If there is anything we know about rhetoric on social media, it is that it is well-reasoned, thoughtful, and constructive. I’ve found Twitter, for example, to be a safe space for people to share views and exchange ideas. Slow to judge and quick to build the best possible construction, even of one’s opponents, that’s the name of the game. Social media has done nothing if it hasn’t elevated the level of discourse in our society.
Of course, that last paragraph is sarcasm. I mean, it is doused in sarcasm. I’m obviously beating a dead horse while grabbing the low-hanging fruit (while mixing my metaphors) to disparage the level of rhetoric on social media. The entire format is our vain culture’s dream come true. Self-aggrandizing comments and cheap digs at one’s “opponent” dominate my feed. Shoot, I post my own all the time. The marketplace of ideas has been democratized on social media, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But with so many voices on an equal playing field, the best way to be heard and to make sure your ideas stand out seems to be by becoming more provocative and pithy than everyone else. And as anyone who ever suffered through life in the junior high schoolyard knows, the easiest way to do that is by making those you consider weaker (or in this case, wrong) look stupid. This produces a low level of discussion that is filled with cheap shots and self-congratulatory victory tweets that are loved by all one’s like-minded followers and despised by one’s “opponents.”
As is the case with every sinful situation we find in this world, Christians seem to outdo the culture! In the name of our holy causes and “orthodoxy,” we are not afraid to call out our theological opponents and ruthlessly shame them. Don’t worry, we are happy to use Bible verses to further our righteous cause! This last week, I saw a popular, left-wing evangelical author use Jesus’ Beatitudes to shame the rich and then condemn everyone who tried to engage her view of the text. Clearly, Christians who held a different view than her denied the words of the Jesus they claimed to follow! Whether she was right in her take or not, what I found unsettling here was the way in which she used Jesus’ words to win. Their objective meaning wasn’t something she was interested in discussing. She simply employed Jesus (I mean, who else do you want to hire if you want to win a spiritual argument?) to prove her right. God’s Word was reduced to a tool for her political views. It was a power play.
The Lutheran presence on social media is no better. In fact, we are downright embarrassing. There is a lot of in-house discussion that turns into disgusting out-house mud-slinging all in the name of “orthodoxy” and “faithful teaching.” The debates that I see (and take part in, much to my shame) between the so-called Radical Lutherans and Confessional Lutherans become a pissing contest of who has more Luther quotes or who understands the Confessions better. We then take incredibly hope-filled texts from Luther’s sermons or wonderfully consoling or even convicting passages from the Confessions, and instead of rejoicing in their truths or falling to our knees in repentance, we post them in a way that says, “I told you so!” “See how right I am!” Both sides do it. Both sides should be ashamed.
In all of this, we find ourselves breaking the Second Commandment in our use of God’s name. There is no calling upon him in our troubles, praying, praising, or giving thanks (Small Catechism on the Second Commandment). There is only winning with God on our side (Bob Dylan). Instead of listening to the confessors of the faith, we use them for our own ends. What is infinitely worse is our use of Jesus to prove our points and win our arguments. “All scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God would be equipped for every good work” (I Timothy 3:16-17), not to prove I’m a more righteous man of God than you are.
Our lack of humility before the words of our Lord is horrifying. Whether it is our intention or not, when we tweet out Jesus’ words in order to prove our point and win our argument, we become like King Belshazzar in Daniel 5, who trotted out the vessels of God’s temple and used them for dinnerware at his drinking party. We’re using the glorious things of God for our own self-promoting ends in a rather profane venue.
The Lord Jesus didn’t preach to help you win an argument. Our misuse of His Word to exalt ourselves is a subtle (because it looks so holy) and therefore poisonous breaking of the Second Commandment. Jesus preached to expose your guilt and kill you in your sin so that He might raise you to life with His Word of mercy, not to further your cause. We who believe that His Word guides the life of the Christian to act in love and service towards the neighbor—especially our enemies—must confess our sins that our activity on social media doesn’t bear that out. One wonders if James didn’t have a vision of a laptop when he wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
The Holy Spirit has breathed out a book for us with the Word, Jesus Christ, on every page. We should repent, pray, and rejoice that God has graciously chosen to address us at all, especially before firing off His Word in a self-promoting tweet, for heaven’s sakes! We don’t use God’s Word; God’s Word shapes us. Our theological discussion should never take place apart from prayer, meditation, and some form of struggle that results from God speaking to us (oratio, meditatio, tentaio). And in a world shaped by social media where reaction comes before thought, I am becoming more doubtful that such theological discussion is even possible.
May Christ have mercy on us for our unbridled tongues and tweets.