A Facebook Experiment

Yesterday I conducted a small experiment on Facebook. I had been reading what various people had to say in response to the change in the Catechism’s stance on the death penalty and had become more and more interested in the underlying assumptions being made. So I asked my Facebook friends whether they automatically identified with law-abiding citizens when thinking about the death penalty, rather than what they thought about the death penalty itself or the change in the Catechism’s wording. People took my question seriously and answered frankly. I was particularly struck by the responses of those who had worked in the criminal justice system here in the U.K.. Inevitably, one or two wanted to address questions I wasn’t asking, but the majority simply stated what they thought and why, which I found very powerful. I hope those who responded also found it helpful because the answers threw light on why people react as they do to the idea of a death-penalty or changes in the Church’s view of it.

Most of my Facebook friends are thoughtful people and many are religious; so I ought not to have been surprised by the calm and generous way they responded to my question, but I was. The overwhelming impression I took from the discussion was of compassion and humility. We (I) have become so accustomed to thinking of Social Media and the internet generally as being disputatious and shallow that to see the good side was something of a revelation. People are kinder and less dogmatic than we often allow, but if we want to know what people really think about something we need to try to find a way of asking that does not predetermine the answer. If I got it right yesterday, it was by grace alone. It has certainly made me think about how I phrase questions in the future — and much more.



Recently I was a little taken aback to be told that I know nothing about Benedictine monasticism. It wasn’t put quite like that, of course, it never is; but I was left in no doubt that my interlocutor (not himself a monk) thought he knew better than I. He may be right; indeed, deep down, I think he is right, for I feel know less and less the longer I try to live this kind of life; but neither of us can claim absolute certainty. Yet isn’t that precisely what we all do much of the time? We haven’t time for qualifications and nuance so we make assumptions instead, even though it means we make assumptions that can be cruelly wrong at times. (Just think of all those people who dress differently from us and whom we avoid on the grounds that they ‘may’ be dangerous . . .)

I was thinking about this in connection with the Jesus portrayed in the gospels. The number of times someone gets him ‘wrong’, assumes that this inspiring teacher is a mere rabble-rouser, intent on destroying everything that first century Judaism held precious! We still get him ‘wrong’ today, wanting him to be the Jesus we would like him to be rather than the person he is. That is one reason prayer is so essential. Without that regular laying aside of our own ideas and opening ourselves up to the reality of God, we can become too complacent that we have got him ‘sorted’, confined his immensity in our own littleness.

Our assumptions about others, their motives especially, can be just as wide of the mark, as I indicated earlier. Perhaps a useful Lenten exercise would be to examine some of our assumptions about the people closest to us and the way in which those assumptions work for their good — or not.