As someone exploring the possibility of becoming ordained I am engaging with issues like I have never done before. I am forcing myself to seek to understand things that I could get away with avoiding until now. At times such as they are, with some of the issues that are hotly being debated, it is rather attractive though to stay sitting on the fence.
For observers sitting on the fence life off it can appear to be an unattractive and even fearful place, a place too often occupied by vitriol and hatred. We’re seeing it most clearly with the issue of same-sex marriages at the moment, but there are not the only issue: engaging with any issue that people feel passionate about can be problematic.
Getting off the fence in order to engage with an issue places a person in a no-man’s land. Whilst trying to understand the different sides they can be caught in the crossfire between often entrenched views that each claim to be right. Agree with one side and you offend the other, even if you also agree with elements of their standpoint too.
It is enough to stop people from engaging, and there in lies a danger. If people stop seeking to understand an issue out of fear or desire society’s ability to deal with differences falters. The armies of each side dig in and push the opposing side further and further away. Peace and progress become casualties when people don’t feel able to question whether something is right or wrong,
We need people to engage and that means creating a safe place in which they can do that. We also need a society where those who have formed what they think to be the right opinion are willing to walk alongside those who think that they are wrong.
Social media has the potential to create that safe place, but unfortunately it also has the potential to cause harm.
Twitter has been described as the Wild West of social media. People shoot their 140 characters from the hip in a fast moving frontier environment. 140 characters doesn’t allow much nuance. Of course there aren’t really 140 characters. Add in just one person’s Twitter name and you’ve used some up. When others join the thread of an argument there’s less again.
This creates a challenge to the reader as much as it does to the writer. It demands even more restraint when readings and responding. Too often people jump down each other’s digital throats at the merest suggestion that someone has an opinion different, and potentially opposite, to theirs. Clarification of what a person meant by their tweet may be needed before the full picture of their point emerges.
Nuances of an argument are hard to express in a tweet and many fail to take this into account. Blogs are better placed to contain nuanced arguments but even they can be both helpful and unhelpful. The language and tone that is used is important. Open words and phrases can dampen down the heat, they can communicate love and respect Words that inflame an argument aren’t helpful. They create barriers, deepen an entrenched position and cause people to grown even further apart when what we need is to bring people together.
We have seen prime examples of this in the past week. The debacle that was World Vision USA’s yo-yo policy towards same-sex couples saw the vitriol fly. Well known tweeters and bloggers who do their best to be open and to disagree respectfully were sent offensive emails, comments and tweets. Unfortunately some also succumbed to inflaming the debate, with obvious results.
We saw it after Justin Welby’s comments suggesting that if the Church of England accepts same-sex marriage then Christians elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, and beyond, will be persecuted and murdered. People jumped to their keyboards and smart phones and let it offence rip. Whilst Justin Welby was saying that we have to be careful what and how we say and act in The West, many saw it as him trying to deny equal rights.
He was speaking having seen mass graves of people murdered for being Christians, people murdered by others using the culture, actions and words of The West as their excuse. This isn’t a new thing or a random thought brought forward by the Archbishop of Canterbury to cause controversy or tell those within the Church of England what to do.
In much of the world Christianity and The West are inseparable. Those seeking power, whether by vote or terror, will use that view and tap into local cultural prejudices for their own ends.
Slobodan Milošević did it in Kosovo, stirring up cultural prejudices in order to grow a power base which he could use to seize control of his political party and his country. War, torture and bloodshed followed. I saw some of the results first hand: I visited refugees that had run for their lives, leaving everything they had behind. I was the beneficiary of an afternoon in the company of his henchmen: held at gun point until released because some with better propaganda value than my group had been detained just before us.
The recent signing of anti-Gay legislation in Uganda is another example of this. Rather than challenging the prejudices and not signing it, as President Yoweri Museveni originally indicated, he saw that by appealing to local prejudices he would gain enough votes that would keep him in power. His tactics were similar to those Robert Mugabe has used in order to retain his seat of power, namely to accusing the West of trying to bully their cultural ways into their former colonies. It was a simple ruse, by standing up to a myth they could both appear to be strong and distract attention from the reality of their countries situation.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was right, it matters how we act and what we say in The West. It does not mean we should give into prejudices, nor should it stop us from fighting for human rights, but the way we do things, the way we debate and the words we use matters.
If we are to move forward as a society we must learn to restrain our knee-jerk responses to what people say. We must learn to step away from our own viewpoints and seek to understand others. As Christians especially we must remember what unites us and celebrate it.
We need those with opposing views to walk alongside each other rather than face off against them. If we don’t treat those who hold different and even offensive views from our own with a degree of love and respect we cannot expect to find a way forward. Attempting to shout or bully a point of view through to acceptance doesn’t work, it just creates more hate and harm.
We need to look on those with who we disagree, even our enemies, with the love of Christ and see things from their point of view. When we can love those we hate, when we can understand those we disagree with, we might, just might, make some progress on eliminating persecution.
Social media can be used to affect change, change for the good, but that change needs to start within ourselves. We need to accept that we might not be right and that the other person may not be wrong, whatever their opinion may be. This doesn’t mean that one should change to agree with another, but that each looks for answers and understanding between both and challenge with respect.
Above all change starts with me.