I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
In an age when much of our communication is limited to one-sided social media posts like Tweets, Snaps, and Instagram pictures, it’s difficult to actually dialogue. In fact, social media is often effective because of it’s capacity to take complicated stories, ideas, and identities and make them simple and consumable in the short time that we get a chance to peek at our phone while waiting in line at Panera. This kind of communication often lives as a virtual monologue. This places those who view these posts in the position of reactors rather than conversation partners. Most of the time that isn’t a bad thing.
“I love cats!” In my head: Ok, cool, me too. (like)
“I love gerbils!” In my head: Meh, not as much, but you do you. (ignore)
These sorts of posts offer small glimpses of our complicated and multi-faceted stories and give others a glimpse of the fiery passions that burn in our hearts. But these posts usually don’t require (or even desire) dialogue. If, for instance, I post “I love cats because they’re furry and adorable,” I’m not inviting you to tell me why dogs are better (they are not); I’m simply asking you to consume this small part of my story.
We can’t double-tap or unfollow our way into a right relationship with our sisters and brothers who journey through life with us.
This sort of one-sided conversation places the viewer in a compromised position because disagreement can often be seen as confrontational and defensive. So, when we see a post, we just passively process it to ourselves or maybe with the folks we’re with, maybe we give it a double tap if we like it or ignore it if we don’t.
One unforeseen consequence of putting our thoughts, opinions, desires, and requests for Candy Crush Saga Lives on social media is that we begin to flatten ourselves (and others) into digestible and understandable caricatures that are easy to relate to, love, or even hate. I, for instance, do like cats and often share “Cats of Instagram” posts; but there’s more to me than my love for cats (not a lot more, but more, nonetheless). Social media can lead us to dehumanize our brothers and sisters based on the contents of their posts.
During the election (and let’s be real, in the months after), it became difficult for most of us to see our social media friends as complex children of God with hopes, fears, and dreams. Instead, we reduced them from a child of God to a thing that our brain could understand in a few milliseconds as we scroll through our feed. Posts can speak words of affirmation or hurt with something as simple as an Arthur meme and this sort of unilateral dialogue often lets us rest in our assumptions that the one who posted it may simply be an awful person and compel us to ascribe permanent titles to them like snowflake, bigot, or something worse.
So what do we do? What do we, as people of faith, do when we live in a world of flat caricatures on flat screens that often disappoint and hurt us? Often our reaction to discord and hurt is to turn away and choose estrangement. In the digital world, this looks like pressing the unfollow button. I wonder if you, like me, have chosen estrangement from those who once occupied your friends list based on the contents of their posts? Why would we even want to be in a relationship with someone who thinks that or believes this? What on earth could we possibly have in common with someone who shares uber-partisan political news or exciting posts about Taco Bell’s new Chicken Chalupa (the shell is made out of chicken!). How is unity with folks like that even possible? I feel you. Estrangement is easy. Click. Bye-bye. But faith in Christ calls us to approach these difficult relationships differently.
Is There an App for That?
In the Reformed tradition, we recognize that God’s love for us pursued and pursues us before we’re aware of it and even when we seek to turn away from it. This belief in an active love that seeks communion when we turn away, is the same kind of love that we’re called to live out in the world. When we look to Christ and his work in his own time and place, we see a ministry of justice that often involved reminding people who had been reduced to hateable caricatures that they were, in fact, children of God who were worthy of love. Jesus rehumanized caricatures into children of God and asks us to do the same thing in our divided world.
This is, of course, what the author of Ephesians was talking about when discussing unity in the Spirit. This letter challenged the church in Ephesus (and Christ’s Church, today) to make the effort to love others in the face of division, compelled by the God of Love who pursued them (and us) by recognizing commonality when all that seems obvious is dissension. This call to bear with (forbear) is not passive dismissal or approval of something that someone did or thought, but rather an active endeavor to see God’s Spirit in the other just as clearly as you discern it within your heart.
Unfortunately, there’s no app to model the pursuing love of Christ. It’s simply not that easy. We can’t double-tap or unfollow our way into a right relationship with our sisters and brothers who journey through life with us. That sort of love requires that we get up, turn off our screens, and carve sacred spaces in our world to listen and truly hear the people who have been made flat, until it becomes clear that the caricature we encounter online also bears the mark of our creator. Talk with people. Listen to people. Accept invitations to get to know people and communities who have been dehumanized.
Who has been dehumanized in your own context? What efforts will you take to get up and carve the sacred space necessary to rehumanize children of God in your heart? UKirk at the University of Tennessee did this when we accepted an invitation to the Muslim Community Center of Knoxville’s open house to get know a people of faith who have been recklessly painted with broad strokes as people to fear by so many in our society. In my context, our Muslim sisters and brothers have been made flat and that simply is not what God intends for the world. Christ compels us not to rest with the assumption that people are one-dimensional things to fear or hate. Christ calls us to get up and create space to hear and see folks for what they are, children of God who are worthy of love. We choose to forbear with our Muslim neighbors and they with us.
Social media makes it difficult to see possibilities of common ground with folks because you don’t have to guess where they stand on important issues, issues that reduce the beauty that God made into a bite-sized thing to hate. Faith in Christ calls us not to rest with division, but rather to forbear.
A Call to Forbear
I am not sure what forbearance will look like for us as we read and view hurtful posts from people we know and care about. What I do know is that our faith calls us to do the difficult task of pursuing and forbearing with those we seek to remain in a relationship with as a response to God’s love for us.
How can we see others who have hurt us as children of God? How will we rehumanize those folks who have been made so flat and hateable? How will we create sacred space to forbear? How will God lead us to not only “refollow” people online, but to actively pursue those people whose opinions have hurt us in our hearts and in our life? I don’t know what God’s call to pursue and forbear will look like in our lives as people of faith in a scary and fractured context, but doing the difficult work of recognizing the mark of our common creator and forbearing are the gifts we can offer the world now to build bridges across unthinkable chasms.
Rev. Andy P. Morgan is the pastor of UKirk at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and member of the Presbytery of East Tennessee. Andy loves watching cat videos online and sending you (yes, you) Farmville requests on Facebook.