A key difference between modern social media and earlier forms of media is that the modern sort makes it far easier for us to connect with strangers personally. This can be a good thing: strangers so often are friends we have not yet met. Yet, sadly, not always. Moreover, dealing with strangers can be very tiring: modern social media can be exhausting. Yet it can be a wonderful way to connect with people new to us, who enrich our lives in many ways. After all, these are people who are loved by Jesus, human beings made in the image of God. But how do we reap the benefits of connecting with strangers on social media, without being overwhelmed by the challenges?
As Christians, we can look to Jesus for advice. While Jesus did not use modern social media, he dealt often with strangers, and his example in this can be very helpful.
First, Jesus, when worn out by the crowds, would withdraw, going to deserted places to pray [Luke 5:16]. When Jesus heard that his cousin John had been unjustly executed by Herod, he withdrew by boat to go to a desolate place by himself [Matthew 14:13]. Yes, even Jesus, son of God and worker of great miracles, needed time alone when he was tired or upset, to pray and recharge. We, too, need time away from the constant exposure to strangers that is modern social media. So we should turn it off sometimes, unplug it, take time away from social media, especially when tired or upset. If Jesus sometimes withdrew to be alone, to pray and recharge, we can too.
Second, Jesus was responsive to strangers in genuine need. Many times he was beset by crowds of strangers seeking teaching or miracles. On one occasion, when visiting Simon’s house, he healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. The word got out: a large crowd gathered with many sick people seeking healing. Rather than turn them away, or sneaking out the back door, he “laid his hands on each of them and cured them” [Luke 4:40]. On another occasion, when traveling to a deserted place hoping for some rest, he saw that a crowd of people had followed him there. When he saw them, he had compassion for them, and addressed their needs [Mark 6:34]. We on social media need to consider Jesus’ generosity, and be similarly generous ourselves. He did not turn away people with genuine needs where he could help, even when it was challenging for him. We can emulate him in this. Even if our circumstances do not permit us to help directly, one thing we can do, when we see people asking for prayer, or in need of it, is to pray for them. Normally there should be no need to wait until later: we should pray for them right then and there.
Finally, Jesus refused to engage with strangers with agendas, who are not of good will. When Jesus, after his arrest, was sent to King Herod, Herod was glad at first, because he had an agenda: he wanted to “see Jesus perform some sign” [Luke 23:8]. Herod “questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer.” [Luke 23:9] While this led to Jesus being mocked and treated with contempt [Luke 23:11], he did not rise to the bait: he remained silent. We, too, see all sorts of strangers not of good will on social media: they pretend to be who they are not, they say deliberately offensive things to provoke a negative reaction (so-called “trolls“), they make sexual comments, or they look to punish those who have views they dislike. Jesus’ example here is well worth following: don’t engage. Jesus couldn’t walk away from Herod, he was a captive at the time. But Jesus ignored Herod completely. We can and should use all the protective features of social media to help us follow Jesus’ example. Anyone who deliberately provokes, who makes comments of a sexual nature, who has an “agenda”, who seeks to punish people who have views they don’t like, drop them, mute them, block them. Don’t engage, don’t argue, just block. If Jesus can ignore Herod, surely we can block and ignore a troll or two.
With these three things in mind, it seems clear that Jesus’ example in dealing with strangers can give us some good guidance in dealing with social media. Block, drop, and ignore strangers with agendas. Be generous with strangers who have genuine needs, where we can help. Put social media aside when tired or upset. With these in mind, we will be better able to use social media to safely make human connections with strangers.