Just Mercy: Our Need for Prophetic Persuasion

Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for the film Just Mercy.

“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” – Richard Rohr

How do you change a person’s mind?

We live in a polarized age that seems to grow more and more divided as the months and years pass. Even when tectonic events happen in our society, like the Ferguson Uprising or the Sandy Hook massacre, we still manage to hold the line in our ideological trenches, failing to cross the No Man’s Land to have even a conversation with those on the opposing side.

Our political leaders spend their time designing maneuvers not to persuade but to invalidate and render powerless the opposition. Our faith leaders seem to spend much of their time crafting critiques of their ideological enemies for the consumption of Twitter followers and podcast listeners. We reward with our likes and downloads not the most persuasive among us, but the most divisive. Conflict brings attention and attention is the currency of our time.

With all this energy expended, we have to wonder – do the battle lines themselves ever change? Or do they only calcify?

How do you change a person’s mind?

Last week, I finally had the chance to see the film Just Mercy. Before I get to my own reflections, let me start by telling you that Just Mercy is a powerfully affecting movie experience. I cried multiple times and left the theater staggering a bit under the weight of what I had just seen. Among many memorable scenes, there is a death row execution in the movie that will stick with me, particularly because of a haunting audio recording of an old hymn that plays over the top of it. Yet, the movie also provides several moments of levity and is well-paced which keeps it from sinking into despair and joining the ranks of painful list of movies that I’d be glad to tell people I’d seen but never plan to watch again.

Just Mercy will be worth multiple viewings as it is, at its heart, a character story. The film’s core is a steady stream of small development moments – conversations happening through the walls on death row, drives through the sharply contrasted neighborhoods of rural Alabama, arguments held in the visiting area of the prison.

Even Michael B. Jordan’s solid performance as Bryan Stevenson functions primarily as a fulcrum around which other characters grow and change. Stevenson listens while his assistant, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), smokes a cigarette and contemplates the strength of her convictions in light of the danger to her family. He listens while convicted murderer Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) moves from a burned skeptic to a grateful co-conspirator to, finally, a hope-filled encourager, lifting Stevenson back up after their initial failure to convince a judge to grant McMillian a new trial.

Speaking of Walter McMillian, I genuinely believe Jamie Foxx deserved a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance. Whether he is clouded in anger from his seemingly hopeless plight or grasping at straws to encourage one of his death row neighbors, Foxx’s emotional range is vast and palpable. I don’t think I have ever felt the level of catharsis in a movie theater as I did in the film’s final resolution scene.

The other relational highlight for me from Just Mercy happened between Stevenson and Tommy Chapman, the loathsome District Attorney played convincingly by Rafe Spall. Chapman, a white Southerner perhaps ten years older than Stevenson, is smarmy and condescending, surpassing even the open vitriol of Sheriff Tate. As District Attorney, he lives and works in Monroeville, the county where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. His suggestion, early on in the film, for Stevenson to check out the “Mockingbird Museum,” (“one of the most significant civil rights landmarks in the south”) on his way out of town is dripping with contempt, particularly as it comes after Chapman’s flat rejection to give Stevenson any help in re-opening McMillian’s case. This rejection has contained within it every ounce of Chapman’s greater refusal to even entertain the thoughts of a black, Harvard-educated attorney from the North in what he believes to be a settled matter in his Alabama county.

As the movie progresses, this relationship becomes the crucial turning point of the story. After Stevenson fails to convince Chapman of the need to reconsider the evidence in their first meeting, he shows up at Chapman’s house to plead with him to consider being on the side of justice, even if it costs him his reputation. You can sense the weight on Chapman’s mind but, once again, he refuses to engage the conversation and boots Stevenson off his property.

At the film’s zenith, a courtroom showdown between Chapman and Stevenson, the weight becomes too much to bear. As Stevenson asks for the Circuit Court to dismiss all charges, the judge asks for Chapman as the District Attorney to represent the opposing arguments. His painful silence is followed finally by a decision to join the defense in asking for the charges to be dropped.

Even having read Just Mercy when it came out a few years ago, this scene moved me, certainly because of the actors’ performances, but perhaps more so because of the nature of the victory. Michael B. Jordan’s Stevenson certainly gives an Atticus-Finch-level speech to set up the scene but, in the end, he doesn’t beat Chapman by the force of compelling courtroom rhetoric. He doesn’t exactly “win” at all; he convinces his opponent to forfeit, to pay the price of losing a very public case in order to remove the moral weight from his shoulders.

Why does this work? Why does Tommy Chapman – who, by the way, was re-elected three additional times after McMillian’s exoneration in 1993, finally retiring in 2012 – change his mind about his need to hang the murder of a teenage white girl in rural Alabama on the head of Walter McMillian, a black man sitting on Death Row awaiting execution?

How do you change a person’s mind?

Bryan Stevenson, like Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, managed to do so through the practice of prophetic persuasion, the public embodiment of a value so completely that it compels enough cognitive dissonance in the observer to allow them to consider that they might actually be in the wrong in a given situation. This practice includes speaking boldly but words are a mere accompaniment to and interpretation of clear and effective action. It is an argument for the heart, not simply the mind.

Contrary to much of how we think about ourselves as rational creatures, our minds actually tend to follow our bodies and hearts. As James K.A. Smith writes, “We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love[1].” Our worldview may be reinforced by the intake of information but it is changed by practice, by the embodiment of previously unseen realities. In some sense, it is the body that changes the mind – both our own minds and the minds of those observing.

Prophetic persuasion practices that which it preaches even before it begins to preach. It incarnates into the world, letting the mouth bear witness to what the body has already practiced. We love in action and let our words offer the interpretation of that action.

This is not an excuse from speaking; despite what St. Francis probably never said, words are always necessary. Rather, it is a call to put a thumb on the precise scale our age is most tempted to neglect – that of quiet, sacrificial action not intended for Insta stories or Twitter likes. It is a call to allow our words to come only when our bodies and our bank accounts are already on the line. It is to preach a lived word instead of a theoretical one. It is to exit the clean offices and kitchen tables of our minds and enter the messy world on our hands and knees, praying and working for the world yet to come.

This is the power of Bryan Stevenson and others like him today – his talk shines through with the light of his walk. He speaks, even as some said of Jesus in his day, as one with authority. I want the same to be true in my life and in my generation as a whole.

May the words we speak, tweet, and share come from the deeper well of a heart transformed by experiences lived and sacrifices made.

May our revolutions be embodied before they are ever televised.

May our persuasiveness be the fruit borne by seeds planted in struggle and watered by our own tears, sweat, and blood.

May the first mind we change, even if it is the only mind we change, be our own.

[1] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, p. 21

Social Media Praxis: Six Questions to Ask Before You Post


Note: This is the final post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the first five parts hereherehere, here, and here.

I once tweeted so badly that it got published in the Sunday paper. It was grand opening day of IKEA in Saint Louis on a Monday and several of my friends were posting pictures of themselves in the crazy line forming around the building or standing in the parking lot with their new furniture. I thought I would add to the excitement by tweeting a snarky comment about the convenience of everyone now owning the same furniture so we would no longer feel the constant need to compare our houses. Helpful, right?

Normally, my need to be the jerk in a room full of happy people goes mostly unnoticed. But, within a few hours, one of the Twitter accounts of a local newspaper had replied to my tweet with the news that they were going to use it in their coverage of the grand opening. I assumed this just meant their Internet coverage but, lo and behold, someone mentioned to my wife the next week that they had seen my tweet in the physical newspaper that Sunday. She was less than thrilled.

Ironically, we were some of the very people who showed up on the first day at IKEA, a mere few hours after I posted my snarky tweet. We had been excited about opening day for months and had a blast going on the first night and exploring the store together. We bought something called “Len” for like six dollars just to have something from the first day (note: nine months later, neither of us are quite sure what exactly “Len” is and have never removed it from its packaging).

As I wrap up this series on Christianity and Social Media usage, I am reminded of this story because I wish that I would have had some sort of tool or process by which to decide whether tweeting an oblique, self-righteous, hypocritical critique of IKEA shopping was a good idea or not (PROTIP: It wasn’t). I wanted to end the series with something simple and practical, a grid to help myself and anyone interested learn to discern whether or not they are engaging with social media in a healthy way, based loosely on some of my previous posts and my own experience of using it poorly.

To that end, here are the six questions that I personally use to check myself when I feel uneasy about posting on social media:

Question #1 – Does this project a false self-image that I desire to create?
As I have written previously, social media provides us with a canvas on which to project our ideal self without the accountability of having to actually embody those ideals. Whether it is my passion regarding a major injustice of our day or simply my competency as a husband and (soon-to-be) dad, I constantly need to ask whether what I am saying has integrity with my life.

Question # 2 – Am I posting to avoid a call to further action?
Some good can be accomplished by posting online when it comes to issues of injustice or even as a way to promote products or people you think are great. However, it is also easy to use social media as a way of escaping the responsibility of getting directly involved. It is one thing for me to post a John Oliver video about equal pay for women; it is a completely different, much harder, much more legitimate thing for me to make sure the women I directly supervise are being paid adequately for the highly capable work they do. Both are important but if I am not doing the latter, I invalidate the former.

Question #3 – Am I using this to avoid healthy conflict resolution?
Occasionally when I see a friend post something that frustrates or even offends me, I feel the temptation to post some coded jab in response or to share an article that indirectly (or directly) critiques the way they look at the world. I have to step back and remind myself that if really care about this person and about our relationship, I should have the courage to directly address them and not allow the hurt I feel to poison our future interactions or my perspective of them as a human being.

Question #4 – Am I willing to be known for this?
Like it or not, your social media presence is giving people a type of mosaic overview of what you value and how you engage with the world. Especially when I am about to post something that could be controversial for various people in my circles, I ask myself if this position is something I want someone asking me about the next time they see me in person. Particularly if you are a person in leadership of some sort, it is helpful to consider whether or not whatever point you are trying to make is worth whatever residual impact it has on your relationships, especially with those directly under your care.

Question #5 – Am I willing and able to defend this and/or host conversation around it?
I am a firm believer that if you post something on the Internet that generates conversation, you are responsible for moderating that conversation. There have been several times when I have wanted to post an article that I found brilliant and perceptive but realized that my next few hours were too full to honor people who wanted to engage with me on the topic. This is particularly true if I think certain people in my life might say something harmful in response to what I am posting and I feel the due weight of engaging and deflecting their commentary. In those times, I simply closed the browser and went on with my day. Inevitably, other people found the article as well and I just liked their post when they did.

Question #6 – Does this honor the Lord?
This is my final question and it operates as a final “catch-all” check before I share. When I consider if a post honors the Lord, I mean does it make Jesus look good – does it acknowledge him as King? Does it highlight his resurrection and coming Kingdom as our only hope? Does it say true things about the world he made – both its beauty and its brokenness? There are many articles on “Christian” websites that do not honor the Lord; there are many articles written by atheists that do. I want my posts to make it clear that Jesus is my only Lord and this question helps to give a final screening for that.

Whether I’m posting an article about a political issue or a picture of my wife and I on a date, I find these questions helpful for self-examination and as a reminder that the Internet is not simply a vacuum into which I project whatever is on my mind, free of any consequences in the real world. These six questions ground me in reality and give me the freedom to simply walk away when needed, which happens more often than I would like to admit.

As this little blog series comes to a close, let me offer one final reflection. I have spent the past six weeks thinking, praying, discussing, and writing a lot about social media. I came into this series very optimistic; I have believed for a while now that social media had more potential for good than evil – I have seen it as a conduit for relationships and deeper connectedness across great distances, whether physical or ideological. As I write these final few paragraphs, I have to admit – I am leaving this series a little more guarded than when we began.

In studying the medium more closely, I feel a bit like Solomon considering the expanse of his kingdom and coming to the conclusion that all his pursuits were meaningless, a chasing after the wind. There are so many voices out on the Internet shouting about all kinds of craziness. Our world is not short of voices with opinions about issues – everyone is talking about everything at every given moment. Our world is short of people caring enough to close their laptops, turn off their phones, and do something about what they only pretend to care about online. The people I find myself wanting to follow have impact on the world that far outruns their presence online and I want the same to be said about me.

I leave you with the words of Solomon from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter three:

 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.

May we be found doing the works of God that endure forever.

Social Media & Influence: The Best Kind of Cookie


cookie monster

Me, ninety seconds after posting

Note: This is the fifth post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the introduction here and the other four parts hereherehere, and here.

Yesterday I ate two cookies. I feel the need to be honest with you on that point before we get started. Two cookies may not seem like a lot to you but, as someone who has consistently claimed to be more of a savory foods person, I have to admit that cookies are my weakness. This is particularly true when they are what I would call the best kind of cookie. Some people love soft cookies that tear apart easily and almost melt in your mouth. Others love crunchy cookies with the added textural bite and fun Cookie-Monster-esque sound effects. For me, the best kind of cookie is the best of both worlds: crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. When that kind of cookie is at hand, savory foods be damned, I must have one.

I’ve written previously on using social media for self-education and today I want to think about its uses for those who are leaders, those who intentionally seek to influence people in a given community toward certain values. In my experience as a Christian navigating the complex world of using social media as a platform for influence, I have found that this type of cookie is also a fitting image for illustrating how people express their political and social stances online. Think back to the cookie with me – let’s imagine it in its two-dimensional, side-profile glory:

Cookie Side Profile

With that in mind, imagine a problem being discussed online about which you have a firm, settled opinion. There are three types of people when it comes to your particular stance on that issue: people who agree with you (near crispy edge), people who disagree with you (far crispy edge), and then everybody else (soft middle). The soft middle folks may lean toward one edge or the other, growing more and more crispy as they do so, but they are still soft, or pliable, to a certain degree; they have not made up their mind about a certain stance on that topic.

On any given issue, the direction of influence tends to be the edges pulling the middle toward themselves. Another way of saying this is that convinced people convince people; it is hard to exert influence on an issue about which you do not have a firm opinion. Because of this innate polarity and the illusion it creates that only crispy people have the authority to discuss, conversations on social media about critical political and social issues tend to only happen between opposing crispy sides of the cookie, leaving those in the chewy middle with very few places to learn or form a nuanced stance. This is problematic with every issue but it is particularly troubling with issues where a large chewy/undecided middle passively keeps certain groups of people in situations of marginalization and suffering. After the unrest in Ferguson began two summers ago, conversations in my circles immediately formed into two opposing camps: those who unwaveringly supported the police and those who unwaveringly opposed the police. In a complex situation with hundreds of years of history and dozens of angles of perspective, it felt like many of my friends were forced to either choose a very crispy edge (based often more on social pressure than informed compassion) or simply stay out of the conversation all together. Nearly two years later, though much has been accomplished by activists on the front lines, I cannot help but think what progress we might have seen both socially and in the justice system had we found more ways to mobilize the vast chewy middle of people who still are not quite sure how to feel about the death of Mike Brown.

So how do we use social media as a tool for influencing those still forming an opinion, instead of simply galvanizing those who already agree with us or picking fights with those who don’t? How do we create space for others to learn and practice discernment instead of simply telling them what to think?

Recognize your own blinders.
If you are someone with a crispy opinion who truly desires to be influential in the chewy middle, you need to be willing to admit that it is at least a possibility that there are intelligent, morally sound people who disagree with you on this issue. This is particularly challenging because the crispy folks who agree with you will praise you and offer you a lot of cultural cache (Facebook likes, Twitter followers) to hold your line as firmly and arrogantly as possible. However, those in the chewy middle, particularly in the Millennial Generation, will find you difficult to trust. As I have mentioned previously, I feel fairly crispy about the need for stronger gun control laws in this country. There are several factors that have culminated in this stance; however, I cannot deny that part of what holds my stance together is that I grew up in a family that did not own a gun, I have the privilege and means to live in a relatively safe neighborhood, and that I have never had to physically defend myself from an attack. It is not weakness for me to admit that I do not stand atop a mountain of my own pure rational and moral fortitude (nor does it make my opinion less valid); it is simply the slice of humility that makes basic human conversation with those who disagree with me possible.

Put yourself in their shoes.
Aside from humility, another virtue necessary for true influence is empathy. Can you imagine what it is like to be in the chewy middle on this issue? It might be helpful to think of a specific friend you know who is currently there and think about their day-to-day life experiences, background, and perspectives that shape their current stance. What is it like for them to engage in this conversation? What emotions or fears come to the surface? After I first joined in a protest following the events in Ferguson and heard disturbing stories regarding the community’s experience with the police department, I wanted to influence people like me (white, middle-class, millennial evangelicals) to get practically involved in the movement for criminal justice reform in our city. After some failed attempts to invite my friends to come to protests, I realized that I needed to find a first step into involvement that was more appropriate for the level of uncertainty many people were feeling about the situation. Imagining and asking about their barriers to involvement helped me figure out a pathway of invitation that led to at least a handful of people learning and growing in their own passion for an issue that I believe to be critical in our city and nation.

Tell more stories.
Even more so than statistical analysis, stories have a powerful way of providing people with a platform on which to stand inside a problem and imagine how they would respond to it as a human being. If you care about wage reform, you could simply post a rant about how unfair it is to pay people below what they need to survive. Alternatively, you could post another article with the map showing how hard it is to pay the average rent in all fifty states with the minimum wage of those states. But, if you really want people to change their minds about the subject or at least feel a degree of compassion, tell them a story of someone directly impacted by the problem. As a husband that tries my best to find ways to provide for my growing family, I am especially motivated by stories of other men working tough jobs for forty or fifty hours each week and still struggling just to put food on the table. Stories give us entry points into the conversation without forcing us to form an opinion just yet; they give space for the thoughtful reflection that is so crucial with such important issues.

Don’t abuse the Bible.
As a Christian who believes firmly in the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible and as one with fairly strong convictions regarding a handful of social issues, this is a constant temptation for me. There is no trump card quite like the Bible in the Christian community and for good reason. We are first and foremost a people of the Book and it is right and proper for followers of Jesus to take their primary cues for life from his Word. However, as people living in a society nearly two thousand years removed from the most recently written books within the Bible, we also have to admit that it is not always a simple matter to discern how the Bible would guide us on important social issues. Wouldn’t it be easier if the Bible had a page in the back where God simply answered frequently asked questions from the 21st Century like “Should human beings have the right to purchase automatic weapons?” or “What exact dollar amount should be the floor of our compensation?” As followers of Jesus, there are some issues where we must look at what the Bible does tell us and try our best to discern the social implications of what we believe in community and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This may mean that we sometimes disagree even among the Christian community about how to best deal with a given problem in our society. Throwing an intended knockout punch like “Well, socialism just isn’t biblical” or finding some obscure reference to support your point that forces the Bible to speak to some issue that the original writers could never have imagined is not only bad for discussion; it is weak theology and abusive of the Scriptures.

Be willing to shift media to maintain learning.
Lastly, we have to realize that social media has limited influential power. If we desire to see practical change in the lives of people under our leadership, we eventually have to move the conversation into the real world of everyday life. As I’ve mentioned previously, this medium brings many temptations to claim to care about things without the accountability of putting that care into action. If you desire to see people under your leadership grow in their concern for broken school systems, posting articles about the state of the schools in your city will have some impact on a select few people. However, nothing will cause a shift quite like getting them in front of a child from one of those schools for an hour every week for tutoring or bringing in a teacher to speak to a group about what it’s like to work in the system and praying boldly for their endurance in a challenging world.

As leaders, we need to recognize both the advantages and the shortcomings of using social media as a platform for influence and steward its power wisely in the lives of those under our care. If you’re a leader who has used social media in your leadership, I’d love to hear your experience as well – do you agree or disagree with my take on it? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Social Media & Conflict: Them’s Fightin’ Words

StingNote: This is the fourth post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the introduction here and the other four parts hereherehere, and here.

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
Isaiah 1:17

I have only been in one physical fight in my entire life. I was 10 or 11 years old and the fight was with my best friend who lived a couple houses up the street. We were at my house enjoying one of our favorite pastimes – watching WWF wrestling. Like most things with boys, it only took a few minutes for the watching to become enacting and we started practicing our own wrestling moves on each other. At some point, I accidentally Hulk-Hogan-style tore the shirt my friend was wearing, which just so happened to be his prized wrestling t-shirt (I believe it had Sting’s face on it). I remember the look of complete shock and disbelief that came over his face as he looked down to his favorite shirt, hoping against confirmation of his worst fears about the loud tearing sound we had both just heard. He looked back up at me, pre-pubescent rage filling his eyes, and proceeded to walk over to my closet door, where my prized wrestling t-shirt (I’m remembering the NWO logo but that’s about it) was hanging. While making full eye contact with me, he reached up and ripped the neckline (why are these shirts so easy to tear, Hulk Hogan, why?). At that point, as they say, it was on.

Clearly, neither of us had ever been in a fight before. We pushed each other around a bit and, as he turned to leave, I followed him out the door. When we got to my steps, the attempts at throwing punches began, our little arms flailing wildly like windmills, and not at all like the Stone-Cold Steve Austin punches we imagined them to be. I don’t remember making contact with him at all but I do remember at some point feeling a punch graze my ear. This was a breaking point in the fight as we both felt actual pain (his from first making contact with something) and were startled by it. As we had literally been fighting our way up the street, my friend was now close to home and used the pause to run back to his house. As the throbbing feeling in my ear subsided, I looked up and saw him standing outside his garage looking menacing and holding a small flathead screwdriver, like a pre-teen version of Sting’s baseball bat. I didn’t want any of that so I turned around and walked home, one hand over my battle wound and one hand wiping hot tears from my face so my mom wouldn’t find out.

I tell you that story both as an homage to the durability of friendship, particularly with kids (I think he came over literally the very next day and we were fine), and as proof of my own aversion to fighting and conflict in general. I consider myself to be a peacemaker at heart; I don’t like the feeling of tension that comes with hard conversations and I will go out of my way to avoid exacerbating a disagreement whenever possible.

Out of that disposition, one question I have often struggled with in my use of social media is, “When, if ever, is worth it to pick a fight online?” If you’re anything like me, you have probably been in this scenario before: you are scrolling through your feed on any social media platform and you come across a post from a friend or relative (probably relative) with which you find yourself in strong disagreement. Perhaps it’s offensive in any number of ways or maybe it advocates for a position that you find intellectually or morally untenable. Sometimes it’s even a comment they make on a post that you originally shared and now you’re playing host to whatever brand of craziness this person is selling. You’re blood pressure starts to rise and you have a decision to make: do I engage with this person or not? Do I choose in to conflict or do I simply let it go?

Similar to my physical fighting skills, though somewhat more experienced, this is not an area of strength for me. However, I do have a rough sense of how I personally decide whether or not to engage in conflict on social media:

Generally speaking, I only step into conflict online when I feel that I can use my power to meaningfully correct or prevent an abuse of power. Let me break down what I mean by that:

I don’t pick fights with strangers.
The world of social media is full of opportunities to engage with complete strangers. From hashtag threads to celebrity bloggers and the comments their posts engender, you could easily spend days on end doing nothing but arguing with people online. For me, I mostly choose not to engage with people outside my sphere because it seems unlikely that I will have the influence or social capital needed to provoke meaningful interaction with them. I ultimately desire to go deeper in relationship with people I argue with online and I try to avoid the fight if that doesn’t seem likely.

 I don’t pick fights when the stakes are relatively low.
As someone who works in ministry and clearly thinks highly of his own thought process, I have a lot of opinions about any number of issues related to theology, practice, leadership, etc. about which some people do choose to debate on social media. However, I would describe many of these issues as low-stakes in that it is unlikely that adopting either or any side in the debate will lead to the degradation of an image-bearer of God. I might have a position when it comes to Calvinism or worship music but I am not particularly interested in debating it on Facebook due mainly to the small stakes involved in converting someone to my particular opinion. For me, the question “Is the image of God in someone at stake in this argument?” is key to discerning my engagement in conflict.

 I arbitrate fights happening in my house.
This one makes me the most uncomfortable but I do feel responsible for arguments that get started on threads that I have created. When I post something on social media, I assume the role of “host” to a theoretical argument, which, for me, adds an extra layer of discernment: “Do I have the time and energy today to mediate whatever conversation this article or statement might create?”

 When I engage, I work to create dissonance and provoke deeper investigation.
As I mentioned, my primary desire in conflict is to use whatever power I might have to meaningfully correct or prevent the abuse of power that often leads to the dehumanization of image-bearers of God. If I see a post within my relational circles that I believe will do some level of direct or indirect harm to people I care about, I will offer pushback both for the sake of the poster and for the sake of others who will see the post, normally in the form of questions meant to draw out forces that shaped this opinion (“How did you arrive at that position?”) or narrative evidence to the contrary of the opinion (“I have some friends who have experienced it differently; what do you make of that?”). For me, this is one especially pertinent way to steward the privilege I have as a white man in my circles. When I see other white people (particularly men) in my social circles posting comments or articles that I believe reveal significant blind spots that are dehumanizing to people who are not white men, I feel a certain responsibility to challenge that viewpoint in such a way that the poster and those watching will feel led to further interrogate their own perspectives on the issue at hand.

 When I engage, I try to do so with measured and appropriate force.
As someone with a proclivity for sarcasm, I have to be mindful at all times not to shame or degrade my opponent if I choose to engage in conflict with them. If the elevation of the image of God is truly my highest intent, dehumanizing someone in a debate is literally the worst way I could go about achieving that end. I try not to make assumptions about stances that have not yet been articulated. I try my best to stay one notch below the other person’s intensity level (somewhat arbitrary and abstract but helpful for me) and to pay attention to power dynamics in the conversation, such as the relative age, generation, or education gap between us. When I feel I have stepped over the line, I do my best to repent meaningfully and offer to take the conversation offline whenever helpful.

So what about you? How do you decide when to pick a fight on social media? What are key questions you ask yourself before you engage? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Social Media & Integrity: Everybody Wants Philly Jim

Jim and DwightNote: This is the third post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the introduction here and the other four parts herehere, here, and here.

There’s an episode of the American version of The Office in which Jim and Dwight play an online game called “Second Life.” In this game (or, multi-user virtual environment), players create an avatar of themselves that lives a day-to-day life controlled by the player. Jim creates an avatar to prank Dwight and, when Pam sees it, she is struck by a few of the features of Jim’s avatar: he plays guitar, lives in Philadelphia, and works as a sports writer. Unlike Dwight’s avatar, who is exactly like Dwight in every way (except he can fly), none of these things are true about Jim in real life; they seem to represent some sort of longing or wish fulfillment, a life that could have been. He creates a “second Jim” that is everything the real Jim seems to wish he was himself. Even Pam ends the scene with “I want to see more of Philly Jim. I want Philly Jim!”

There is a side to this sort of playing make-believe that is fairly innocuous and, at times, even laudable. When little kids dress up as firefighters or superheroes, they are essentially doing something very similar: putting on a second identity and embodying that for a limited time. There is something aspirational and good about little boys and girls pretending they are performing heroic deeds in the world, saving people from burning buildings or rescuing them from dubious villains. On another level, I have several friends who pick funny or tough-sounding screen names for themselves when they play games online or even as their Twitter or Instagram handle.   Again, this feels fairly innocuous. Part of what draws us into the online world is this very ability to refine or redefine our identity with a few keyboard strokes.

However, when we bring this sort of aspirational projection into the more public forums of social media, we begin to cross the line between the world of play and the world of public relations. One of the most formidable powers (and dangers) of social media is that we have the ability to create a “second life” online that influences how people view us offline.   Depending on our social distance from our friends and followers, we can use social media to sell people a version of ourselves that we wish we were. If we wish to appear as put-together parents, we can take a highly curated picture of the one corner of our house free of laundry and toys and post it on Instagram. If we wish to appear as socially aware, we can spend five minutes sifting through articles on The Atlantic and share one on Facebook.

Reputation, the standing we have in the eyes of our community, is one of the most powerful social motivators we have for growth as people. As human beings, we do not simply want to be people of character; we want to be known as people of character. This is a good thing – it’s part of how God has wired our societies to function. In the Scriptures, reputation is normally the key factor in a community’s decision to elect a person as a leader over them; it is how a community collectively declares, “We trust this person.” A good reputation is earned through a life lived in the public and private sphere with integrity to certain principles that are valued by that community.

But, what if you could short circuit that process? What if instead of having to change your actual day-to-day life and make tough, sacrificial decisions to prove yourself to your community, there existed a platform on which you could simply announce yourself as a person who believes certain things about the world and let people assume that these beliefs were the guiding principle of your lived action? This is precisely what social media offers us – the chance to craft a persona that may or may not have any correlation at all to our life offline.

The danger in doing this is not simply that we are telling half- or non-truths about ourselves, though that is certainly a problem. The more subtle and deeper danger is that we will be deceived by our own mythos into believing that we truly have become the person whose image we falsely project online. If we can convince our community that we are someone who deeply cares about an issue simply because we rant about it on Facebook, what incentive is left for us to actually live a life marked by that concern?

This is one of the temptations of what people often call “hashtag activism” or social media activism. In our day of unparalleled access to information and venues through which to share that information, it is impossible to actively respond to every social evil we see happening in the world around us. It is much easier to simply announce your position on an issue or injustice online than to get involved in it directly. Simply put, why would I miss work to drive to a protest downtown when I can just sit at my laptop and retweet what other people are posting from the action? Why would I lead my community to stop shopping at stores that enslave children in developing nations when I can share an article someone else wrote and secretly shop at that store online?

Now, of course, there is a certain value in simply sharing information about issues about which many people may be ignorant. I have personally learned a lot about a number of topics because my friends posted about them online. However, in our desire to “raise awareness” uncoupled from meaningful action, we inevitably rob ourselves of the social incentive to get involved in the fight because we are so easily able to convince ourselves and others that we are doing our part by posting online. This is doubly bad in that our desire for others’ “awareness” often convinces them as well that once they are “aware” of the issue, their work is done too. They are simply following our lead that posting online is all the action one needs to take.

To summarize, one of the temptations we face with social media is the temptation to remake our public image without doing the hard work of remaking our private lives, to live a “second life” online that has very little to do with our real life. Whether its our marriage or our parenting skills or our political engagement, this ability to adjust perception without adjusting reality exists on every level. So how do we fight against this? How do we fight for integrity between who we are in our everyday lives and who we project ourselves to be on social media? Here are a couple thoughts:

Set an Integrity Rule for Yourself and/or Your Family

In our age, I see this as a legitimate spiritual discipline. If you’re a parent, perhaps you could decide that for every two pictures of your children looking perfectly groomed, you will post one picture of a disaster moment from your household that day. If you’re a pastor or ministry leader, you could decide that for every story you success story you share about your leadership online you will spend an hour investing in an up-and-coming leader in your community. If you’re someone who loves posting about political issues, maybe you decide that for every article you share, you’ll also share (and commit to going) to a local event where you and others can take action on that cause or a creative way for people to get involved privately.

The important thing for us is to ask ourselves the question, “When other people view me on social media, are they seeing who I actually am in real life?” If you cannot answer yes to that question, adopt some sort of discipline to begin moving toward integrity. Start small and commit to moving forward from where you are.

Ask for Feedback

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I have said some silly things online that I have later had to go back and repent for both publicly and privately. One of the things I have learned from these embarrassing moments is that I need external feedback to keep my integrity in check when it comes to social media. For me, my wife is the best source of this feedback as she both loves me deeply and is deeply committed to the truth; she cares how I am perceived by my community and pushes me to be honest and caring in how I present myself online.

Who in your life could you ask to provide you with honest feedback on your social media life? What if you lifted your eyes for a moment and asked someone else to read that Tweet before you sent it? What if you showed somebody else that picture of yourself before you posted it on Snapchat or Instagram? What if you gave a couple people in your community permission to call you out if you were failing to live up to the ideals you project on Facebook? Again, the specifics are not as important as the commitment to integrity. Deception thrives in darkness and isolation; how could you begin to bring yourself into the light of real relationships and vulnerability?

The temptation to shortcut the process of true change and growth by deceiving ourselves and others with our online persona is real and strong. As followers of Jesus, we must be committed to the truth at every turn, particularly the truth of our own brokenness and the power that Jesus alone (and not our social deception) has to make us new.

Social Media & Self-Education: Beware the Echo Chamber

Echo ChamberNote: This is the second post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the introduction here and the final four parts herehere, here, and here.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend…”
Proverbs 27:6

There was a time in my life when I thought it was my destiny to become a famous singer-songwriter. It was my sophomore year of college. I had been writing songs for a few years at that point and, like most nineteen-year-olds, I was full of deep, thoughtful commentary on life and love and loss. The songs came around the time that I was living in close community with a few legitimately talented musicians and we began playing shows at bars and coffee shops around Saint Louis.

I came home once during winter break and met with an old friend for coffee one night at Steak ‘n’ Shake. I was excited to tell him about all the places where we had played and the cool bands we had opened for all over town. He was a few years older than me and had been my youth minister during high school. As our coffee arrived, he looked at me and I suddenly realized he had more than just a casual catch-up conversation in mind. He set his coffee down, interlaced his fingers, and said something to the effect of “Kale, I know you really want this music career to work out but I have to tell you, you don’t sing well enough to make it as a professional musician.” He picked up his mug and took a long drink, leaving me to process the bursting of my dream bubble as I stammered for words to respond.

Now, that may sound harsh to you but I can tell you (ten years later) that it was a profoundly liberating moment for me. In a sea of friends telling me I was great and coming to our shows, he was the first person who had the guts to say something that created dissonance in my mind, that didn’t just confirm everything I believed about myself and seemed to be hearing from every other corner of my life. As a musician, there are few things better for you than people willing to tell you the truth about your skills and challenge you to see yourself in the light of day, not simply the light of a daydream.

What was true for me as a musician has also been true for me in every other realm of my life: I need to be surrounded by people who will, at times, disagree with me and share perspectives that don’t line up with my own.   However, I also must admit that there are few things more comforting in life than being surrounded by people who only agree with and encourage me. In small doses, this kind of encouragement is life-giving and necessary; we all need support and even emotional safety at times – the ability to speak without having to give context or explain ourselves among people who simply know us and get it. But, as a lifestyle, this sort of community can become an echo chamber that only serves to inflate our egos and distort our self-awareness with devastating results.

There are few places that exude this reality like social media. In no previous generation has there ever been a social platform that can give such vast and immediate feedback to our every thought and opinion. In under 30 seconds, I can open an app on my phone, share a thought or image from my life, and receive gratification in the form of likes, retweets, shares, and especially pushback, which is normally used as validation of my stance (“Of course they don’t like it! They’re a raging liberal/conservative/stay-at-home-mom/work-outside-the-home-mom/whatever is the opposite of me”) as opposed to legitimate critique requiring intellectual re-evaluation of my thoughts on the matter.

My own outputs aside, the other dangerous side of the social media coin is that I have vast control over what inputs I decide to receive, in the form of whom I decide to follow and whom I decide to block or hide. If someone disagrees with me, I can simply hide their posts. If a news site or opinion page agrees with me, I “like” it, triggering Facebook’s algorithms to show me similar pages, leading me down a staggering confirmation bias rabbit hole at the bottom of which I can be shown hundreds of inputs everyday that never challenge even my vainest prejudices about the world and people around me. What could be more comforting than that?

But, let’s say that like me, you value critical community and don’t desire to live your life in a circle of nodding heads validating your every opinion. How can you use social media as a tool for self-education and not simply vindication?

Follow People Who Are Different Than You

I think this is especially true if you, like me, are a straight, white, Christian male from a middle-class family. Though we have every advantage imaginable in essentially every field imaginable, the one glaring intellectual disadvantage we have (in this one very specific sense) is that our perspective on life is constantly viewed as normative. We must be vigilant against our own ignorance because we are perpetually surrounded by images and ideas that assert the superiority of our worldview.

White folks aside, Social Media can be a huge asset for anyone in the war against our own ignorance. Are you normally a socially progressive person? Follow a few thoughtful conservative journalists on Twitter. Do you find yourself in perpetual disagreement with the #blacklivesmatter movement or the Anti-Abortion agenda? Like one related page on Facebook and simply permit yourself to be exposed to a small degree of intellectual dissonance, even if only for a few minutes a day.

Engage Respectfully With People Who Disagree With You

If you’re like me, you probably have at least a handful of friends who post things you disagree with on Facebook or Twitter. Instead of writing them off as intellectually or morally inferior to you, which we are prone to do, engage respectfully with them. What does respectful engagement look like? Ask questions, particularly about their journey toward that viewpoint or their understanding of its practical impact on the world.

I have some friends on Facebook who are against tightening restrictions on firearms, a position that I personally hold. However, they are incredibly generous in conversation and open to me asking personal questions or positing imaginary scenarios in which I would find it hard to hold their view. They take the time to respond thoughtfully and our conversations always end amicably. In fact, I would argue that my own rhetoric against guns has become more thoughtful because of our conversations, partially because I actually know some kind, intelligent people who are passionately in favor of guns and I consider them friends. This is the power of empathy, of imagining ourselves in the shoes of someone else; it tears down the façade we have that those who disagree with us do so because they are morally or intellectually inferior.

Let Social Media Lead You into (not out of) Deeper Relationships

In the wake of the past few years of political and social turbulence, some of my friends have vocalized their decision to unfollow certain people in their circles on social media in order to maintain friendships with them in real life. Though I understand (and at times have shared) this sentiment, I also see it as a sad commentary on friendship in our exceedingly subcultural world. As I mentioned earlier, one of the unfortunate side effects of highly user-controlled platforms like Facebook and Twitter is that it is very possible to narrow down your viewing to only posts that bolster your own perspective. The more that we subject ourselves to this, it seems, the more trouble we have maintaining relationships with people offline who have dissenting viewpoints. When social media caters to my every whim and I spend lots of time on it every day, how long until I expect my neighborhood or church or job or any community I am in to do the same? How long until I “unfollow” these same people in my real life by not stopping to talk to them at the grocery store or allowing my mind to feed me the same negative thoughts I have when I see them in real life as when I see their posts online?

There is another way, though, that social media could actually fight against this easy slope toward the personal echo chamber it offers at every turn. What if you began following and “un-hiding” a few people with whom you disagree? What if instead of angrily rattling off a rant on their posts, you just picked up your phone and invited them over for donuts and conversation? What if social media became the avenue by which your real relationships expanded instead of contracted (plus, more donuts!). Who knows what thoughtful, compassionate, diverse communities might form from a few minutes of dissonance everyday?

I’ll end with this: If integrity is being whom you say you are when no one is watching, intellectual integrity is believing what you say you believe when surrounded by those who disagree with you. It’s easy to believe something in a crowded room of people who agree with you. What good is a belief that’s never been tested by opposition? It’s relatively easy to call abortion “baby murder” when you are surrounded on every side by established, middle-class families with plenty of disposable income to provide for additional children. It’s also relatively easy to call a bathroom ordinance “bigotry” when you are surrounded on every side by people who don’t have little kids using those bathrooms.

When our walls come down and we allow ourselves to be in real, genuine community with people who disagree with us, our opinions and worldview might not change. In fact, if they are based in truth, they shouldn’t change. However, we will change; we will become more compassionate and, oddly enough, more intellectually credible and authentic, because our ideas have been tested by the fire of opposition, not simply reverberated by the padded walls of the echo chamber.

Social Media & The Christian: An Introduction

Social MediaNote: This is the first post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the other five parts hereherehere, here, and here.

“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben to Peter Parker

One of my favorite things over the past few years about the arrival of spring and summer has been the plethora of superhero blockbusters that come with the warm weather and ending of the school year. I love the spectacle and hype that builds as final trailers are released a couple weeks before the premier. As someone with a bit of an obsessive personality, I love the interconnected universes and the way movies reference and call back to each other or forward to movies yet to come. But in a more general way, I also just love any movie that thoughtfully examines the question of what normal people would do if they were suddenly given access to incredible power.

In my mind, no superhero story does this better than Spider-man. If you’re not hip to his origin story (get with it people – we’ve had 3 different Spider-men over the past 15 years), a boy named Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, which gives him a handful of vaguely spider-related super-abilities. Like many superheroes, he spends the first few weeks using his newfound powers selfishly, only later realizing that his new gifts come with the responsibility of using them for the greater good. Spider-man’s story is uniquely tragic because it is in this small window that his own selfishness leads indirectly to the death of his Uncle Ben, the only father figure in his life, whose famous words challenge Peter at every turn: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

A few weeks back, some dear friends asked me to write a blog on Christians and social media engagement. Filled with flattery and intrigued by the concept, I began sketching out what I feel like I have learned over the past few years, mostly through making mistakes, about healthy and unhealthy usages of social media in the life of a follower of Jesus, particularly where it comes to our engagement with both power and responsibility on the Internet.

Those who know me won’t be surprised to find that though asked for one blog post, I here respond with six. What will follow weekly for the next five weeks will be posts covering four interconnected topics and how they intersect and intertwine with social media – self-education, integrity, conflict, and influence – culminating in a sort of application challenge in the six and final blog, putting these observations together into a hopefully helpful set of questions that can be used to gauge the level of health underlying our social media engagement.

By way of introduction, I want to briefly describe the lens through which I view social media, as well as my own credentials for writing such a clearly self-indulgent series of posts. One of the most disruptive results of the Internet age is that many forms of media that were once controlled by a handful of elite professionals in a few select cities on the planet are now in the hands of anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. From TV and music content creation to news and personal access, this vast democratization of information is an incredible power transfer the ramifications of which we will likely not fully understand for at least a generation. As Uncle Ben continues to teach us, with such great power comes great responsibility.

What does it mean to responsibly steward the power we are granted by the Internet? That fascinating question is well beyond the scope of this blog (and writer) but I do want to think about it within what I will call the two sides of social media engagement. Like all forms of communication, social media involves both inputs and outputs. Inputs are interfaces through which we absorb information. Outputs are interfaces through which we contribute information for others to absorb. For example, on Instagram, I can participate both through scrolling through my feed and absorbing the pictures/videos and the information they provide (inputs). I can also participate by posting my own pictures/videos and by liking and commenting either positively or negatively on the media of others (outputs).

This is the heart of what makes social media so unique. In other forms of media, any given person is either a content creator or a content absorber but the roles almost never overlap and the speed with which either can influence the other in their role is relatively slow. When a new movie comes out, its creation process has often ceased months before it is absorbed by viewers. In fact, in the age of blockbuster universe-building, many studios are already months into the production of sequels before the opinions of content absorbers can ever bring any bearing on future content creation.

However, thanks to Twitter, when a major public event happens anywhere on the planet, eyewitnesses can take on the role of both content absorbers and content creators, building a collective story around what happened and its implications. In Saint Louis, following the death of Mike Brown, many of us found that Twitter was a much more immediate and often more reliable source of news than any of our major news outlets regarding the protests and happenings in the grand jury’s consideration of evidence against Darren Wilson.

Social media confers a unique power into the hands of its users: the power to democratically participate in creating information for anyone to absorb combined with unheard of access into the minds of virtually anyone on the planet. So what is the responsibility that comes with such unprecedented power? Can such a tool be used by Christians in our mission to be “salt and light,” bringing the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus to bear on every corner of our broken world? Those are the two questions that these blog posts will humbly attempt to answer.

Lastly, let me say a word about why I personally feel compelled to write on this topic. I was born in the heart of the millennial generation and, as such, have been the target demographic for the transfer of this power. Facebook moved beyond Harvard the year before I went away to college and, at the time, still required a .edu email address to access. Like everyone else in their late 20s, I was part of the first group of people to become an adult in the age of mass access to the Internet while still remembering the time before its ubiquity. We children of the late 80s and early 90s will, by virtue of our birth, become living time capsules for future generations as those transitioning from pre-automobile and pre-television generations have been before us.

On a more personal note, I also desire to write on the tension of power and responsibility in social media because it is a constant struggle in my own life. I have said some incredibly silly things on the Internet that I have had to repent for both publicly and privately. I have also had a handful of people tell me that my pictures and words, as small and meaningless as they sometimes seem, have been a source of immense encouragement to them. As an agent in God’s redemptive plan to bring all of creation under the Lordship of his victorious Son, I long to see every redeemable avenue of power harnessed to shine the light of Jesus into every dark corner of our broken hearts and broken systems. For me, regardless of who does or does not read these posts, this will be a reflective exercise of working out my own issues and confessing my own sins before it is critical toward anyone else.

So I invite you to come with me on this layman’s journey to see where the mission of God and the power of social media intersect and overlap. If you have any specific topics or questions you would like to see discussed, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.