Meaningful Engagement: My Ongoing Wrestle with How and When to Engage with Incidents, Issues and Online outrage.

It has been a terribly confusing week on the internet, well for me personally anyway, and I suspect for a few others judging by the plethora of “what have we learned articles” that I am unnecessarily adding to, and I am once again really wrestling with how and when to engage issues and how and when to leave them well alone. I don’t have a big platform, in fact I have a very little platform on which the few gathered around would struggle to see me, but it is one that God has entrusted to me and I want to be faithful with it. I know, from painful conversations with friends, that often my silence can feel hurtful when there is an issue that is impacting people that I love. I also know, through conversations again and through the painful reminders of Facebook Memories, that I have hurt other people and looked pretty darn silly when weighing in too quickly on issues I know little or nothing about, and I do know little to nothing about many things to be sure. It is difficult to remember and acknowledge that limitation in an age with seemingly unbridled access to information. We all feel immediately informed even when it turns out we were radically misinformed albeit rather speedily.

Let me back it up a bit. Why am I making something of this? Am I just overthinking this all? Am I making too much of what this sort of engagement ought to look like? Perhaps I should just get over myself? Perhaps, indeed.

In the last week though, I have wrestled with and struggled with how to meaningfully talk about the following things. This is just the last week.

First, there was the Gillette ad and the conversations around toxic masculinity that it spawned. I thought the ad was a noble effort for the most part and I do think that there are many issues around what masculinity is that have to be discussed and many that need to be rejected. The ad felt off to me though in its telling of how that plays out. I know that straw men are sometimes necessary in order to light a fire, but they aren’t particularly helpful in meaningful discussion and this ad was full of them, which is in part why it had such a fiery response. It was easily combustible and perfectly designed for virality, not for conversation. As I attempted to put this into words in some sort of online response I started to watch the comments come through which were either unthoughtful praise or unbridled anger. I sat confused that no one saw the irony of a generation that is insisting that gender is a purely social construct and open to fluidity arguing over how to truly define a gender that we equally insist should never be defined. Thoughtfulness is hard.

Second, there were the Catholic schoolboys in the MAGA hats who obviously needed to be denounced, or did they? I was genuinely shocked and appalled when I saw the video, and my fingers hovered over the keyboard ready to denounce and eternally condemn them to my handful of followers. It looked like a horror show of white supremacy, and it may well have been, but it turns out that we just don’t know. I decided that instead of commenting, I would retreat to my study to look up some of the history of Native Americans and American Catholicism in a nerdy response of knowledge seeking instead. Nuance and empathy is difficult.

Third, there was Martin Luther King Day here in the United States and I wanted to say something publicly about the legacy of Dr. King, but then was stopped in my tracks by the post of a young theologian (whom I respect and admire) that went a little something like this (I am paraphrasing). “Dear white brother. Don’t quote Dr. King today unless you are sure you would have supported him in his day, and don’t appropriate the more sanitized sections of his philosophy unless you embrace it all.” I get it. It must be annoying to watch a bunch of people who either oppose you or are indifferent to you 364 days a year suddenly roll out the hero of your struggle for their own ends. I get that. And so I said nothing, because I am honestly not sure that I could meet both of his demands fully. I would like to think that had I lived in Dr King’s day and context that I would have been a fierce advocate for the advancement of civil rights. There is quite simply no doubt that would have been the righteous, Christlike and godly thing to do. However, I know that in this context now I don’t always do the righteous, Christlike and godly thing when given opportunity and so who am I to presume that I would have done it then? That’s a chronological arrogance to a severe degree. I may well have been a coward, or a fierce racist opponent had I lived then. I just don’t know, and so if that is the criteria for comment, well then, I am out I am afraid. In addition, I have tried to read everything that Dr. King wrote and a fair deal of what has been written about him, and while I don’t find myself in fierce disagreement with anything I have read, I am not sure that I would be able to say that I would fully back every one of his ideas. To be fair, I don’t think I would say that about any leader – except Jesus – and so, again, in an effort to be sensitive, I had to exclude myself from comment. And then, in a marvelous moment of irony, my phones buzzed late in the day with a text from a friend asking me why I was silent on MLK and if I was afraid of a conservative backlash because I live in Texas. So I just retweeted something profound from Jacky Hill Perry. Gosh. I am not defensive on this, I am genuinely wrestling it through. It is is complicated to be sensitive and thoughtful to the needs and desires of others.

So, in the face of all of this, I have decided to revisit some of my guiding principles that help me to navigate this world of when to engage and when to stay silent. Here below then are five principles that I am trying to keep in front of me, in no particular order.

First, I must embrace the biblical tension that says that we must speak in the face of injustice AND slowness to speak, and thoughtfulness in speech is a godly and good thing.

There are lots of examples on our need to speak up. Proverbs 31:8-9 is a great example. It says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” But there is lots of biblical evidence that showing restraint in speech (or tweet) is a wise and good thing to do. Ecclesiates 9:17; Proverbs 10:19; 18:13; Psalm 141:3 are great examples of these. If nothing else, I really like Proverbs 17:28 as a way to seem smart. It says,  “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

It is not straightforward. Do the hard work of wrestling the tension, and then speak boldly on behalf of those who have no voice once you have.

Second, I desire to spend more time being useful privately and letting my public voice be an overflow of that if necessary.

If I am honest about my driving forces, a lot of my need to comment is ultimately driven by a desire to be seen as caring, more than it is driven by a desire to actually be caring. Otherwise, I would discharge it primarily in the direction of those who need the care, and not in the direction of those who will provide applause. I want to text friends my private care and genuine support more than I tweet strangers my appearance of care. Sometimes, a genuinely public stand is needed, and it should be taken then and should be consistent with how I have made people feel who have been affected up to that point.

Third, I want to be a friend who trusts in the best intentions of his friends’ silence or speaking out.

I confess that I have read posts from friends that have made me furious because they felt like a personal assault. I confess that I have felt the silence of friends on issues that I care about and it has felt like betrayal. The answer to that is not to post about how the silence of certain people is deafening. The answer is to be a friend and to speak to them about it.

Fourth, accepting that I don’t have to have a position on everything and I don’t have to RSVP to every fight the internet invites me to.

It’s liberating. I am not the president. I am not an expert on all things, not even on most things, probably not even on some things. This isn’t an invitation into passivity, but is an opportunity for enjoying the limiting nature of creatureliness. The internet gives me the perception that I know a lot of things about a lot of things when really it means that I know a very little bit about a heck of a lot of things all at the same time, and I am probably wrong on most of them.

Fifth, I need to limit stimulation to more helpful sources.

Twitter isn’t actually a good news source. Neither are 24 hour news cycle fed instant news sites and channels. Those are designed to be instant and what we know is that truth tends to be slow. By the time it emerges the cycle has tragically usually moved on. “What’s the source?” is becoming my standard question of anything that is breaking and needing my apparent immediate response.

Bonus point. Be kind.

I know it’s an Ellen sign-off but it’s a real good one. Be kind. Grow spiritual fruit. Don’t always be mad, or it won’t count when you are mad about the right thing. Treat others with dignity and respect. You know, the whole Golden Rule thing. There is something to it.

That’s it. Simple things I am thinking about as I try to engage more meaningfully. I am not yet ready to disengage and run away. I want to steward this moment, but I want to do it well and thoughtfully. That means I may frustrate many people in the process and I am okay with that. No one is more frustrated with me than I am.

Let’s press on in thoughtfulness.

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