specks, planks and the culture of sanctimony

If you want to read articles about Christians lamenting the state of twitter, you don’t have to look too far. I understand the caution and we can all see things on there that are less than godly at times. I equally don’t think it hurts to be reminded to be careful with our words – the Bible does have things to say about that, after all.

But almost all of those articles will land on what they perceive to be a Christian problem on twitter. We are all like jackals, apparently, going after each other and being ‘jerks for Jesus’ or whatever. I don’t want to pretend that sort of things doesn’t exist – we’ve all seen it. But in all honesty, I am not – and never was – convinced that is really our major problem with twitter.

Are there intemperate, angry Christians on twitter? No doubt. Do some Christian people come across badly on twitter? Yes. Let’s not forget some of those things are in the eye of the beholder. Tone, body language, even jokes aren’t always heard as intended. But do I think the overwhelming majority of Christians are absolutely slamming each other on twitter? No. Are most of us being horrible or just ranting angrily at each other? Honestly, I just don’t see that. There are no doubt exceptions, but on the whole, I really don’t think that is how most Christians are using twitter and it’s not how I think most come across. Even in cases where people point me to specific examples (though, it cannot be said enough, ignoble exceptions exist), I’m often not sold on the person being either aggressive or angry. They may be direct, blunt, perhaps even unnuanced, but in my view generally not nasty, pejorative or excessively aggressive.

I think context on these things always matters. We have to make allowances for the medium. Trying to cram nuance into 280 characters is particularly difficult. We also have to accept that we do not have access to someone’s tone, body language or other means of expressing the same thought – we simply have written words, written within a character limit. We have to make allowances for that. Then, of course, there is the fact that we might be talking among friends who know each other well or doing the equivalent of walking up to a stranger in the street and proceeding to take issue with them. Who is in the thread will inevitably alter what and how we say things, coming across such a thread – as a stranger or outsider to those involved – can make things seem other than they really are. There are a whole load of other contextual issues, and you can probably think of others, but we are recognise that context really matters. We often don’t seem to make that allowance for Twitter. I don’t think a lot of the comments people take issue with are necessarily so bad even before we take account of these things, but very few of them seem quite so bad when we have a bit of charity given the limitations of the medium.

I have made no secret of the fact that I do think twitter is more good than bad (see here and here for examples). I don’t want to ignore the problems, they are real. But I don’t think they are as bad as some want to suggest. Certainly, I don’t think they’re as widespread as some seem to think. Whilst I do recognise that some people come across as angry and aggressive online, I don’t recognise this to be most people or even as widespread as some want to claim.

There is a more insidious problem that I do see online though. The interesting thing about this problem – unlike the claims of anger and aggressiveness – is that it is one that exists similarly offline. I appreciate there is a phenomena on social media that depersonalises, so things that we wouldn’t say to somebody in person, we feel a safe distance away to say on twitter. But I am minded to think (generally) the person who is gentle and kind offline – and who isn’t specifically using pejorative terms online – probably isn’t intending to be aggressive online either. The person who is just as aggressive and obnoxious offline might well be being read rightly as aggressive and obnoxious online. Once again, I appreciate exceptions will exist, but I don’t think that an unreasonable assumption.

So, I don’t see lots of aggression and obnoxious behaviour from Christians online. Yes, there is some, but not lots. But I do see a problem that manifests offline plenty enough that I see far more commonly online. I think we have a real problem with sanctimony. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that often (again, exceptions exist) our calling out the apparent aggressive and obnoxious behaviour that I don’t see so much is often rooted in our sanctimony problem that I see all over the place.

There seems to be something in us that just loves to point out others flaws. Subtweeting is an especially pleasing way to do it too. We all kind of know that we’re talking about specific people, even though we don’t mention them, because your sanctimonious tweet about why it’s dreadful that someone does whatever it is has come within minutes of the one person who just tweeted about whatever it is you’re calling out. I see far more of this on twitter from Christians than I aggression, anger and nastiness.

A while ago, on the Building Jerusalem podcast, we discussed this tendency. You can listen to the whole episode here or skip to the pertinent bit around 16:50-25:20. I think the sanctimony stems from an inherent dishonesty in us. We prefer to be passive-aggressive and point fingers in carefully worded ways ultimately because we tend to be more scared of how we will be perceived than we are keen to tell the truth. Many of us dislike directness – call it aggressive or worse – because we are fundamentally dishonest and can be embarrassed about the positions we hold. Instead, we can prefer to hide behind a cloak of sanctimony, subtext and subtweets because it feels good to not be like ‘them’ whilst not quite having to own our particular view on the matter either. As we mention in the podcast, there is normally enough wiggle room that if anybody dares to suggest unhappily that we are saying what we clearly were saying, we double-down and try to wiggle out of it on technicalities and carefully worded comments so that we insist ‘we didn’t quite say that’, despite it basically being what we think.

To my mind, this is an issue I see far more than aggressiveness, nastiness and pejorative among Christians. I’ve not seen too many full blown, batten down the hatches arguments in most the churches I have ever been in. I’ve not seen too many people punching people at the back of church or standing at the front of church and hurling abuse at church members. It’s not to say I’ve never seen them, but they’re rare. But I have frequently met people disguising their real views in carefully worded language and then weaselling out of that view when somebody dares to suggest that’s what they’ve said and haven’t taken it too well. I have seen lots of santimony floating around churches – thank the Lord we are not like the people who do A, B and C. It should hardly surprise us that the aggressive, nasty, pejorative online is far less common than the outpouring of sanctimony and passive aggressiveness because that is frequently how it plays out offline in our churches too. Most of us are not developing new behaviours online – even if the medium does change things a little – most of us are just taking online, in some form or other, what tends to happen offline. It seems to me we have more of a sanctimony problem.

Of course, I know the irony of pointing out a sanctimony problem like this. It comes off as sanctimonious. It is, ironically, one of the sins that can’t ever be pointed out without the accusation immediately pinging back. Isn’t it sanctimonious to suggest that we might be a bit sanctimonious? No doubt. But I don’t see any other way to mention it other than mentioning it. But that would seem to be the same problem we have in pointing out any potential sin problem. Calling out the angry, aggressive comments has its own whiff of sanctimony about it.

What is more, I think it is how our majority culture in British Evangelicalism has simply gone online. We are a majority white middle class movement. Our wider culture is rooted in white middle class sensibilities. And so the sins and/or blindspots of our culture simply migrate online with us. The middle classes who value easy-going relationships, have a more indirect way of talking and can tend toward a passive-aggressive mode of addressing issues consider those who are direct, blunt and truthful to be aggressive and unkind. Some of those ways of talking are deemed a proper outworking of the gentleness or kindness to which we are called. But, these things are cultural outworkings. They may not even be legitimate outworkings of these things. One man’s gentle kindness is another’s dishonest equivocation (but that’s another discussion for another day). This is an issue we hit on all the time in multicultural churches, in which different cultures view things very differently.

The only point I am making here is that perhaps something of our wider majority culture in Evangelicalism has also worked its way online. What one person considers direct and honest on twitter can be viewed by another as aggressive. What one person considers passive aggressive, sanctimonious and lacking truth another might consider carefully worded and nuanced. I see one of those issues far more than I do the other. But when most of us are drawn from a particular constituency, and minister in similar contexts, it’s not difficult to see how our wider culture might be influencing how we view things online. It’s not difficult to see why the perceived aggression by Christians (which I don’t see a lot of, in truth) gets a lot of airing whereas the sanctimony and passive aggressiveness that I see far more barely, if ever, gets mentioned at all.

It is true, and important, for us all to be careful with the words we use online. But it is interesting that only one potentially wrong use of our words – one that is not necessarily the most widespread – is the one that gets the most air time.