THE BLOG
08/11/2015 11:53 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2016

Mean Christians in the Digital Age

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I'm a newcomer to social media. I only created a Facebook account in January to promote my new book on reflective faith. This is only my fifth Huffington Post blog. I think I have 16 followers on Twitter.

I decided to blog because I thought I might have something to offer to conversations about religion, specifically Christianity, coming from my perspective at the intersection of women, gender and sexuality studies and religious studies. I come from a tradition of religious dissent (I grew up Baptist). I spent five and a half years in a Baptist seminary discussing all kinds of biblical, theological and ethical issues. Usually the discussions were heated but respectful--although one time a fellow student did shout at me that I needed to get out of Christianity because of a theological question I raised (and I did witness the ugly side of disagreement as I watched the Southern Baptist Convention fracture, but that's another blog for another day). On the whole, however, at the seminary I learned processes of lively theological discussion and disagreement, and these were the processes I hoped to engage through social media.

I'm sure some of you digital natives and longtime users of social media are already chuckling at my naiveté. In only a few weeks I've been shocked at the rude comments, name-calling and insults that are posted as responses to the arguments and evidence that are offered to encourage critical thinking and different perspectives. What's most surprising--and disappointing--is how many of those insults come from people who identify as Christian. One person said that as someone who went to a Baptist seminary I should "know better" and asked, "What happened to you?" as if only some horrible trauma could have led me to make the arguments I did.

I've noticed a disturbing pattern of some commenters attacking the writer rather than engaging the ideas. Certainly, a great deal of scholarship has noted how the anonymity of the internet seems to encourage people to behave badly toward others in ways they likely would not in person. And what we witness in the media among politicians is often more "gotcha" than any real willingness to delve deeply into authentic conversations over points of disagreement.

What baffles me most is how some Christians participate in online meanness and incivility. I'm not sure how people whose identifying characteristic is supposed to be love justify treating others with contempt because they disagree with them (Granted, church history is dotted all along the way with mean Christians, but I keep hoping we'll learn to do better).

In my own writing, I do try to be provocative with ideas, but I do not want to target other people with insults and name-calling. In fact, when I teach other faculty members how to facilitate difficult conversations, I tell them that when someone makes an inappropriate or offensive comment they should take the spotlight off the person who made the comment and turn the group's attention to the comment itself so they can examine it without attacking the person who said it.

Personal attacks do not further analysis; rather they impede or shut down deliberation. Maybe that's the idea. Maybe those Christians who attack writers personally are simply trying to shut down the conversation rather than examine ideas that are different from their own.

This doesn't have to be the case though. I ran across a social work project at Dordt College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa associated with the Christian Reformed Church. The social work students there selected the theme for social work month as "the ideal of community" with specific attention to how incivility breaks down community. The goal of the project was to encourage conversations about how to engage civilly when we are so accustomed to uncivil engagement, and the students' guiding principles arose from their Christian faith. Their professor explained,

First and foremost, we teach and try to put into practice the principle that all people deserve and require dignity and respect. All people includes those in power--politicians and public figures are people too--to the people in society with whom we disagree or those whose experience we cannot seem to connect with. From our Christian worldview, we know that all people are image bearers of God and therefore require our respect. . . We can, and should, cultivate communication--in person and online--that is both kind and gentle, respecting each other in our differences and yet being able to engage in meaningful dialogue about what we believe.

She's right. Disagreement is not the same as disrespect. Ideas that challenge our own do not give us the right--especially in the name of our Christian faith--to mistreat others. On the other hand, name-calling and insults are disrespectful, and I cannot imagine a place for them in true Christian dialogue. I do think Christians can and should talk about the widest range of ideas, even those ideas that cause us to cringe, struggle, or clench our teeth.

We should talk with one another and with people of other faiths or no faith. We should disagree, passionately, respectfully, joyfully. And I think we should listen, openly, respectfully, joyfully--with the full possibility that we might change our minds.

I also think we should never confuse passion about our beliefs with license to insult, defame, or disrespect others. After all, Christian mean is still just plain mean.