Last week, in the wake of another school shooting in Florida, politicians took to Twitter to offer their condolences to families and convey their sorrow over this most recent tragedy. Bess Kalb, a writer for 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!', decided to respond to some of these tweets with dollar amounts. Very large dollar amounts, in the millions. It turns out, these amounts were the contributions given to that politician by the National Rifle Association. My first response was "wow - that is so smart, and such a great way to get people's attention on this important issue".
But then I thought:
Is this productive?
Is this conversation?
Will this help her cause?
Does this create an environment where change can happen?
I ultimately decided that 140 characters sent into the ether on your personal device does not necessarily equal change. Or productivity. Or even basic human interaction. So why press send? Why throw the virtual stone at the opposition and then run away? I am not sure that I have the answer as to why we interact the way we do over social media, but I do acknowledge now, after a few days removed from yet another school shooting, that what we do in these crisis situations is not considered communication. I then challenged myself to think about what real communication would look like, and how that might start to create change, understanding, and empathy in the digital age.
Let's be clear: I am not suggesting that we all figure out how to agree. That is a goal that will never be realized. What I am suggesting is that we come to a table, real or virtual, talk with others who disagree with us - all in the name of actual conversation. That is, talking and listening. If we don't, I fear that we will become something we don't recognize - an entire country, an entire world whose inhabitants don't know each other, can't listen, and have lost the ability to empathize. We will have forgotten the most important thing: that being human means learning to see the human in others.
After deciding that the world was, in fact, going to hell in a hand basket, I did what all of us Christians tend to do last: I prayed. Yep, I did it. I sat really still and I thought about what Jesus would do if he were on twitter. In a virtual world of one-line zingers and memes that degrade others and comment sections that have hundreds of anonymous people engaged in a virtual argument, how would Jesus respond? What would he put out into the world? The answer I arrived at was one I have always known: he would respond with love. Love God, love your neighbor, (as you) love yourself. If it truly is that simple, then where have we been derailed as humans on the world wide web?
About the time I was having this revelation of love and understanding, our church's facebook page was being hit with some pretty harsh comments on two different posts. I had a choice: delete the comments, block the user from our page, and don't engage. Or - I could sit and channel my best self, the Jesus inside me, and I could respond to those comments with love and understanding and hope for a common ground, a future that I could share with these people, even if we disagree. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done as a communicator, and I am so glad I did it. It took time and careful consideration - you know, the kind of consideration you give someone when they're standing right in front of you. When faced with unkind behavior or opposing views, most of us stay, listen, and try to understand the human standing in front of us. We try to see ourselves in that person, try to see their human-ness. It is in that 'seeing' when we actually communicate, and I think THAT is what's missing from our virtual world of tweets and posts and comments and memes. If we saw the humans behind the keyboards, recognized the hurt behind the thumbs angrily pressing send, or looked into the eyes of those who created that meme, would we respond differently?
I would challenge all of us as humans, as Christians, to see: see the human, see the hurt, see Jesus. My second challenge is this: when you see, then try to send back love, in whatever form it takes. When we see others and start to love them, then we are communicating. We are all answering the question, 'What would Jesus do?', and that is a great start.
Lena Sewell, Director of Office Ministries
St. Paul's Episcopal Church