A christian response to trolling, Part 3: What Jesus did and what we might do

I now arrive at the last part (the one I really wanted to write) of my mini-series. Please see the necessary parts 1 & 2 for some more background a bit more depth.

What Jesus did

Of course, Jesus was never subjected to trolling as we currently know it. But he did face something not dissimilar, in face-to-face encounters. You may think of more, but I wish to consider just two such instances. The first of these is the incident of the woman (but mysteriously, not the man) who was caught in adultery:

“The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” [A footnote in my bible says “Other ancient authorities add the sins of each of them”] (John 8:3-8, NRSV)

There is much that could be said about the passage and the wider context which I have chosen to omit for brevity I hope that will make this more focused and that you can forgive me for the gaps. The kind of approach adopted by the scribes and Pharisees matches very closely that of trolls as described in Part 1: they are courteous, precise, demanding and ask less out of genuine desire for learning but to entice Jesus into saying something regrettable. What I didn’t notice until I transcribed that passage above was the phrase “kept questioning” – i.e. they didn’t just ask once.

While I would love to know what Jesus wrote in the sand, I really don’t have a clue. I’ve heard & read various speculations, but I’m not sure that’s a wise thing to do. However you look at it, though, Jesus doesn’t seem to give one of the two answers the scribes and Pharisees were hoping for. If John’s account is to be taken as chronologically accurate (a big “if”) then we may conclude that this took place during the festival of booths alluded to in the preceding chapter. If he said, “stone her” then then to do so during a festival would have been outrageous and possibly caused a riot, not unlike that which occurred a few years later when Paul was there in Acts 21. On the other hand, if Jesus had said, “let her go,” then the scribes and Pharisees would have succeeded in trapping him into contradicting the law, for which he might well have been arrested.

His response, as we have it recorded, is a little like a politician’s dodging of the question. It may well frustrate some, myself included. If we (as many christians do) consider Jesus’ sideways response to be indicative of Solomon-esque wisdom, then maybe we don’t give our politicians enough credit. I don’t know, I’m starting to waffle.

For a much better and fuller exposition, including the textual criticisms over the passage’s origins, I’d recommend Kenneth Bailey’s essay in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, though he does indulge in some of the speculation which I was not in favour of.

The other incident to look at is Jesus’ interrogation before Pontius Pilate:

“Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave them no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matthew 27:11-14, NRSV)

Thankfully, Matthew isn’t as cryptic as John in letting us know what Jesus did and didn’t say. Of course, there are queries over how Matthew knew this, who was the eyewitness? But this is not the time to discuss such questions.

It is said that sometimes silence speaks louder than words. Though I’m not convinced Jesus intended it, I couldn’t help but think of 1 Kings 19, where the voice of God was not in an earthquake but in a silence (sometimes translated as “still, small voice” or “whisper”). By having the confidence to answer with silence, the question is allowed to linger and to echo back at those who ask the question. In so doing, the questioner is invited to attempt to answer the question themselves. A genuine enquirer may then posit their own answers, though a troll may continue to sneer, naysay or simply fail to think things through themselves.

In what he said, he may have lacked clarity, open to being misunderstood, but he seems to have said all that he wanted to. One episode of his ministry was ending, with the worst episode looming on the horizon.

Of course, one could point to a host of other examples to Jesus’ manner of answering questions.

What might we do?

I hope I have been reasonably clear in what I have written so far, so that you have been able to get an insight into my thinking on this from a few angles. I hope now to draw these together into some kind of coherent picture. If I could sum it up in one word, it would have to be discernment. If someone asks about my faith, then I have a responsibility to explain it as clearly and honestly as I can. However, one must have a careful think about the motivation underlying such a query. If it is genuine, open-minded inquiry, then I have no problem in engaging in productive dialogue whereby I might not only help someone else see things from my point of view, but also that I might be able to see the world through their eyes also, which may necessarily entail a shift in my worldview.

If, on the other hand, any such enquiry is motivated by the desire to waste my time or to try to trick you into saying something that might readily be misunderstood or regretted, then I may be more wary in my words. Sometimes, this may only be revealed only after an initial exchange. In such an instance, there is nothing wrong in choosing to not answer them, or at least in waiting some time before answering, giving time for the question to hang in the air.

Though hesitant, I am not averse to ‘shaking the dust off’ from some trolls. In modern parlance, this would equate to blocking a user if the platform you are using allows that. Of course, this cuts both ways and I would not advocate any christians taking part in any trolling or flaming activity. As I was reminded recently, we are ambassadors for God, and as such we bear an immense responsibility. I cannot see how verbally abusing others is edifying.

I can’t say I’ve abided by this guidance at all times. The balance between being clear and being gracious can be hard to get right. I pray for wisdom to improve this balance always. I conclude with these words from Ecclesiastes:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: …a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;”

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One response to “A christian response to trolling, Part 3: What Jesus did and what we might do

  1. BarabbasFreed

    Thanks for these. I would add that it also depends on what site you’re on. Is it yours, is a public one (eg. Guardian) or is it a hostile site (e.g. RD.net). Dealing with someone who comes on your site is different from being on Cif. I can only speak for this latter one.

    On Cif I see it as important to not give public ground to those hostile to Chrisitianity. To withdraw is to leave that public ground as a playground for the hostile. So I hang around but try to deal with the hostile and the troll (2 distinct but overlapping categories), with grace and leave a pointer to intelligent light. This is how I see your posts there too.