“Love your enemies,” is one of the most shocking and important moral precepts that Christ gave us. It is the complete inversion of all of our fallen instincts of revenge and even our natural instincts of justice. But Jesus calls us to be more of Him than of the world.
There are many ways to demonstrate this, as the great martyrs did in Ancient Rome or the way missionaries enter into hostile territories to preach the Gospel. For today’s reflection, I thought it would be good to look at how we can do this online.
Being nasty online can be incredibly easy. The internet often gives us a sense of anonymity. It is like a mask we can wear to avoid consequences for the words we put up there. This is especially true of social media like Twitter.
We can begin with the obvious idea that we should only place things on there that we would be proud of even if we were not anonymous. That has been one of my guiding principles online, even under my current pseudonym. Would I be okay with my employer, my pastor, or my students seeing any of these words?
But I would like to take it a step further today. We often fail at loving our enemies online even before we chime in with our own thoughts. It begins with the spirit in which we receive news about those we do not like.
In matters like these, I always go to my great teacher, CS Lewis. Even though he died decades before the internet, his insights can be most helpful here. He wrote in Mere Christianity, “Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
It is difficult to avoid the fact that we are currently a very fractured society, at least politically and morally. We are fighting a very real cultural and spiritual battle. But we can never forget that our war is on sin and the lies that cause them, not on sinners and those who believe those lies.
Take for example, the recent case of Covington Catholic. For some of you, that story must now seem like ancient history, as the news cycle is ever-updating. For those who are unfamiliar, there was a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial between a Native American activist and students from a visiting Catholic School in Kentucky. A picture circulated a teenage boy smiling as the elderly Native American banged a drum near his face. Many people read into the smile and saw a look of smug arrogance. It was reported that these students had surrounded the Native American man and began harassing him. For the entire day people from all around social media began to pile on the students of Covington. I stayed out of it, because I wasn’t sure of the entire context. But that did not stop the story from making its way onto the cable news shows. Even the students’ own bishop said that they might face expulsion for their behavior. People were immediately ready to condemn these boys because they saw in them the ugly face of racism and bigotry.
As more news became public, the confrontation was not as straightforward as it seemed. For example, the Native American approached the children and confronted them. They were not blocking his way. The young man who was smiling said he was trying to show he was non-confrontational. Video shows that the students were not trying to block the man’s way.
Now, I cannot read what is going on inside of the minds and souls of those involved. And I am open to the idea that more information can come out. But it definitely appears as though there was a rush to judgment by many people online. Throughout social media people projected their own assumptions about these boys into their actions rather than look at the context.
When the greater context showed that it these boys did not as badly as was asserted, were their detractors relieved? Were they happy that there was less racism and bigotry in the world? Or were they shamed because they wanted to believe the worst about these boys.
Recently, the governor of Virginia went on the radio and advocated for infanticide. This outrageous action has incited many who are pro-life and even those who are in the middle of the issue. Soon after, a yearbook picture was passed around the internet. Supposedly, the governor, when he was a young man, dressed in blackface and posed with someone in a KKK outfit. Afterwards there were calls for his resignation.
The governor apologized for the photo. But then he said that it wasn’t him in that picture. He was referring to a time when he had once darkened his skin to look like Michael Jackson. I am not going to tell you whether you should find the governor’s explanation credible. But would it not be a relief that this man was not as wicked as the yearbook picture implies? Shouldn’t we rejoice if it turns out that he isn’t in the photo and that he is not as racist as it would appear?
Or do we hope that that the worst about him is true so that we can feel better about our anger towards him? He supports something truly evil in the murder of infants. But do we hope that he is not simply misguided but rotten down to the soul? It would make it so much easier to feel justified in our animus.
Loving your enemies is an act of the will. We have to will the good of the other. But do we wish it as well? Am I open to seeing the good in them and rejoicing if we learn that the horrible things we’ve heard are untrue.
Make no mistake: we should not turn a blind eye to the evil in this world. And we must also not project a goodness and a virtue that is not there onto those who are doing evil. But when we wish that our enemies are more evil than they actually are, then we are wishing for more darkness and less light.
So when we are on the internet and we see a story that makes us react with anger. Let our first thoughts be as charitable as reason allows. Let cooler heads prevail. And let us raise each other up to the Lord in prayer.