All too often, social media lacks kindness. The electronic medium of text on a computer or smartphone lacks the body language feedback that people use to moderate their expressions to avoid offending others. Many forms of social media optimize for “engagement”: dissent and disagreement are powerful forms of this. Social media encourages attention-seeking behavior, and unkind speech can be a very effective way to get attention. No wonder social media is full of unkindness. What is a Christian to do?
Christianity is full of calls to kindness. The holy scriptures reveal that kindness is pursued by those who do right. The book of Proverbs says that the one who “pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor” [Proverbs 21:21]. The prophet Micah summarizes what God requires of us: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” [Micah 6:8]. Similarly, through the prophet Zachariah, God tells us to “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another”. [Zechariah 7:9] In the New Testament, kindness is a key characteristic of love [1 Corinthians 13:4]. Kindness is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit [Galatians 5:22] with which Christians are asked to “clothe themselves” [Colossians 3:12]. Clearly, Christians are called to be kind.
How, then, is a Christian to handle social media and its widespread unkindness? It seems to me that the most common reason unkindness is common on social media is that cliques and factions have formed, and unkindness is expressed towards those who are in a different factions, who show signs of sympathy towards a different faction, or who use the language and expressions of a different faction. Factionalism is not unique to social media: it was a problem in the early church, too. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul criticizes the church at Corinth for forming factions according to who baptized whom, and fomenting dissention [1 Corinthians 1:10-13]. It is not so much that factions exist that is the problem: families, factions, groups, tribes, nations, these are all elements of being human. The problem is the dissention between them. The word “kindness” is derived from kunde, originally “with the feeling of relatives for each other”; the word kin comes from the same root. To be kind is to treat others as if they were part of your own closest group, your own family. So when it is said that kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, it means that the Holy Spirit equips and causes those within whom he lives to treat others kindly, as their own kin, those closest to themselves.
To see how the Holy Spirit transcends factions, consider what happened at the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. Immediately the disciples went out of the house and spoke about God to the many foreign visitors in Jerusalem, miraculously speaking in the visitors’ own languages through the power of the Spirit:
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. [Acts 2:5-12]
Consider what this means. When the Holy Spirit manifested himself at Pentecost, the very first thing he prompted the disciples to do was reach out to many nations in their own languages. This means that God does not reject the various nations of humanity, he embraces them. The kindness we are to show, the kindness that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, is not just kindness only to our own kin, our own “nation”, it is to the many tribes and the many nations of the human race. There is no “right nation”: in speaking to the nations in their own tongues, the Holy Spirit shows that God embraces and reaches out to the members of each nation as they are, in their own language.
What this means for Christians on social media is that if we are to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to act in accordance with the Holy Spirit, we will show the fruits of the Holy Spirit, including kindness, to everyone, including those of different factions or groups, including those with whom we disagree. We know the Holy Spirit respects people who they are, where they are, in their own tribe, faction, nation, and he uses their own language. So, too, on social media we are to accept people as they are, reaching out to them in their own terms and using their own speech. That is not to say that the Holy Spirit says all things are good: there are indeed many things that are not, and God calls us all away from those, and towards what is right – but always with kindness. Right Christian conduct on social media is clear. If we are to reflect God to others in social media, we need to allow the fruits of the Holy Spirit to manifest themselves in us: we need to clothe ourselves in kindness.
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