Heaping coals upon the trolls

troll

By Joe LaGuardia

In the first week of January of this year, high school student and editor of his school newspaper, Michael Moroz, missed a few days of school because of threats made against his life.

The lethal reaction resulted from an editorial Moroz ran, along with an opposing viewpoint penned by one of his peers, criticizing student protests at the University of Missouri.  In the piece, Moroz argued that protests hindered much-needed debate related to police brutality and that, in many cases, lethal force is necessary to protect first responders.

The editorial and opposing article ran in the school newspaper with little fanfare; when it hit the internet and a wider audience, however, things turned ugly.   Comments on the online article thread ranged from cheer to aggression, with one comment even calling for someone to shoot Moroz and “teach him a lesson.”

Although this situation has been used as a case study for political correctness, the real tragedy is the online aggression–also known as internet trolling–that threatened none other than a teenager’s life.

Online aggression is not an isolated moral lapse, but a rampant infestation of sin.  An internet troll is anyone who comments on online articles or blogs with threatening, intimidating, or abusive language.  It is, and has been considered by many, to be hate speech.

The internet’s anonymity makes it easy for trolls to abuse others, but it is not harmless sport.  This aggression has led to suicides, soiled reputations, and–in some cases–profits, according to Yasmin Green writing for The Daily Beast.

Unfortunately, Christians are neither immune from trolls nor free from becoming trolls themselves.

I became a victim of trolls — some of them people of faith — when I wrote my first article for an environmentalist blog several months ago.  I was reporting on various weather anomalies over the 2015 Christmas break and its publicity created a stir on social media.

I was called everything from snake-skinned scam artist to vulgar names that had to be deleted.  When the organization for which I wrote reminded people that the website is “Christian” and “family-friendly”, we were called more names.  No apologies were offered.

Trolls are so real that they can shape the tone and content of an online debate with detrimental effects.  For that reason, they cannot be ignored.  In fact, Christians should protest any speech whenever it is used in person or online and stand on the side of civility and moderation.

This is not political correctness.  This is living into the basic values to which Christians are called.  Nor is it censoring disagreements; trolling is more than disagreeing with something–it is attacking the person instead of the very thing for which the person stands.

Christians can protest internet trolling by engaging an online discussion with well-reasoned, thoughtful responses.  Although it may get lost in the midst of other comments, it will stand out to readers who also take such discussions seriously.

Christians can also protest trolls by not engaging in their rhetoric.  Most social media analysts agree that trolls want responses–and the more negative the response, the better.

Instead, Christians can abide by God’s word by not returning “evil with evil or insult with insult” (1 Peter 3:9).  In turning the other cheek, we can obey Christ, who implored those being harassed to rise above the abuse, lest the abuser become the oppressor (Matthew 5:39).

Lastly, Christians can protest trolls by not giving up on expressing their convictions with compassionate persistence.  The true goal of most trolls is to shut down or end a discussion of serious matters with which they disagree.  They try to be the loudest voices in the room and drown out the most significant voices that seek truth and clarity.  With kindness, we can heap coals upon their schemes and scheming (Prov. 25:22).

Christians have a part to play in the public sphere, online or otherwise.  We are, after all, commissioned to spread the Gospel, even if the world refuses to tolerate it or scorn it with the most vehemence it can muster.

“Thou shall not worry”

sleepless nightBy Joe LaGuardia

“Do not worry,” Jesus told his disciples in no uncertain terms (Matthew 6:25).  It’s one of the clearest admonishments in scripture, and it stands up there with the ten commandments as being, well, God’s Word for us today.

There are many times, however, that I have read that scripture and said, “It is easier said than done.”  I wonder why Jesus told us not to worry when the only thing most of us is really good at is worrying.

Upon reflection, I suppose that there are different types of worrying.

The first is to worry when you are anxious about something in the future.  Since the future has yet to happen and you are not sure whether your fears are founded or not, this worry can be a distraction and can keep you from seeing the blessings in life.

The best medicine for this type of worry is gratitude.  We need to be thankful for what we have, enjoy the moment, praise God for waking us up this morning, and give God any anxiety we may have about what the future may hold.

Jesus said it himself, “Do not worry for tomorrow will bring worries of its own” (Matthew 6:34); and Paul’s letter to the Philippians states, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything be thankful and make your petitions known to God” (4:6).

The second type of worry is chronic worry tied to anxiety disorders or depression.  This type of worry requires intervention and resources that help people move beyond the disorder or cope with it.

Sometimes, a person can go to a therapist for a few sessions and get things straightened out.  Other times, people need therapy or medication over the long haul.

I once knew a person who struggled with an anxiety order, and she concluded that if she only had more faith in God, then the anxiety would go away.

The only problem was (as I saw it) that she already was a person of great faith.

I was able to demonstrate to her how her faith inspired my own life and encouraged so many people around her.   We agreed together that the only way for her to move into a place of acceptance and coping was to get help.

God provides us with some good counselors for a reason, and its helpful to know that all of us deal with chronic anxiety every now and then.

There is a third type of worry with which I am familiar, and that’s the worry I think all of us feel no matter how close we are to the Lord.  This is the worry that accompanies responsibility.

Unlike the first type of worry, this anxiety does not stem from uncertainty or fear of the future.  Nor is it chronic anxiety that paralyzes life.  Instead, this type of worry is that on-going anxiety you feel when you are responsible for someone or something.

If you are a parent, you know what I mean!

There are certain worries that I have only experienced as a father, and these worries do not go away.  I worry for my children’s health, safety, their little God-given spirits, and very lives.

But I also find that this worry is not all bad.  In fact, something would be wrong with a parent who did not worry about his or her child.

It’s a healthy worry because it grows out of concern, compassion, grace, and empathy.  Who wants a parent who does not worry, or an employee who does not worry about meeting a budget or a deadline?

I think that, at the end of the day, we really use the word “worry” for many different things.  Since the second type of worry I mentioned is biological and can’t be avoided, and the third type is required for relationships in which people matter, Jesus may have said, “Do not worry,” to those of us who only struggle with the first type of worry–that of the future.

But no matter the type, not worrying is certainly easier said than done.

Learning how to care

Welcome_Hands_1Caring for others is a habit to be learned.

One of the hardest classes I took in seminary was not theology or philosophy.  It was not even Hebrew or Greek.  It was pastoral care.

The aim of pastoral care is to teach students how to listen, confront conflict, counsel and give referrals, and have empathy.  In short, the class is a crash-course in cultivating a “pastoral presence.”

You might assume that having a pastoral presence–the ability to reflect compassion and care in every situation–is something that God gives every pastor as a gift.  That assumption is wrong.  It is hard to learn empathy and compassion, and such lessons must be honed over time.

In fact, everyone needs to learn how to care for others.  It is not a trait that we perfect just because we are human.

A recent article in the Washington Post finds that caring for others, being compassionate, and having empathy are critical values and practices that adults must teach children and one another.

Unfortunately, teaching people how to care is not high on the priority list of things to do.  We take it for granted.

The article highlights Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, whose research shows that nearly 80% of youths said that their parents were more concerned about their achievements than about how they–the youths–cared for others.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” Weissbourd said.

Teaching people to care for others must be intentional and strategic.  It must also inspire sensitivity and curiosity about other cultures, faiths, and communities.

And if people have to learn how to care for others, then it stands to reason that churches need to learn the same.

Many years ago, Trinity had a meeting to discuss the direction of the church and its ministries.  In the middle of that meeting, a couple who had attended the church for less than a year spoke up:

“We have been here for some time now, but no one has invited us over for dinner or to an outing.  No one has taken the time to get to know us.”

The whole congregation was flabbergasted and left speechless.   It was embarrassing, but it challenged us to improve our care for each other.

The church made an intentional effort to learn how to welcome guests, build a community of care, and establish ministries that helped people connect with God, with one another, and with the larger community.

It was not easy.  We literally had to tell parishioners how to greet guests and what to say when they saw an unfamiliar face.

We also had to teach churchgoers that the chairs in the sanctuary were not theirs–they may be asked to sit in different places if a new family took up residency in their favorite spots.

Over time, the entire culture of Trinity changed.  I went from asking specific people to greet guests to simply watching people greet guests on their own initiative.

Effective follow-up also improved over time: when guests returned to church, people welcomed them back, not approached them as if it was their first time.

Caring for others had to be taught indeed.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the individual and the individual’s needs often trumps the needs of others.  Our policies reflect it, our rhetoric perpetuates it, and our economics thrive on it.

Yet, when we bow before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose care for others set an example for how we are to live, practice community, and enlarge our compassionate embrace, we find that caring for others takes precedence over our own needs, wishes, and wants.