(RNS) — “Follower of Jesus.” A follower of Jesus myself, I normally like to see those words on someone’s Twitter profile. Lately, however, I’m reluctant to scroll down for fear that this same follower has cussed out a politician on the social media platform or tweeted nasty things at a person they disagree with.
How can people who claim Jesus as Lord act so mean?
First, we often think that because we are fighting for the right things — justice, truth, righteousness — that it doesn’t matter how we say what we say. The Apostle Peter, no stranger to impulsive talk, has a tip for us. He urged first-century believers to “have an answer for everyone for the hope that lies within you” but to do this with “gentleness and kindness.” In other words, civility and courage are not enemies, but friends. The loudest person in the room or online is not necessarily the most courageous.
Second, we go off the rails online because we forget the humanity of the person on the other end of that tweet. That person we are calling out or punching at rhetorically is not a mere avatar to be crushed, but a person, made in the image of God. Those with whom we disagree are not the sum total of their opinions. James, Jesus’ brother and another leader in the first-century church, urges us to consider the imago dei of the other before we unleash a verbal assault.
Third, we often abandon kindness because politics has replaced religion as the primary driver of our discourse. We may have Jesus in the bio, but it’s the Republican or Democratic Party that is really in our hearts.
The collapse of religious institutions and the decline of church attendance have created a vacuum that politics is only too ready to fill. But politics makes for a disappointing god. It only takes and will never fully satisfy the longings of the heart.
How do we know we are worshipping at the altar of the 24/7 political cycle? When we make every argument a political one. When every aspect of life becomes read through a narrow ideological lens. When every criticism of our candidate is perceived as an attack on our hero. When we turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of leaders in our ideological camp.
As we muddle through the coming election season and a global pandemic that has divided Americans, Christians will be more tempted than ever to abandon civility.
Christians should engage in politics, but we should do so out of responsibility. Politics should be a way to love our neighbors, to use our voices and votes to shape the world in which our neighbors live. We should hold our party affiliations loosely, refusing to give temporal institutions a primacy and authority reserved for the Bible.
As members of God’s kingdom, we are indeed “strangers and exiles,” as Peter wrote. We should always sense a dissonance between our temporal, earthly allegiances and the kingdom of God. Temporal kingdoms and leaders will only disappoint us. Our faith should shape our politics rather than our politics shape our faith.
Kindness and civility shouldn’t be confused with a syrupy niceness that refuses to take a stand against injustice and for the vulnerable. The Bible is full of prophets who refused to be silent.
Yet, we should engage with humility, holding our ideas and our opinions loosely and not taking ourselves too seriously. We should start seeing folks on the other side of the aisle not as enemies to be vanquished, but as people who may have good ideas. We are not always right about everything all the time. It’s our own prejudices and biases, in fact, that lead us to believe the worst about our ideological opponents.
Instead, we should do as James instructed: be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. In an internet age, we might repurpose his words as: be quick to read the whole story, slow to post and slow to outrage.
That’s what we should commit to when we put Jesus in our bio, and it should be evident in the words we post on our timelines.
(Daniel Darling is the senior vice president of National Religious Broadcasters and is the author of eight books, including most recently, “A Way With Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)