The Internet has become a medieval village; social networks are the stocks in which people are placed to suffer public disgrace. Let’s change this. Learn how to behave like Christians on the internet. Here are my seven top tips – what are yours?
This is another way of saying, ‘respect your opponent’. A pagan can scream blue murder without regard for the feelings of others, that’s up to him, but a Christian is required to love. There is no better way to love someone than to listen carefully to them.
Daniel Dennet, the North American philosopher put it very sweetly; “Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."”
To do that, you must listen.
Don’t label people
A few years ago a friend of mine was being interviewed by John Humphries on the Today programme. Humphries had it in his head that he was promoting creationism in local schools. At one point, my friend said, ‘I am not a creationist’, to which Humphries replied, ‘But you must be!’ (He could have added, ‘… because I read it in the Guardian’ but he didn’t).
Do you see what had happened? Labels prevent effective listening. Humphries had labelled my friend as a creationist and could not think of him otherwise.
Try to avoid labels. In particular, words like ‘biggot’ are most unhelpful!
Read stuff that challenges your views
I recently re-read a book I reviewed for a magazine twenty years ago. The margins were filled with angry and pretentious scribbled notes. I read these and thought to myself, ‘Wow! You really were a bigoted little specimen, weren’t you?’
Here are two tips:
First, develop some empathy; imagine what the other person feels like, get inside their heads.
Second, when you are reading material you might not like, try asking the question, “What is right with this? What can I learn?” before you work out what you think is wrong with it.
Most of us have not read widely enough; read broadly!
Here’s a slogan we can all agree with; ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’. Can life ever be that simple?
But how easy is it to separate what people do from who they are? Can you challenge their sin without hurting them – and sometimes their loved ones - personally? Some people are hateful, and some sin is – frankly – very lovable (gluttony, for example!)
If you find all that confusing, here’s another way to put it: everything is complicated, nothing is simple. Christians tend to over-simplify.
We are emotional creatures, and this is good. An opinion must – if it is to satisfy – appeal to the heart as well as to the head. Christians should seek to appeal to both head as well as heart.
But when we use a sentimental argument we are manipulating people by putting them in a position where their guts tell them that we are right. We usually do this when we know that our argument is weak.
Don’t say, ‘The Bible says…’
Imagine this conversation.
‘The Bible says that women should be silent in church and wear coverings on their heads’.
‘No it doesn’t! Those rules were for another time and culture, and they don’t really apply to our time and place. Women can wear what they want’
‘No, it is quite clear. Once you start playing that game there is no end to where it might stop – the whole message of the bible will be compromised. Women must be silent and wear hats’.
‘Yes, I have noticed that the women in your church respect that rule. And they wear makeup, expensive jewellery, revealing clothing, and killer heels!’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘Er, Paul forbids all of that in one of his letters…’
And so it goes on.
For Christians, the bible is our final authority in faith and life, so what it says is of huge importance and its word is final. However, every sentence in the bible requires careful interpretation and is often open to several alternative readings.
So, rather than say, ‘The bible says… ‘, say instead, ‘In my view, the bible says…’
Be willing to change your mind
There are some respects in which it is unhelpful to be like Jesus. The gospels tell us that he ‘taught with authority, not like the teachers of the law’ – if you try and do that you will turn into an uncompromising prig who is always right and never wrong!
I know dozens of people like that. In fact, I am a bit like that myself!
So here’s a question; when did you last change your mind about something important?
That will tell you what kind of a person you are.