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.

Advertisements

The Offensive Gospel

warbBy Joe LaGuardia

In a society where people seem so easily offended, there is no surprise that few call themselves Christians.  Christianity is an offensive faith, there is no way around it.

Unfortunately, for too many, it has become offensive for the wrong reasons.

Several weeks ago, controversy surrounding a seasonal red Starbuck’s cup flooded social media with tirades against the “removal” of Christmas from the public sphere.  Christians were ready to offend others and throw political correctness to the wind if there was so much as a threat to “take Christ out of Christmas.”

The Starbucks controversy, however, was no controversy at all.  Yet, the confusion revealed the power of Christian imagination and the swiftness to which Christians will play victim in an increasingly secular society.

The “red cup” controversy also revealed the great sensitivity that Christians feel towards notions of religious liberty.  We no longer fight legal battles over prayer in schools or the right for clergy to claim housing deductions on taxes, but over whether Christians should be forced to serve pizzas to same-sex couples or share church campuses with organizations that refuse to discriminate according to sexual orientation.

That this comes off as offensive rather than noble is not besides the point; it is the point.  It’s a “if we can’t beat them, we’ll offend them” type of campaign in the name of Christ that has become none other than a religious badge of honor.

Many Christians find biblical support for this attitude towards secular society in a handful of New Testament scriptures, all too often taken out of context.

It was St. Paul, after all, who claimed that we are not to please people but serve God, all the while claiming that persecution results from the offensive cross of Christ (Galatians 1:10; 5:11).  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches, he writes that the message of the Gospel and the cross is but “foolishness  to those who are perishing” (1:18).

Why would Christians not use the language of persecution and offense when describing these various interactions with a more inclusive, secular society?

A closer reading at the Bible, however, paints a very different picture when it comes to Christian persecution.   St. Paul did not have the world in mind when he wrote about the “offense of the cross,” but the very religious leadership who excluded people based on ethnic and ideological differences.

Later, when St. Paul carried this message into the gentile church, he argued that people did not have to become Jewish in order to believe in Christ and be saved.  Those offended by this radical message of liberation and inclusion were not pagans in Roman society, but Jewish Christians who placed doctrine and tradition over the people whom God had called them to bless.

This was a radical, offensive gospel precisely because it valued inclusion, avoided discrimination and hate-speech, and served all people regardless of their belief.

Paul was not a rogue in this mission.  He learned it from Jesus, who offended priests and Pharisees alike by eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, touching lepers and talking to women, and telling parables that shocked the imagination rather than affirmed the status quo.

Both Christ and Paul served outsiders and affirmed each person as a child of God.  Theirs was a mission to build up and embrace rather than demonize and exclude, and in every instance they regarded their lives as something to lose rather than something to defend, sustain, or bolster–even at the expense of welcoming strangers into their lives and sacred spaces.

In a world in which people of faith are beheaded and massacred by radical extremists, some of the things that concern us within our homeland should not qualify as persecution.  Instead, we should be so adamant in our love for others–rather than a swiftness to offend others–that the only people we turn away are the very ones who have no room in their hearts for people different than they.