By Elizabeth Prata
Our church had its first get-together, family supper last Sunday since the Covid era began. A congregant with a huge private yard and a lighted, open pole barn invited us for a picnic. It felt good to sit around and talk, the kids running free on the lawn.
I was chatting with my discipling elder and social media came up. He is on email but not much else in terms of the commonly used platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest. I mentioned that the state of discourse is deplorable, and how people act on it. I gave a few details, and he said that he isn’t that familiar. I said “It’s good that you aren’t”. He laughed, saying that’s what our teaching elder says, too, lol. Social media provides a wonderful platform for discourse, but it also provides a terrible public platform for anger, immorality, and all manner of other sins on display.
Some years ago, I was a reporter/editor of a local weekly newspaper. I wasn’t saved then. It was just prior. Our town was noted state-wide for being truculent and always embroiled in some controversy. I noticed that discourse was particularly awful. People who come to speak at School Board meetings or Town Council meetings usually do so when they’re angry. They get angry when some elected Board proposes something that impinges on their home or family, like higher taxes, or zoning restrictions on their property, and so on. When they arrive at meetings to speak, they’re loaded for bear.
It’s to be expected that emotions may run high, and to most citizens’ credit, many times they kept a lid on their feelings and presented their comments well. Sometimes they didn’t. But to the-then Town Council’s DIScredit, they often would not offer the same dignity in return. It got to the point that I wrote an editorial about it. It was titled Council Civility Lessons. Here it is:
1. When people come to a meeting and approach the microphone, be attentive. Look at them. Do not shuffle papers, pass notes, or whisper to each other.
2. Accept what they have to say with grace. Do not interrupt. Do not argue. Do not be so obviously ego-invested in your own outcome that you turn off the second they start speaking.
3. Thank them. Accept the comment for the gift that it is. These people have chosen to spend the evening with you, instead of their spouses, children, parents. Just listen and say thank you.
4. Don’t talk down to them. Just because you’re on a stage and in a physically higher-up position, doesn’t mean that you can patronize, condescend, or denigrate their intelligence. Saying things like, “Figures confuse people,” or “You are shooting from the hip,” or “Your comments are random and gratuitous,” is not a sure-fire way to endear yourself to those who elected you.
5. Remember that sometimes the microphones and cameras are not turned off immediately after you say, “Let’s adjourn.” Don’t ever say anything that you wouldn’t want broadcast to everyone in town. Assume that every mic is open and that every camera is on- and be on your best behavior.
I am a chronicler and an observer, so my objectively reporting on town government was fun and interesting. I observed how public speech affected whole communities, individual reputations, and group behavior. As the level of civil discourse went down, so did government productivity. The Council often became heated at the citizen comments which in turn incited their own internal Board arguments and misunderstandings. With more citizen comments, meetings became longer and longer, often with nothing accomplished.
People everywhere want to be treated with dignity and want to be heard, and they want a civil back and forth exchange of views. It’s a basic human desire. That editorial won the New England Press Association’s Best Editorial Writing award. I wondered why a dinky little paper like mine would be awarded such an honor. I decided it’s because it speaks to a universal need, from ‘kings’ to lowly ‘slaves’. No matter who you are or where you stand on the ladder, if we speak into the public square, we want to be heard, and we want to be treated well and affirmed in a kindly way too.
Shortly after, I was saved. I was 43. As Christians, how much more so should we speak civilly and charitably to each other and to and about Gentiles? The world sees what we do. Before I was saved I remember watching Christians like a hawk, looking for any excuse to discredit their religion so I could dismiss it to myself.
As pressures of the world grow higher, lately many Christians are seen to be increasingly uncharitable toward each other. And in public! This is sad. I’ve been the recipient of such uncharitableness recently. I’m really amazed at how mean people can be to each other, not just my situation but others. Whether a brother or sister says they’re voting for Donald Trump, or says they’re a Calvinist or believes the sign gifts have ceased or whatever, some responses from people who call themselves Christians are embarrassingly pagan.
This open contention amongst each other is one way in my opinion we are reflecting the world, and that’s never good. The Bible has many commands about our speech.
This verse has meaning for me: Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29). ‘Building up’ seems forgotten.
This verse: A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1-2a). The anger permeates, causes distraction. Non-productivity slows us from achieving our goals- one of which is to be salt and LIGHT to watching Gentiles. I modified my editorial “Council Civility Lessons” to “Christian Civility Lessons for Social Media”. I know I can improve in this area too so be assured I’m taking my own advice. My deepest desire is NOT to put any blot against my precious Savior’s name or damage my witness before pagan eyes.
1. When people come to a social media platform and write something, be kind by looking at the tweet or post with charitable intentions. Too many people read comments, posts, and tweets with purposefully negative intentions with desire to criticize rather than build up.
2. Accept what they post with grace. Do not be abrupt. Do not argue. Do not be so obviously ego-invested in your own outcome that you turn off the second they start posting.
3. Thank them. Accept the comment for the gift that it is. These people have chosen to spend virtual time with you. Just read and be gracious.
4. Don’t talk down to them. If you have a bigger platform of influence, are in a higher-up position, or more theologically mature, it doesn’t mean that you can patronize, condescend, or denigrate their intelligence. A Christian’s first response should be to gently correct, take someone aside, or kindly minister to them.
5. People’s greatest public fear is speaking in public. If a hesitant Christian sees how others are publicly treated for their comments or opinions, we present a stumbling block to them stepping into the public sphere to engage with others. We should present opportunities to grow, not squelch.
But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from a sincere faith. Some people have strayed from these things and have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. (1 Timothy 1:5-6).
I’ve learned having been through many controversies with the newspaper and after salvation via online activity, that if I go too far into a heated discussion I’ll damage my witness. (Proverbs 21:23). I was glad when Twitter invented the mute button.
If you want an example of gentle instruction from a pure heart of love follow Michelle Lesley on Twitter and Facebook. She exemplifies the first part of the verse above. So do the ladies at Women’s Hope podcast.
This is a link to a page listing most of the Bible’s verses on our speech. The Bible has a lot of instruction about our speech. A LOT. Why? I’d suspect Matthew 15:18 is a strong candidate for the foundational warnings of the tongue-
Do you not yet realize that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then is eliminated? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a man.
This verse presents a contrast. In the first part, what we eat is eliminated. We understand the contrast, that what we say isn’t eliminated. What we say, stays. It is certainly recorded by Jesus!
But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. Matthew 12:36.
Commentary on the Matthew 12:36 verse– “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment—They might say, “It was nothing: we meant no evil; we merely threw out a supposition, as one way of accounting for the miracle we witnessed; if it will not stand, let it go; why make so much of it, and bear down with such severity for it?” Jesus replies, “It was not nothing, and at the great day will not be treated as nothing: Words, as the index of the heart, however idle they may seem, will be taken account of, whether good or bad, in estimating character in the day of judgment.” ~Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary.
If someone faces Jesus and says, “But, but, but I have the gift of discernment!” it’s not likely He will give them (me) a pass.
Friends, let’s let our speech and behavior be as we are called, light, graciousness, gentleness, kindliness- all the good and wonderful things our Savior is.