Letting the Spirit lead spirited debate—online and in person

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Friends in Christ,

It’s been some time, hasn’t it?

A few years ago, I left my post as online community coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada for Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where I serve as chaplain to Bishop’s University and Champlain College Lennoxville. The space between then and now has afforded plenty of time for contemplation—about the inevitable and yet elusive online community, and about my own online presence and participation in that space.

Those who follow me online have noticed that I have stepped back, using social media primarily for personal reflection, family announcements and the like. Those who are close are also aware that I left my former post exhausted. One colleague had observed, “You have taken the sins of the Internet on yourself.”

And so, I offer this reflection in the spirit of pastoral theologian Robert Kinast, who suggests that the lens through which we interpret the world around us is that of experience. “How else would a person learn?” he asks (Kinast, 1996, p. vii).

Don’t get me wrong: I miss the work. I miss the relationships that developed, the companions on the way (yes, online relationships are real relationships). I hold close my memories of a church claiming its identity and mission online: proclaiming Good News; offering hope, peace and love; seeking reconciliation. What follows emerges from observations of the church at its best: not a collection of anonymous trolls and keyboard warriors with broken CAPS LOCK keys, but the living body of Christ, serving together in the time and place in which we find ourselves.

Be who you are

What does our witness look like, online? At its most basic level, I propose, it should look the same as it does offline. As Christians, our identity is grounded in Christ, through baptism. The church’s department of Faith, Worship, and Ministry notes:

Baptism is a coming into the Body of Christ, in which we become members of one another and of Christ—it is about who we are in Christ, and whose we are: God’s own. In baptism we are gathered… and sent forth, in the ministry that is God’s own ministry of transformation, reconciliation, healing and salvation of the world. So, baptism is not just about identity and belonging, it’s also about being sent in mission and ministry.

In that light, whatever framework we choose to adopt for our relationships or for our communications should begin with the baptismal covenant. Because if we are who we claim to be—if our online presence is to demonstrate any sense of integrity—then we won’t be able to check our faith at the door, or at the keyboard. What would it mean to reframe familiar questions in this context?

  • As you participate in online communities, will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
  • When conversations on Twitter and Facebook get heated, will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • In your use of social media, will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in everyone you meet online, loving your neighbour as yourself?
  • As the Church discusses its mission online, will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
  • In your use, consumption, and disposal of technology, will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation and respect, sustain and renew the life of the earth?

It changes things, doesn’t it? And I think it should—because on the other end of every post, tweet, article and comment is a living, breathing child of God. That can be easy to forget, in a world that reduces every thought and emotion to binary data, exchanging fragments of humanity at the speed of light.

But how can we love others we disagree with? How can we respect people we’ve never met face-to-face? The answer may be simpler than we might expect: by reaching out. By making contact. By asking, “Help me to understand.” By apologizing. Publicly. Online. By praying for our conversation partners. By praying with them.

Spirited debate

Conversations can be spirited. My wording here is intentional, because they can also be heated, disrespectful, harmful, abusive and destructive. All of us bring different experiences and perspectives to the table: disagreement and misunderstandings are inevitable. But as we participate in these discussions, it is worth considering whether our goal is reconciliation by means of understanding, or whether we’re simply in it to tell others they are wrong. In the latter case, I can’t help but recall the words of one of my supervisors in pastoral counselling studies: “So, how’s that working for you?”

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul offers an alternative. He lists a series of attributes as evidence of the Spirit’s work within God’s people: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. They don’t reflect the norms in social media. For that matter, they don’t reflect the norms in face-to-face human relationships. But that, as I read it, is sort of the point—Paul, Apostle of Christ and member of the fledgling Christian community, presented another way: a countercultural movement, led by the Spirit, and following the way of Christ.

Moving forward, together

The coming days are important, and many of the discussions that follow will be difficult—because they matter. But they will also be difficult because the people taking part in them matter: each one a child of God, whether online or offline, meeting at General Synod, publishing the news or interacting with the community from a cell phone in the park. Whatever the case, I encourage you to be who you are, and to have spirited debate. And pray for me, as I pray for you.

The Rev. Jesse Dymond is chaplain to Bishop’s University and Champlain College Lennoxville, both in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. He is former online community coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada.


References

Kinast, R. L. (1996). Let Ministry Teach: A Guide to Theological Reflection. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press.

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