Bruce Epperly: Philippians and Facebook Etiquette for Christians

by Dr. Bruce G. Epperly, pastor, professor and author of Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with GodFinding God in Suffering: A Journey with JobTransforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century GospelRuth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure, and more!

A number of years ago, I wrote a piece in which I asserted that Facebook provides an opportunity for people to affirm the holiness of everyday. Now, in this election year, I have a different perspective. Yes, I still believe that Facebook reflects the moment by moment wonder of living and our gratitude for life itself in its quotidian activities. As such, Facebook can contribute to our spiritual growth and our empathy with others’ spiritual journeys. It can create community and renew friendships.

But, Facebook has become over the past year a place of venom, insult, and impoliteness in which people regularly post responses with words they would never say in face to face encounters. In the past few months, I have had someone drop the F-bomb on my wall in response to my affirmation of President Obama and another person refer to me as ignorant when my position differed from his. I have found that you can even talk about the weather and receive a contrary response. I have been insulted by the left for being too moderate and the right for being too progressive. I have received disparaging remarks from Clinton, Sanders, and Trump supporters, all of whom have questioned my good faith. Moreover I see the commandment not to bear false witness routinely violated by persons who would otherwise claim to be honest followers of Jesus. Lies about political figures or distortions of facts are routinely posted by otherwise decent people, sometimes just a few minutes after leaving church.

9781893729971mI believe that the words of Philippians 4:4-9 provide good counsel for Facebook users who claim to be followers of Jesus. First, Philippians counsels “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” This is surely good spiritual counsel for Facebook users: When you post, it is appropriate to answer a few fundamental questions: Does your post have an irenic spirit? Do you respond in terms of policy, beliefs, and issues, and not in terms of personality? Do you assume that your position is limited – that’s the reality of perspective and sin – and not absolutely right? Do your posts evidence respect for those with whom you dialogue, formerly known as the “loyal opposition.”

Philippians tell us to be gentle even when you disagree. Are you adding joy to the world, as Paul counsels, or do your posts create alienation between people?

Paul also says, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In other words, live affirmatively and speak affirmatively. In the political realm, focus on the positives of your candidate’s position and not the negatives of the other candidate. Don’t post news items without checking for their accuracy. While I don’t post news items often, I always go to factcheck.org, polifact.com or snopes.com before posting something about whose veracity about I’m uncertain. While these sites aren’t perfect, they are generally free of bias and give positive and negative evaluations of both conservative and liberal candidates.

Philippians reminds us to look for the best in others and try to understand contrasting positions before challenging them. Other persons may be just as sure of their position as you are sure of your own. Further, people of differing viewpoints also love their nation and seek the highest good for our country. Try to avoid name calling even if it is tempting to say “Lyin’ Donald Trump” or “Crooked Hillary Clinton.”

Don’t claim expertise where you have none. I tend to use terms these days such as “I have a contrasting position” or “I believe otherwise” or “we will have to disagree on this” rather than any sort of invective. After all, I could be wrong and in the spirit of Niebuhr, I need to look for the truth in my neighbor’s falsehood and the falsehood in my own truth. All perspectives are limited, finite, and prone to self-interest. Moreover, sin infects even our highest motives.

Finally, ask yourself the following questions before posting or responding: Is this true or accurate? Is it healing? Will it only add fuel to the fire of polarization? Does it glorify God and contribute to a “more perfect union”?

We need to follow our better angels, as Lincoln counseled, and this applies to Facebook, the election, and every aspect of our lives. Above all, let us who claim to be Christians be persons who are instruments of peace, following the pathway of Jesus, and leaning not to our own perspective but following God’s greater vision, so that we might be healthy activists and hospitable in our disagreements, and claim our vocation as God’s healing partners in our troubled world.