The internet can be a scary place.
Scroll through Facebook or Twitter and you’ll quickly find examples of disrespect. A supporter of one political party derides supporters of an opposing political party. An adherent of one belief system antagonizes an adherent of a contradictory belief system. Individuals hurl insults at each other, make gross oversimplifications of another’s views, and jump to illogical conclusions regarding another’s statements, all the while talking more at or past each other than actually listening. And sadly, professing Christians participate regularly in such practices.
I’ve grown frustrated with the level of disrespect in online interactions I’ve seen among those who claim to know Christ, and I’ve grown discouraged at the realization that things don’t seem to be getting better. No matter what takes place in this world, we seem to possess the regrettable ability to divide over it and to label those who disagree with us as enemies and fools.
This semester, two authors have helped me to think through this issue of disrespect among Christians online, giving me both vocabulary for talking about the problem and possibilities for a way forward. While I can’t cover all that I learned in one blog post, I wanted to share a few insights that may help us counter some of the negative tendencies.
Gilbert Meilaender, in his book Neither Beast Nor God, considers the topic of dignity as it relates to humanity. He argues that we can think in terms of two complementary understandings of dignity: human dignity, understood as the ways humans either exemplify or fail to live up to the best our race can be; and personal dignity, understood as the dignity each human possesses simply by nature of being a creature made in the image of God. He suggests that we ought to let personal dignity, which cannot be lost or diminished, serve as the grounding for human dignity, which may be possessed to a greater or lesser degree depending on how one lives. Such a view protects the dignity and value of each individual human regardless of how they choose to live. To prioritize human dignity, however, opens us up to the danger of valuing humans to a greater or lesser extent based on how they measure up to some standard. Such a view easily leads to the denial of personal dignity and to the debasement of human beings.
Arguably, disrespect toward others stems from a failure to recognize and to affirm the other person’s personal dignity. Instead, we judge the other based on the other’s alignment (or lack thereof) with our understanding of human value or worth. Racism, slavery, and genocide easily follow such subjective judgments. Ultimately, we need to learn to see people first as possessing dignity because they are people created in God’s image. Though their actions may prove reprehensible, they retain the dignity befitting a human being.
Miroslav Volf operates with a similar understanding of human beings, exploring how such a view affects relationships with others in a fallen world in his book Exclusion and Embrace. Volf argues that Christians, following the example of Christ, can affirm a number of truths about life in this world. First, the people of God are not equated with a cultural group, for God transcends human cultures and calls all peoples to follow Jesus. Nobody should be excluded because of cultural differences. Second, all have sinned and all are called to repent. There are no innocent parties in the world. Christians should recognize that all need Christ and should offer embrace to all without exclusion as God in Christ offered embrace to sinful humanity. Third, as we have been reconciled to God through Christ, so we who know Christ should offer reconciling embrace to all after Christ’s example. No one, not even the vilest offender, warrants exclusion from the offer of reconciliation and fellowship. Fourth, God will one day set all things right. Until then, we live in a world stained with sin. We are thus to live as lights in this world, embracing suffering as we offer reconciliation and embrace to others in the hope of the coming of the Lord.
We practice such things by respecting the dignity of others, listening in love and evaluating both our views and theirs in light of God’s revelation. We show love as Christ loved, regardless of the sins of the other person. We recognize our own weaknesses and needs and don’t assume self-righteous superiority. And we hope in the God of love and justice to set all things right in the end.
In short, two applications stood out to me as I studied: recognition of the dignity of the other and respect of the other in light of that dignity. If we would counter disrespect and discord among Christians, let us lead by example. Let us love our neighbors, even if our neighbors are our enemies. Let us be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Let us learn to see each other as fellow image bearers and to act in accord with that reality. And let us pray that God would make us voices of peace and righteousness in all our online interactions.
For Meilaender’s book, click here.
For Volf’s book, click here.
This post was adapted from a research paper I recently wrote. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to read the full paper.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash