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The wisdom of Proverbs...applied to social media and the blogosphere

The wisdom of the Hebrew Bible is indeed relevant to the modern age of online interaction.
The wisdom of the Hebrew Bible is indeed relevant to the modern age of online interaction.
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If one spends any amount of time on social media one wil realize just how quickly human communication is changing. Handwritten or typed etters to the editor are a thing of the past in the age of the Comments Section. Opinion pieces, news reports, or even pseudo-news reports involving inane details about the current celebrity de jour are delivered at the speed of light (literally), and readers no longer have to wait to voice their displeasure, outrage or approval. Anyone with a wireless device and internet access now possesses a digital soapbox that extends far beyond the town square.

This advancement in communication is both a blessing and a curse...just like any other technological development in human history. And while the changes it brings about in terms of public discourse are myriad, how we make use of it will simply continue to reflect unchanging human nature. Like it or not, social media feeds and the blogosphere are the new marketplace of ideas and interaction. And often, even among (or especially among!) those claiming to represent Jesus, the back-and-forth arguments/debates/dialogues easily descend into little more than name-calling and pious-sounding character assassination.

  • You oppose Israel's bombing of Gaza? You're a pro-Islamic anti-Semite who loves terrorists!
  • You DON'T oppose Israel's bombing of Gaza? You're a fascist genocidal warmonger!
  • You like Mark Driscoll? You're probably a woman-hating fundamentalist bully!
  • You DON'T like Mark Driscoll? You must be a spineless liberal who's never read the Bible!
  • You believe the Church should uphold New Testament ethic on same-sex sexual relationships? You're a hateful bigot who likely also opposes interracial marriage and wants to own slaves!!
  • You DON'T believe the Church should uphold the New Testament ethic on same-sex sexual relationships? You're basically a secular humanist who worships the spirit of this age rather than the God of the Bible!

Such comments aren't too much of an exaggeration, unfortunately. As British theologian N.T. Wright has said, "It really is high time we develop a Christian ethic of blogging." And Wright is right!

As someone who as ministered online through discussion, debate and dialogue for the better part of a decade now, I've come to appreciate just how practical the ancient Wisdom literature in Scripture is when engaging others online, particularly those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement.

But just last week, my close friend and fellow blogger/author Olatunde shed light on a passage in Proverbs I'd read dozens of times before but never thought about in such a way as he suggested.

A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Proverbs 15:1 (NRSV)

I have always read this proverb as saying that when you answer someone gently, rather than rudely or in harsh anger, they are more likely to not get defensive and will actually listen to what you have to say (or at least be more willing to than if you were harsh in your response). The focus of the proverb was, therefore, on the person you are answering. Your answer would determine their degree of wrath/anger. But Olatunde pointed out that there is no given subject in the proverb. It does not say whose wrath is being turned away or whose anger is being stirred.

The proverb's application is broader than I had always assumed.

When someone comments on a story I share or an article I post in a way that is harsh, antagonistic or combative (which happens fairly regularly no matter how diplomatic and respectful I may try to be), I have a choice in how I respond. When I respond with a snide, glib or dismissive comment, it definitely stirs up anger in the the person I'm interacting with--but guess what. It also stirs up those same feelings in me! I find myself entering into "combat mode" and desiring to "win" an argument instead of reach my audience.

When I respond harshly, I stir up anger within myself!

But the opposite holds true as well. When I take a moment, allow my feeling of anger, frustration or annoyance to pass and then respond calmly and gently (though still firmly at times), regardless of whether or not my interlocuter lowers their defensiveness, my own anger/resentment is calmed and I find myself far less concerned with "winning" and much more concerned with communicating effectively and clearly in a way that they and anyone reading along can at the very least understand (even if they don't end up agreeing).

Taking time to formulate a gentle answer turns away my own wrath!

I have no control over how another person responds to my words...but I have 100% control over what my words will be. 100% control, that is, until I hit "enter." Then my words are out there in the public eye forever and will be read in a number of different ways by many different people (including the NSA!). So when writing anything online I try and determine whether I'm responding harshly or gently and the spirit in which most reasonable people reading my words would receive them.

This doesn't mean that I don't respond harshly or with "righteous indignation" at times. It just means that when I do, I should be aware of the anger/wrath that my words may stir up--both within the reader as well as within myself! If my goal is clarity, light, truth and intelligent discourse, then more often than not a gentle answer will better enable such to occur. Taking time to reflect upon my thoughts and my words before firing them off into the blogosphere will often save much unnecessary backtracking, clarifying or apologizing later when I've calmed down.

Of course, it may not generate as many hit counts or gain as popular a following as the method employed by "shock-bloggers" who are wedded to their various tribes, parties or ideologies. But that matters little in the eyes of God, I imagine. And there are plenty of such voices out there in their various echo-chambers; the world doesn't need another one.

So whether you are a pastor who blogs or a social-media user who comments on the latest controversial story on your news feed, remember: the wisdom of Proverbs 15:1 is found in how we apply it to ourselves as much as anyone else.