Condemning and Condoning

Have you noticed how often there is a call to condemn something or other — the actions of an individual or an institution, or some historical event or behaviour that we now regard as wrong? Any failure to condemn is regarded as tantamount to condoning whatever is to be reprobated. That often leads to some very awkward apologies that appear intended merely to placate those with a sense of grievance rather than put right any real wrong.

For instance, if one is white British, one is sometimes asked to condemn and apologize for Britain’s part in the Black Slave trade. I can’t imagine that anyone approves of it or would want to try to justify it nowadays, but can one realistically be held to account for a wrong occurring in the past with which one may have no direct connection? Given many families’ lowly social and economic status during the years in question, it is difficult to say how many were actively involved. If one accepts that, simply because one is British, one shares in some sort of collective guilt for the suffering the trade inflicted, can one also claim credit for the work of the abolitionists? It’s difficult, isn’t it? Failure to speak out on the matter is regarded by some as evidence of complicity and has led to some ugly confrontations. I am sure you can think of other examples, but I use this because it will be familiar to many and concerns a genuine injustice and evil.

The advent of social media and the ease with which opinion can be expressed and shared has tended to make the urge to condemn much more prevalent. Look at Twitter, for example, and you will see rant after rant, accusation after accusation, often coming from those with more anger than information. The speed with which the Covington Boys were condemned online was astonishing. Even their home diocese did not wait to examine the facts of the case more carefully. The result has been unhappy all round. Today’s subject for condemnation will doubtless be different, because the world moves on, and the wreckage left behind by reckless accusations is of no consequence to those fuelled by a (misplaced) sense of righteous purpose.

Thus far, most of you will probably be in general agreement, but here’s the rub. Christians are just as bad at condemning others as anyone else. True, we may not use the profanity-littered language of the angry tweeter nor make the rash accusations of the furious Facebook-er, but we jump to conclusions just as readily and answer back equally curtly. We may not demand apologies as such, but we can make it plain we expect submission to our views rather than respectful debate. I have often argued that if we pray before we go online, we can avoid many of these things. We are not called to solve all the world’s problems, only those we can actually do something about. Raving and ranting about injustice achieves very little; working to put right what we see to be wrong is less dramatic and much harder, but it is also much more in line with the gospel’s teaching. Today, if you are tempted to say something harsh or make an accusation based on hearsay, please think twice. One day we shall answer for every word we have spoken. Every word.

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What’s the Point of It All?

Almost by accident (I use Google Alerts), I found myself mentioned in a recent Church Times article about the use of Social Media, mainly by Anglican clergy and academics. Along with the Church Mouse, Digitalnun seemed to be consigned to a list of ‘old has beens’ which made me smile. It reminded me of Wired back in the early 2000s prophesying the end of blogging. What I think the article and several of a similar nature have made clear, however, is that attitudes are changing. We are more aware of the limitations and pitfalls of any kind of internet engagement, and without a coherent idea of why we are here and what we hope to achieve (if anything), it is all ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’ — especially in Social Media.

As a community we would say we know why we engage with people via the internet but we are also conscious that what we have done in the past may no longer be relevant. For the last few years we have concentrated on blogging and Social Media interaction, mainly because our Broadband is unreliable and we are not very good at visual images and videos. I still think there is value in such interaction, but the chances of having a good discussion on Twitter or Facebook, the two platforms beloved of the older user, are probably fewer than in the past because we are all tending to react rather than reflect; and trolls rear their ugly heads in some surprising quarters.

Overhauling our websites recently (publication still a little way off because of the complications of Cor Orans), I came to the conclusion that we need to revisit some of the things that we adopted early on but then gave up. For example, we more or less ceased podcasting when D. Teresa died in 2010, but podcasting is now growing exponentially and we are thinking about resuming on a regular basis. It is definitely a favourite with the under 35s and sits well with our interest in serving the needs of the blind and visually impaired. There is a catch, however: the traffic trundling past on the A465. Can we find a quiet place to record? The ear is a delicate instrument and picks up all kinds of sounds. We do not want to inflict aural agony on the listener, so we need to think about it.

The big question, of course, is whether this activity is really doing what we hope it is doing. We have always seen it as an expression of our monastic hospitality. It begins in prayer and leads back to prayer, and we hope that en route, as it were, it brings the reader/tweeter/friend into contact with the living God, even if he/she would not necessarily think of it in those terms. There are many people who have no contact with a monastery, or whose contact is at the most superficial level. By bringing the monastery into cyberspace, we hope that we can deepen that monastic experience and make it more available to others. That is where you come in.

What we would like to ask you is what you would like to gain from our websites and interaction on Social Media. Please don’t ask for lots of photos of nuns in olde-worlde habits or the live-streaming of the Divine Office. We are a small community and there are others who can supply such ‘needs’ more easily than we can. What we are asking you to do, I suppose, is to think about why you bother to read this blog, visit our websites, or interact with us on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus or LinkedIn. You can help us plan for the future, and we would be immensely grateful.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Polemics and the Art of Being Christian Online

St Athanasius, whose feast we celebrate today, is one of my heroes. I love his reverence for the Incarnation, his pastoral concern, his interest in monasticism, the fact that the ancient Churches of both East and West regard him as a great saint. I even love even his rather fiery temper, though I do not think I would have liked to have been on the receiving end of some of his tongue-lashings.

Today there are many who seem to think they are heir to Athanasius in their zeal for purity of doctrine and observance but who quite often overlook two important points. First, Athanasius was a learned man and spoke and wrote from a deep store of theological knowledge and understanding. Second, he was a saint and consciously strove to put into practise the teachings of Christ. I have never been attracted to polemics myself but if I were, I think those two points would give me pause. It is very easy to assume we are right, that we have the answers others are searching for, but it is just possible we are mistaken, that we don’t know enough, or don’t understand as well as we think we do. As to leading holy lives, filled with faith, hope and charity, would it not be presumptuous to claim that?

One of the problems with the blogospshere at the moment, and perhaps even more the corner of Twitter that I inhabit, is that there is too much shrieking going on. Too many people are attacking others without really examining whether they are right to do so. We may want to see ourselves as champions of truth, but very often that desire is all about us and not about truth at all. I’m particularly saddened when I see Catholics attacking one another in virulent terms over supposed lapses in orthodox belief and practice.* Not so long ago I was myself attacked, in no uncertain terms, by someone regarded by many (though not, I have to confess, by me) as a champion of orthodoxy. Even though I did my best to point out where and how the misconception could have arisen, there was no apology, only another sneer. It left an unpleasant taste in my mouth and reminded me forcibly of something we need to remember every time we go online. We will never argue anyone into belief in God; we can only try to show something of God’s holiness and love and pray that he will draw others to himself. That doesn’t mean that we allow errors to go uncorrected or fail to stand up for what we believe; it does mean that we don’t mistake love of a fight for love of the truth. Putting someone down isn’t the best way of raising them up, is it?

Truth matters; and it is precisely because truth matters that I think we should be reverent and charitable in our attempts to defend and spread the truth we have been privileged to know, especially online where it is more difficult to convey nuance or relax tension. That is part of the art of being a Christian online. It is also, unless I’m very much mistaken, part of the secret of successful polemics, too.

*We all have a duty to try to put right whatever may be wrong, but the way in which we do that is important. It is particularly important that we make sure of our facts otherwise we may be guilty of grave injustice.

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Twitter Arguments

From time to time, someone on Twitter will decide to take another person to task about an opinion they hold, or are thought to hold (not at all the same thing), or will tag their name onto a tweet in the hope of getting their views into the other’s data stream and thereby reaching all their followers. It happens to me occasionally. Sometimes I’m not online to notice; sometimes I’ll engage in friendly discussion or disagreement. Sometimes, however, things take an uglier turn and I prefer to dissociate myself entirely from the other’s agenda by blocking them. Inevitably, that leads to howls of rage from the blocked, but, really, why should one meekly accept insults and accusations, usually expressed in screaming capitals, when one has not initiated the argument oneself and has no desire to press any particular point?

In the past few days, I’ve had two ‘interesting’ experiences of a Twitter argument into which others tried to draw me. My overwhelming feeling in each case was ‘this is a waste of time, no one is listening to anyone else, and hurling insults around makes it unlikely that anyone is going to want to listen to anyone else’. I preferred to withdraw (and was, of course, attacked for doing so) but I think if one genuinely believes in freedom of speech, one must allow others the right to silence. That is often forgotten on Twitter, where individuals sometimes assume the right to compel others to respond. It is, in effect, another form of bullying.

However, I accept that many people do want to use Twitter for arguing but don’t want to be bullies, so here are my five little tips for Twitter arguments. Before you begin, ask yourself

1. Is Twitter the best place to argue your  case?

2. Can you make a valid statement in 140 characters?

3. Can you argue your case without attacking/accusing/insulting another? (Courtesy does matter; so does checking one’s facts and getting them right.)

4. Are you prepared to admit you are wrong?

5. Will you recognize that not everyone is as happy to argue as you are yourself?

I have to admit that my tips come more as a plea to the disputacious than the fruits of experience as I’ve never initiated an argument on Twitter and don’t think I’ve ever ‘won’ any in which I may have engaged. Twitter arguments often generate more heat than light, and people and reputations are sometimes badly harmed in the process. The most important advice I would give to anyone wanting to argue on Twitter, therefore, would be Mr Punch’s advice to those about to marry — don’t. Or, if you cannot manage that, at least think before you tweet.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Speaking the Good Word on Twitter

‘A good word is above the best gift’ (Sirach 18.17) and ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). Those two sentences are culled at random from the scripture I store in my head, and for me they pinpoint why a Twitter silence is likely to prove an inadequate response to the evil of trolling and abuse. Silence will not, of itself, change a culture of abuse — and that is what we have: not merely individuals who abuse, but a culture which tolerates such abuse. Indeed, a Twitter silence such as some are advocating may allow it to flourish all the more. Instead of walking away from Twitter and other forms of Social Media, I think we should engage with them for good. We must show how use of the good word, positive speech and engagement, is much more beneficial, in all senses of that word, than bad or angry/abusive words.

It is a challenge we can all take up, but as we do so, perhaps we need to examine our own conduct. We may not be trolls, but we may be a little too free in our negative comments about others, a little too inclined to assume that we are right and everyone else wrong, keener to lecture than to listen. The good word is born of a listening silence. Let’s not forget that.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Religion and the Internet

This coming Sunday, BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme will be devoted to the subject of religion and the internet. Bishop Alan Wilson, Vicky Beeching and I will be grilled by presenter William Crawley on a number of topics. The programme outline has already sent my head into a spin, it is so searching and extensive, but I’m wondering whether we shall address one topic that has surfaced twice in the past few days: sacrilege. It’s an old-fashioned word, expressing an old-fashioned concept, clearly meaningless to many in the west, yet to many in the east far from meaningless. It is, in fact, a driver of action: something that calls for immediate and severe response.

My last post was on the act that led to the Pussy Riot trial in Russia. Note the words: the act that led to. The trial itself led to an explosion of comment in the media. Twitter and Facebook were awash with opinion, much of it condemning the sentence on the grounds that the band’s protest was aimed at President Putin. Yesterday the BBC published a report that a Pakistani girl had been charged under the country’s blasphemy laws for desecrating the Koran. There was some comment in the media, especially when it emerged that the girl was allegedly only 11 and suffering from Down’s syndrome, but nothing to equal the response to the Pussy Riot trial. My Twitterstream was virtually silent on the subject.

Someone carrying pages of the Koran in a bin bag or burning them is committing an act of desecration according to Pakistani law, and although I assume that most of us are outraged at the thought of a child being arrested for such an offence, we mainly seem to accept that that is ‘how it is’ in Pakistan. Judging by our response on the internet and in social media, it is much less troubling than the trial of a Russian punk band. There may be many factors at work here, not least the uncertain nature of the information coming from Pakistan (though I have to say, Twitter never seems to be too much concerned whether a rumour is true or not), but it has reminded me of something it is easy to forget: there is a morality involved in our use of the internet and social media.

The internet is a powerful shaper of opinion. In the past, blogging was a prime way of disseminating opinion and allowed a writer to nuance statements in a thoughtful way and invite similarly thoughtful responses on difficult and complex subjects. Today, I think microblogging is more important. We seem to like short, snappy answers to short, snappy questions — and that is where the danger lies. Not every subject is susceptible of brief treatment. Twitter, in particular, enables an opinion to gain momentum very quickly, but it is rarely possible to advance a detailed argument. It’s for soundbites rather than syllogisms, perfect for jokes and links. When we address serious topics, however, we have to think how we are to tweet responsibly. It is easy to tweet and retweet without thinking. Even silence, our not tweeting, can be significant. Think before you tweet? A good idea. Even better, if it is a good work you are about, pray. Odd though it may seem to some, I think of the internet as a sacred space where what we do and the way in which we do it matters. There is a closer relationship between religion and the internet than may at first appear.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Twitter and the Joy of Contradiction

There are times when I think the only reason some people use Twitter is the joy they find in contradicting others. The glee with which they seize on a statement they dislike or don’t agree with, and the aggressive way in which they set about putting the tweeter right surprises me. I have myself had to say on occasion that it was impossible to nuance an argument within the 140 character limit. Otherwise, I feared the ‘conversation’ would go on and on, rather like the Tennysonian brook. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen often, but it is worth thinking about when it does.

Why do people derive so much pleasure from attempting to prove others wrong? Why do we always want to be in the right? I suspect a moral theologian or psychiatrist might give a different answer, but doesn’t being in the right confer a kind of security on us? If we’re right, we’re right, and somehow unassailable. St Benedict never directly addressed this topic, but I think his teaching on humility, the importance he attached to confession of error or wrongdoing (note, we are not talking sacramental confession here but the regular monastic practice of confession of faults at chapter or in private to the superior), and the strict limits he imposed on fraternal correction provide some clues. He recognized that quite often we aren’t right, though we think we are; and our conduct should reflect the lack of certainty. Courtesy and mildness of manner are not signs of weakness but of the importance we attach to truth, even in small things, and the reverence we show one another as persons created in the image and likeness of God.

But what if we are definitely right, and the other person isn’t, what do we do then? I think I would say that it is not enough merely to be right; we must be right in the right way. That is trickier because we have to balance some apparently equal and opposite concerns. We must uphold the truth, but never in such a way that we fail to acknowledge the dignity of the person with whom we are speaking. Whether we’re talking about Twitter , Facebook, or wherever we engage in online argument, it is a case, once more, of bringing our online and offline persona into harmony: being the same person, acting according to the same standards.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Good Advice

Have you noticed how often Twitter users give each other good advice? Quotations from the Bible jostle for place with pithy aperçus de nos jours, most of them worth thinking about and all of them producing, in me at least, a vague sense of failure. There are times when I want to shriek, ‘Enough!’ It is not that I don’t know what to do (usually), but the fact that I am clumsy/got out of bed on the wrong side today/am counting pennies/just plain cantankerous that makes it impossible for me to follow all that counsel so freely given. Perhaps we could declare a holiday from good advice, just for today, and only tweet what we ourselves would like to receive. It won’t change the world, but it might change us. It might make us gentler, kinder, more thoughtful people, quicker to listen than to speak. It might.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail