming friends with them.
You can read his story here if you are interested, but the cliff-notes version of the story is that he made an impact on so many Klan members because he did not respond to their hate with more hate.
When we see injustice in the world, it is a natural and good thing to get fired up and to be angry about it. However, the manner in which we channel that anger matters. There is no way to lovingly demonize a person. And yet that is what happens day-in and day-out on our social media feeds. In an effort to defend the dignity of one person or group, we trample the dignity of another. And more often than not, we don’t even know much about that people we are demonizing! The situations described above are extreme examples. Most people that horrify us on the internet maintain positions that are much more mild than those held by members of Westboro Baptist Church. However, when we are online and flustered rarely do we stop to consider the complexity of the person with whom we are interacting, nor do we have any desire to exercise compassion and to try to understand them. All we know is that the individual in question holds an opinion that we find repulsive, and then we are quick to make a myriad of assumptions about them.
If we truly wish to change people, we have to play the long game. We have to be willing to respond to people with patience and love over a long period of time. It’s not too hard to be loving to a hateful person one time, but it’s awfully difficult to turn that into a lifestyle. And yet, if we really want to make a difference that’s what we have to do.
Threatening to unfriend people on Facebook won’t change anybody. I doubt very many neo-Nazis have come around because they’ve been punched. But I know of at least one instance of a neo-Nazi who changed because he was shown compassion. You can read about him here.
Why do we love? Because the truth is that we have just as much capacity for all the evil that we hate so much, and despite all of that God still loves us. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
“27 But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” --Luke 6:27-36