“A real cesspool.”
In the last week, these are just some of the words I’ve heard from friends describing their social media feeds.
What is surprising is that they were describing media feeds that were largely made up of Christians interacting with other Christians.
It is a sad reality that many so-called Christians have a less than Christ-like presence on social media. Christian blogs, accounts, and forums can feel like a boxing match, where punches are thrown from every side.
It is a pervasive problem, one that Jonathan Swift’s classic novel, Gulliver’s Travels, speaks clearly to. Most of us think of the novel as a children’s story, and with good reason. Gulliver, the title character, travels from one strange place to another, encountering tiny people, giant people, talking horses, and all kinds of adventures.
But Gulliver's Travels is far from just a children's storybook. It provides an insightful and often critical look at human nature. Swift, an Irish writer and clergyman, was a careful observer of human behavior and lampooned it mercilessly. He said he wrote this novel to "vex the world, not divert it."
I think most of us could use some of that vexing. In fact, Gulliver’s last adventure offers cutting but helpful insight into our current cultural context.
SURROUNDED BY YAHOOS
On an island filled with honorable horses, ugly human-like creatures called “Yahoos” confront Gulliver. They are nasty creatures who hoard shiny rocks and hurl their feces at each other for defense and for fun. They walk around covered in filth, scrambling to collect and hide more shiny things. Whoever gets near them gets defiled.
I can't think of a more apt description of my social media feed and the political and social environment of America today. It's like the high school cafeteria during a giant food fight, but people are throwing muck instead of re-hydrated mashed potatoes. It seems like a competition in which the only goal is to see who can end the day having thrown the most.
Often, we aren’t even engaging the ideas of those we are attacking. Instead, we find the weakest person on the other team, isolate them, and attack them, while proclaiming victory over the opposing side. And if we can’t find the weakling, we build a straw man (or woman) and then cover it in abuse.
NO ONE WINS
Of course, this is hypocritical. Everyone has stupid people in their camp, and everyone can be ignorant at times. And as enlightening as we think our sarcastic insights are, we are just playing for the applause of people who already agree with us while trying to cover those who don't with as much shame as we can before they return the volley.
The problem with this approach is that no one ends the day clean.
Even if we think we’ve won by making the other person look worse, we both still stink. The idiocy of the whole exercise is that no matter how much disparagement we throw on others, we aren’t any cleaner than they are. Our hypocrisy doesn’t smell any better just because theirs currently has a stronger odor.
At the end of the day, we all go home covered in filth. We haven’t won, and the gospel hasn’t been advanced.
PUT AWAY ALL FILTHINESS
We are at a critical point in our cultural journey, and Christians have the ability lead the way toward health and strength. But the only way to do that is to step away from the muck-fest. There are powerful political forces at work that benefit from the divisions in our society, so they foment our fear and stoke our pride. But we don't have to play along. We don't have to stoop down to pick up the ammunition they are feeding us.
The Apostle James gives us some timely (and timeless) advice. He says,
“Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:19-21).
The temptation to throw mire at the other side was just as strong in James’ day as it is in ours. They were just as tempted to power up in order to shut others down, to silence the enemy in the name of proclaiming the truth. And they would do it all, self-justified, in the name of God.
This urge to defeat those with whom we disagree (or at least cover them in shame), James reminds us, is filthiness and rampant wickedness. We are, he insists, covering ourselves in the very filth we are trying to put on others.
TRYING TO WIN, AND LOSING
The gospel doesn’t call us to attack and defeat our enemies. It doesn’t call us to silence the voices we disagree with. It doesn’t call us to build our platforms, police other people’s opinions, or play to our audience.
The gospel call is clear: love God in response to his love, and love others even as we are loved.
We are losing by trying to win. We are losing the ability to speak clearly and listen carefully. We are losing the ability to discern what is true and beautiful. We are losing our joy, freedom, and hope. And we are losing credibility with the unbelieving world.
The gospel calls us to love everyone—even our enemies. The gospel doesn’t call us to find a hill to defend. It calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus to a hill on which to die, knowing that God’s strength is made clear in our weakness.
We are called not to win, but to “receive with meekness the implanted word” of the gospel, the incredible message of God’s love. Instead of powering up, we are to respond to the power of his love, letting his grace humble our pride, quiet our fear, and re-center our hope.
The goal isn’t that we would win, but that we would be saved. God isn’t looking for us to defeat our enemies. He is looking to defeat us, to silence our pride, and to give us the true freedom of humility. The gospel wins when we receive its power and are transformed by God’s love.
So, let’s seek to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Let’s fight to honor others instead of defeat them. Let’s struggle to defeat the internal need to be right instead of those who are telling us we are wrong. Let’s receive with meekness the implanted word that reminds us we are secure not in our rightness, but in the gift of his righteousness.
Instead of attacking someone's ideas, let’s try to understand them. Even if we find them ugly and distasteful. We don't have to agree with someone to understand them and respect them.
Instead of mocking someone's stupidity by re-posting the latest meme (a sure way to entertain those who agree with us and alienate those who don't), let’s repent of our pride and scroll on. We must remind ourselves that humor that degrades others is dangerous to our own souls as it works against the gracious flow of love that comes from the gospel.
Instead of allowing a "root of bitterness" (Heb. 12:15) to find a hold in our hearts, let’s seek to see those we disagree with as God sees all of us: as broken, messed up people desperately in need of grace. Each of us is a "glorious ruin." We are creatures made in the image of God but covered in our own selfish ambition and greed for glory. Let’s not allow someone else's ruin (and our pride) to so fill our vision that we refuse to see the glory of the image of God in them too.
Instead of hoping someone “gets what they deserve,” let's be people who know we got what we didn’t deserve—salvation in Christ. Let's be so overwhelmed with the grace we’ve received that there’s no room in our hearts for self-righteous judgment of others.
PUT OFF THE ‘YAHOO SELF’
God calls us to something better than winning. He calls us to something better than defeating. He calls us to leave our Yahoo natures behind—to put off our yahoo selves—because he calls us to love.
He calls us to wear the bright and shining glory given to us in Christ, a glory that flows to us in grace and frees us into love.