The Christian & Criticism: advocacy vs. aggression on the Internet

These days, there are many scoffers of Christianity masquerading as "honest critics." Ye shall know them by their lack of constructive solutions. As someone who has been outspoken about abusive church systems, I see the increasing need for self-correction among those of us who call out injustice.

Here's why: deconstructionism has its place. But if it is never followed by practical innovation and solution, then it is no better than empty ridicule.

Let me begin by admitting my own advocacy has been quite imperfect. Many, many times I have crossed a line and had to apologize for it. We are human. We make mistakes. I still believe it's better to say something poorly than to say nothing at all. 

But here's the difference: missteps and mistakes are different than an intentional strategy of aggression.

I am writing this post today because I am grieved by the increasingly ungracious posture of some fellow Christian advocates. To read some of these blogs and FB groups, you'd think Christianity was a total rot of sexual molesters, abusers and embezzlers. It's a 24 hr. news cycle of death, destruction and despair—all delivered in snarky, sarcastic, confrontational tones.

I am guilty of this myself. Time and again I've resorted to sarcastic language and mockery when confronting abusive systems. But recently, something has changed for me.

I've begun asking myself: does sarcasm and confrontational questioning effect true change? Does fault-finding build bridges? And most of all: does this kind of advocacy prevent future abuse? I fear the answer is no.

From what I can tell, aggressive advocacy creates nothing more than an angry echo chamber. The tragic irony is that having left closed religious systems, we have simply recreated a different closed system: one that is defined by all that we oppose.

My friends, this is not the way of Jesus. This is the way of the scoffer.

I know the word "scoffer" is old-fashioned, but I still think it's a good word. A scoffer is someone who always has some negative critique to make—usually in a ridiculing or sarcastic manner—and, furthermore, a scoffer actively recruits others to join their opposition. It's easy to identify scoffers: they NEVER offer solutions. 

An honest critic, however, is able to identify the problem and suggest a solution.

Let me give an example. When I was writing my first book I often galloped off in the wrong direction. And not just trotted in the wrong direction. I mean, full-on, full-out galloping into a tangent, going way off-topic and entirely abandoning the story at hand.

My editors often needed to gently rein me in. But they didn't just use the reins, they helped me find my way back. 

Here's what they didn't do: my editors didn't take my bad writing personally. They didn't take it public. They didn't start tweeting negative things about me. They didn't write sarcastic Facebook updates about my long-winded tangents. Why not? Because we were in a partnership together. We had the same goal: a good finished book.

Likewise, we fellow Christians are in partnership together. We have the same goals. We love the same Jesus. If we must pull on the reins, we must also provide helpful solutions.

We deconstructors are excellent critical thinkers. If we applied our energies towards finding solutions with equal fervor, imagine the progress we could make!

I know I have been part of this problem—especially as a blogger. The frantic pace of Internet "time" lends itself to speaking before thinking.

The thing is, coming up with solutions takes time. It takes creative energy. Honestly, it's easier for me to point out problems than offer solutions. But without solutions, we make no progress and worse, we fail to protect future victims.

So, in the spirit of offering solutions, I'd like to propose the following ideas for how we advocates might conduct ourselves:

1. Try private entreaty first

The New Testament is pretty clear that if we have a problem with a fellow Christian, we are to approach them privately. It is only after repeated refusals to heed our concerns that we make the matter public. In the age of the Internet, it's easy to go public first. But going public often makes matters worse because public confrontation encourages shame, not reconciliation. There are, of course, certain situations where personal contact is not possible—for example, if we are refuting the public teachings of a public figure we do not know personally. Or if confronting the person places us or others in harm's way. However, I still think the principle remains true: the Christian ethic instructs us to privately entreat rather than publicly confront. At the very least, we ought to try

2. Refrain from sarcasm, mockery and Internet shaming

In order to effect true change, we must perform our work non-violently—this includes refraining from verbal violence. Shaming others may result in temporary behavior modification. But only love, patience and gentleness can effect lasting change. If our manner is ungracious, harsh and demeaning, those who have offended us will become defensive, shut down or withdraw from the conversation. The sad truth is that a victim of abuse can also become an abuser. We ought to defend the abused without resorting to abusive tactics.While our anger and distress is understandable, it does not justify our behaving in harmful and destructive ways. The ends do not justify the means. It matters how we advocate. It matters how we question and how we deconstruct and how we criticize. Otherwise, we simply become what we hate.

3. Use gracious speech

Some advocates would say we don't need to use polite, civil or gracious words because that's "tone-policing."

I've heard it argued that "tone-policing" is a silencing measure, that it re-traumatizes the victim. I've even heard some advocates say that harsh language should be encouraged because when Jesus was outraged by abuses in the temple, he overturned tables and called people names.

First of all, I think it's important we remember that we are not Jesus. Just because Jesus walked on water doesn't mean I should try that the next time I go sailing. And just because Jesus overturned tables and called people "whitewashed tombs" doesn't give me a free pass to rant about fellow Christians. 

Furthermore, nowhere in Scripture do I find Jesus telling the oppressed to rise up and violently attack their oppressors. Rather, I see Jesus telling us to turn the other cheek. In the Old Testament, we read that a soft answer turns away wrath. What I'm trying to say is that being abused doesn't give us the right to abuse others—at least, for Christians.

As advocates, I believe we ought to model gracious, kind speech. There's a thin line between "righteous anger" and plain old anger. Wisdom encourages gracious speech in all interactions. It helps me remember that the "anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God." (St. James 1:20)

4. Action not reaction 

I've learned that my triggers aren't always indicative of reality.

I have to quell my reflexive instinct to react to everything that triggers me. As a trauma survivor, there are lots of things about Christian church culture that trigger me! It helps me to remember that my being triggered does not always indicate the presence of danger. Not every pastor is a cult leader. Not every non-denominatal church is abusive. In fact, the opposite is more often true. Most pastors are loving shepherds. Most churches are safe places. Most harm is done unintentionally and is not personal.

When it's clear I do need to take action, wait until I'm calm. It's usually not beneficial for me to make big decisions while I'm hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

5. Give the benefit of the doubt

It helps me to remember that I may not have all the facts. Even when I think I know everything there is to know, it's important to remember I'm still human. It find it helpful to refrain from attributing malicious motives to others' actions when, for all I know, they might not even know that what they're doing is hurtful. If nothing else, proceeding with an assumption of innocence is better for my own sanity and serenity.

6. Check my motives, check-in with a trusted friend

Sometimes we advocates can mistake our personal opinions and feelings as the Ultimate Truth For Everyone.

Our intention is good: we just want to help! But sometimes we can miss the opportunity for authentic connection by brandishing our Big Feelings like a weapon. If I'm feeling fired up about something, it's helpful for me to honestly check my motives: are my personal likes or dislikes hindering me from seeing this situation clearly? Do I need to be right? Is it necessary for me to say something? Is there a solution I can suggest instead of a criticism?

If I'm having trouble seeing things clearly, I seek the wisdom of a trusted friend. An objective perspective is immensely helpful.

7. Be kind

And last of all, when I make a mistake, I practice these principles toward myself: admitting I made a mistake, giving myself the benefit of the doubt and always, always using a kind tone of voice with myself.

I've learned that the harshest critics are usually even harsher towards themselves. We could all use a little more kindness and gentleness, don't you think?

In the end, being mean never changes things. It only makes things worse. Being kind, however, has the power to change everything.