The provoked and the provocateur

Imagine the simplicity of being tempted to judge others solely based on face-to-face encounters or face-to-face gossip! I’m being a little sarcastic because it’s always been tough to resist destructive attitudes and conversation. But it’s also true that we now have the ability to observe so many more people (and their words) casually, and to hear many anonymous reports of those we have never met. It would be one thing (trivial to me) if this dynamic only applied to celebrities and politicians, but it is also rife within the body of Christ. Our amazingly broad reach and immediate access make it possible to form opinions about the nature of a person’s life without ever hearing his voice or seeing his face. For me this is dangerous.

I watch a lot of newsmakers, news sites and reporters through social media—both in our large Baptist pond and our larger global one. As I said, political decisions in Cape Town and Sacramento are relatively small potatoes on my menu, but the opinions of SBC entity heads, professors, authors and pastors are of great interest to me professionally. It is necessary to read their posts in order to keep up with the news of the convention. The illusion is that I “know” these people from short posts, comments and wise cracks. It has made me unfollow some folks to avoid knee-jerk judgment.    

This has helped my attitude. The trick is to keep as many channels of information open as possible without getting angry or discouraged (and thus feeling guilty) because of the perceived attitude of prominent Baptists. A man has to know his limitations and guard his heart without being overly concerned about missing something. Some do “social media fasts” or unplug for a time each day or a day each week. If that works, I affirm the practice. Turning off your beeps and buzzers at some point well before bedtime seems as minimal as closing the blinds after dark. For an analyst, someone who’s always trying to put isolated data together to discern meaning or trends, it’s not enough; we can’t not know something just because we leave the thread. I struggle to forget my first impression of a stranger based on the most distant observation of him possible. So what to do?

Consider trimming your follows if you find yourself disappointed, discouraged or judgey after reading the words of near strangers. If some folks provoke you, but rarely to good works, lose them. It may be your fault and it may be theirs but remove the temptation.

Work for opportunities to meet or at least hear live some of the folks you deem important but find vexing. Second best to hearing someone live is listening to them speak on YouTube or reading something long form they have written.  

Repent. Maybe you are wrong to extend so little grace to a stranger. I have done this very thing with a couple of folks who still don’t know me from Adam.

As a content producer, consider how many consumers of your content—readers, hearers or buyers—you lose by popping off. I think this is easier for me (who didn’t regularly use a computer until I was 34) than it is for someone who was surrounded by virtual “friends” they’d never met since puberty. But still, I have a hard time wanting to read some writers or benefit from the ministries of some leaders because of too-clever throwaway lines on Twitter. If I’m the only one, you’ve only crashed one potential relationship by a self-indulgent aside. Maybe I’m not, though. It may be easier for a non “digital native” to avoid virtual throw downs but some things are harder for every generation compared to another. It’s no excuse.

If I judge too quickly, it’s my responsibility to repent of that. If I am unkind to you in thought or deed after you knowingly insult my political convictions or generation or theological tribe, I’m wrong. Reverse the roles and I’d be wrong to insult you in these ways regardless of what you do wrong in response. We should both be under conviction about this exchange, or we should decide to not discuss politics since we can’t play nice. Whether it’s politics, theologically secondary issues or implacably different perspectives, grace goes both ways if we are to even bother with the conversation. Virtual conversations can include thousands we didn’t intend to address. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind all those who are watching. 

What passes today for a conversation can be hobbled by the media we use. But that limit should inform us rather than absolve us, whether we are the easily provoked or the gleefully provocative.   

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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