The blessing and the curse of social media is that we have lots of information, many opinions, genuine insights from people on all points on any given spectrum – religious views, political parties, whether to vaccinate children, whether laws requiring seat belts, motorcycle helmets or the wearing of masks are attacks on civil liberties, for just a few examples. We have an abundance of facts and pundits. It’s not an absence of information that led the homegrown terrorists to take over the United States Capitol building.
The paradox of the social media, with its almost overwhelming amount of points of view and data from various sources, is that it seems to be causing a breakdown in conversation and discussion: I can pick and choose websites, Facebook pages, and news channels that already agree with me, confirming my opinions. This becomes a community of like-minded people who support each other, and those who don’t agree with us are obviously wrong, at least that’s what we tell each other.
Before social media became such a force in our culture, and before the convenience of the internet and our drive-thru society, we had to stand in line and hold polite conversation with neighbors we didn’t like and who we knew disagreed with us. To register for classes, I stood for over an hour, sometimes sitting on the stairs that led down to the Registrar’s window: in front of me and behind me were classmates I didn’t know well, but we could and did chat… about what a pain it was to stand in line, what if there were no places left in the class we needed for our major, when would the snow melt, sometimes about world events: we talked.
The same is true for standing in line at the bank, the Post Office, the DMV, waiting at a bus stop or for the subway, traveling by plane, train, or automobile… polite, well-mannered conversation was the grease that oiled the wheels that kept a community connected. While there are many blessings of our social connection online, I think social media has made us more anti-social. We don’t know how to have a conversation, we are better at announcing our opinions.
Trolling, sharing hateful or just plain mean comments anonymously, is a nasty phenomenon on the internet. YouTube and Twitter abound with personal attacks, delivered by pseudonym or username. Instead of inviting conversation, “Tell me more about why you think the chipmunk should be our national rodent?”, an opinion is met by personal attacks, “Your father is a chipmunk and your mother smells of elderberries!” (To paraphrase Monty Python). Then people retreat to their camp, and regroup and console each other with how terrible those other people are. It quickly gets personal.
And once it gets personal, it can quickly get violent as we saw yesterday in the terrorist attack on Capitol Hill. And yes, I am calling the attackers yesterday terrorists, not protesters: protesters take a knee during a football game, protesters march on the Capitol and chant, or give speeches. Violence may happen during a protest, but this was planned violence, this was breaking into a federal building, this was an organized attempt to disrupt our democracy. Violence spurred on by talking to each other and not believing what anyone else. Says.
There is a profound breakdown of trust in our land. The bond between police and the Black community is broken, shattered, and the disconnect between the handling of the Capitol Hill attack and the Black Lives Matter rally makes trust more difficult. We do not trust the news, unless it’s “our” news. If someone we like said it, we believe it; if someone we do not like says it, we do not believe it. Verifying facts is now a challenge if we don’t trust the source. We only believe “our” politicians. Science is now considered an opinion, we don’t even trust scientific facts.
With mistrust and distrust and broken trust being the default for our relationship with “others”vying with uncritical acceptance of those in our own group, it’s easy to see how a group could convince themselves that their behavior was perfectly justified. As fas as they were concerned, those at Capitol deserved to be attacked. They were doing the United States a favor.
So far so those who say of the attack, “This is not American.” Yes, it is. It is America broken apart by chronic mistrust, hindered by a lack of practice in how to have friendly casual conversation with those around us, spurred by a rhetoric of division and a politics of putting a party above the national good, where we define our tribe as people like us, rather than having all Americans included in our tribe. This terrorist act is a symptom of what is happening to the spiritual health of America.
Yesterday was the Christian holy day, Epiphany, when we commemorate the day the Magi arrived at the manger to worship Jesus after following the star. That’s when Jesus was revealed to those of all nations, beyond the shepherds and his family. Herod also claimed to want to worship Jesus, but his real intention was to destroy the threat this new baby posed to his power.His cruel intentions were also revealed. So as a person of faith I think it’s more than a coincidence that we saw so clearly how broken our system and society are on Epiphany.
I spent yesterday afternoon and evening, alternately scrounging for candy around the house, curling up in a flannel nest on my bed with Twitter, over-ordering cross stitch patterns, pacing the house and praying. How do we rebuild trust?
Broken trust is hard to mend. But I want to feel at ease in this country again, and I want Blacks, immigrants and refugees, and all People of Color and LGBTQ folks to know that feeling even if it’s for the first time, and Native Americans, Lord forgive us, to be acknowledged and celebrated as the First People of this nation. That’s what I want. Now how do I trust and treat those who do not want that? Anyone, anyone??
Today’s Prayer Poem: from the blog “Journey with Jesus” posted by Daniel Clendenin
Selected by Dan Clendenin. Posted 12 January 2020.
Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)
On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.
For over thirty years now, Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) has combined the best of critical scholarship with love for the local church in service to the kingdom of God. Now a professor emeritus of Old Testament studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, Brueggemann has authored over seventy books. Taken from his Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), p. 163.