A lot of the time, online commenting is simply bullying  (Bex Lewis)

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with some well known commentators and academics on the topic of online ministry. We weren’t there specifically to discuss Christian behaviour online but the topic surfaced every time.

 Online anger is like road rage —  physical separation between us and the other person means we caricature them – we assume the worst  (Glen Marshall)

And to be sure, if you ever spend time reading comments beneath Christian blogs; or if you follow Twitter conversations on Christian topics, or if you have followed a Christian Facebook thread on anything controversial … well you know what this is about.

 When we go online it’s as if we leave part of our humanity behind. It all becomes cerebral and we cartoon-ise the people we are conversing with (Pete Phillips)

A need to look good

Sometimes, it seems that when Christians are online, politeness and common courtesy fly out of the window. On these occasions any idea of Christian love, gentleness, or self-control seems to be overtaken by a driving need to show everyone we are right. As theologian Marguerite Bennett puts it

 Online, it seems that being right is more important than being Christ-like

… whatever “right” might mean.

Why is this? 3 reasons:

  1. The immediacy of the internet — creates knee-jerk responses. Things we would simply not say to each other face to face.
  2. The limited bandwidth of the internet (limited time, and using only written text). We can never get our whole selves online. Our conversations typed hurriedly into a tiny box lack the facial expression, the intonation, the meaningful body language that normally augments our words. (Devices such as emojis can help – but only to a point).
  3. The anonymity and separation of the internet — the internet exaggerates our feeling that we are somehow anonymous and separate from the (real) person we are communicating with. We swallow the idea that: it’s just me and the keyboard …. and then there’s that idiot somewhere out in the ether. Unlike face to face conversation, we are insulated from the real effect our words have on the other person.

Of course it’s not just Christians who fall into these traps – but as Christians we have to take seriously the fact that, online, thoughtless comments and offensive remarks can cause great personal pain — as well as being a shockingly poor witness to anyone else who happens to drop by.

A need to reign it in

Here are some suggestions to combat the reasons that lead to poor behaviour online. A lot of it is common sense, but common sense can fly out of the window when we feel provoked:

  • When you see a comment that makes your blood boil – don’t respond immediately at all. We are all temperamental beings but we will invariably regret whatever we write in a frenzy. Sometimes I might write a quick response but I email it just to myself — I don’t post it. Later, and with reflection and prayer, I come back and compose something that is a considered opinion. Of course this doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone online, nor does it mean we have to refrain from humour, wit or even sarcasm. It just means we have thought about it first.

 Proverbs 17 38: Even a fool is thought wise if he remains silent, discerning if he holds his tongue!

  • Remember whatever you write and post will be open to scrutiny by all. If you are dealing with someone who is offensive and argumentative, the rest of the community will see that – you don’t have to respond in kind. Your job is to maintain a civil and friendly tone – whatever.

 Proverbs 12:18: Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

  • I also like Bex Lewis’s suggestion: before posting a comment or jumping into a thread ask yourself “what does the fruit of the spirit look like online?

 James 1:26: If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

And a need to be “authentic”

Authenticity is an interesting word isn’t it. We would all like to think we are “authentic” in our online discussions and writing. But what does it mean? There’s a lot out there on this word but one description I especially like is by author Brene Brown who has studied and written on the topics of courage and authenticity. Greatly summarising, she says that authenticity “…is a collection of choices we make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen”. It’s about “allowing ourselves to be vulnerable”. In fact: “authenticity is about showing up with our whole selves”. She is saying that we should not have different personas / different identities online and offline. People who know us should be able to see that online we are the same person as offline.

… In which case it seems appropriate to end with theologian Marguerite Bennett again:

 Practice not being a jerk in real life and your online behaviour will follow suit!

This article by Chris Goswami was first published by Premier Digital.

Theologians and commentators referred to at the start were Dr Bex Lewis, Glen Marshall, and Pete Phillips.

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Sunil Raheja
3 years ago

Thank you for highlighting this Chris. This online anger is most likely an overspill of what is going on in our hearts. What is particularly unfortunate is that we are also less likely to make such comments face to face or in person. Maybe that is a good test. Would I be prepared to say what I am writing if I was face to face with the person concerned? If not then I should pause as you helpfully outline. There is freedom to disagree, but it needs to be done in a respectful way. By all means attack ideas, but… Read more »

Brent Massey
3 years ago

We are merely seeing what Christendom is really like in the West. The true fruit not concealed by a superstructure of going to church, praising and serving. Instead of teaching people to control their reactions teach them to really follow Jesus, dying to their old selfish ways, taking up their cross and DOING EVERYTHING that Jesus did—starting with the Beatitudes. Then moving onto the commandments He taught (in that same Sermon on the Mount) like not lying, i.e. be authentic.