St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.

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St Stephen’s Day and Our Need of Faith 2016

In  previous years I have written about St Stephen’s martyrdom in terms of forgiveness or zeal (e.g.  http://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/12/26/forgiveness-and-martyrdom/ and http://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/12/26/when-good-zeal-goes-bad-st-stephens-day-2015/ ) However, reading the account in Acts again this morning, I was struck by Stephen’s extraordinary faith — his complete surrender to the will of the Father which gave him such serenity in the face of persecution and death. Very few of us would claim to have such faith. I know I certainly couldn’t. But it set me thinking about the connection between faith and membership of the Church, between what we are as individuals and what we are as a group or community.

The media often gleefully inform us that Church membership is in decline while Church leaders devise endless strategies intended to boost numbers. Our recruitment drives are usually given a pious gloss, so we prefer to call them ‘evangelisation’, ‘missionary outreach’ or ‘vocation awareness’, but no one is really fooled. We want to see more people in the pews, don’t we, and a few more clergy and religious might be useful, too. Thus, a tiny increase in the numbers entering religious orders for women is greeted rapturously, though there seems to be less excitement about whether or not they stay and none at all about those who just go on from day to day, trying to be faithful to the commitment they have made. The Church plays the numbers game as well or badly as any.

I don’t wish to overlook or undervalue all the things that the Church gets right, as it were, but I would like to suggest that what we need is not more numbers but more faith, the kind of faith that gave St Stephen such power over his persecutors and enabled him to forgive even as he endured a painful death. Without such faith, what are we? We can talk about love as the primary theological virtue, but sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that love alone can define us without reference to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is not merely to be full of general goodwill to all; it is to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour — and that requires faith.

One of the uncomfortable aspects of Social Media today is the way in which it gives a voice to unfaith. I don’t mean by that people who don’t believe, I mean people who claim to believe but then act in ways that seem diametrically opposed to what they proclaim. For example, in the Catholic Church I am simply appalled by the outrageously rude and dismissive remarks of both clergy and people regarding anyone with whom they disagree, especially the pope, bishops or ‘progressive nuns’. The early Church had some vigorous disagreements and no one could argue that debate was always conducted in an impeccably charitable way, but few of us can equal the intellectual and moral stature of, say, a Hilary or Augustine — and there is a world of difference between genuinely seeking truth and just rubbishing others. Jeers and gibes are not the language of truth and love. They obscure the argument; they inflame tempers; and ultimately they weaken the very faith they wish to foster because they undermine the foundations of faith, which I’d say must always be belief in, and love of, the Lord Jesus Christ rather than a concern with the sins (real or imagined) of others.

So, where does that leave us on this St Stephen’s Day 2016, when we face so many political, economic and social problems and the Church herself seems more divided than at any time during the past half century or more? I think it leaves us where we should have been in the first place, alongside St Stephen and on our knees. It is quite difficult to be deliberately nasty when one has been praying. It is quite difficult to be wilfully perverse in one’s understanding or interpretation of another when one has been trying to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we can be rude or destructive at any time, whether we have been praying or not, it’s just a little more difficult. Maybe that’s something we could ask St Stephen to help us with: learning how to uphold what we believe to be true in a way that is worthy of the Truth we proclaim. In other words, with more faith and less invective.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail