Category Archives: Christian response to trolling

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;”

Advertisements

A christian response to trolling, Part 2: What Jesus taught and what Paul did

Continuing my look at how a christian might respond to trolling. In part 1, I looked at a few general aspects of trolls and at Peter’s encouragement for people to be willing to share the reasons for their faith.

What Jesus taught

I do not pretend that Jesus gave specific teaching on dealing with internet trolls. I strongly doubt he ever even considered them while he was an itinerant preacher in 1st century Israel/Palestine. For that reason, this section is quite short. Do let me know if you think I’ve omitted any pertinent passages.

One possible passage to consider would be a part of the sermon on the mount, where Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them underfoot and turn and maul you.” (Matthew 7:6) I’ve often heard this snippet used with the interpretation that the “[holy pearls]” is a reference to the word of God. Its aim is therefore to dissuade christians from wasting their energies in evangelism on ‘lost causes.’ I used to be quite resistant to this idea, as there seems to be some ambiguity over what Jesus really meant by “holy”. Though I am coming round to this view, in particular in light of the “what Jesus did” section in part 3.

Further light may be shed on Jesus’ mindset when he sent out his disciples en masse to, “proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”” (Matthew 10:7) Initially the message was exclusively for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and to exclude specifically the Gentiles and the Samaritans. Within Jesus’ instructions, he says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” The phrase, ‘to shake the dust off’ has translated from its middle eastern origins into our western vernacular with much the same meaning; that is, to show contemptuous rejection for a location, refusing to have any further business there.

What Paul did

This idea has later echoes with Paul in the book of Acts. “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of the region. So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium.” (Acts 13:50,51) The region in question is Pisidia, the area in which the city of Antioch was located, where Paul and Barnabas spoke after an invitation to do so from the local officials. We find Paul shaking the dust again in chapter 18, though before coming to that, it’s worth pointing out that later in that chapter, he returns to Antioch and “spending some time there.” So I wonder how seriously he took his promise.

Back to Acts 18. “When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” Even after this, though, Paul goes off in a huff to the house next door to the synagogue. It’s not as if he’s left town, he’s just gone next door, not unlike a child with a temper tantrum. How long did he then stay there? 18 months. 

A phrase that sometimes comes up in christian circles is “hard-hearted” – it usually denotes someone who is stubborn or refuses to change their mind. More common these days is the phrase “close-minded” which I use to be an equivalent phrase, though some conservative friends of mine have a very different take on it with which I disagree profoundly. To them, the opposite, “open-minded” means to accept anything and everything you are told. My personal view is that it means you are open to accepting you may be wrong and are willing to listen to someone else’s point of view.

With that in mind, I think these passages are practical guidance not to waste time with time-wasters. Both Mark’s gospel and John’s Revelation include a phrase along the lines of “[he who has ears, let him hear]” – I think the world is populated both by people who are willing to listen and those who aren’t. Some may fix themselves in a particular mindset about something and will not be budged to reconsider the basis of what they think. Such people are often known as fundamentalists. Of course, I don’t deny that there are christians who fall into such a category; though I am yet to be persuaded that such a mindset is unique to those of a “religious” persuasion. I have also encountered this view in those of no religion, those involved in politics and those who debate the merits of Apple v Android.

In the last part of this mini-series, I’ll look at the example Jesus set and conclude with what I set out to write initially, a possible christian response to trolling.

A christian response to trolling, Part 1: Trolls and what Peter said

Around Christmas (I forget if it was just before or just after) I received a text message from a friend asking how to deal with trolls. This friend was fairly new to blogging and had just received a host of comments on their blog which they had either not anticipated at all, or at least not the passive aggression contained within them. I gave a rather pithy reply (due to constraints of time and message space), but here I hope to elaborate on that a bit more. In fact, this has been expanded so much, I’ve had to break it up into several parts.

I’m guessing most of you are more internet-savvy than I, so I don’t need to do too much explaining to you as to what trolling is. I only want to highlight some features of them, but I really want to focus on how a christian might respond to them.

Some background on trolls

Trolls are not always rude or impolite. In fact, most that I have come across are not and some even pride themselves on the fact. Their purpose is to antagonise or otherwise get a rise out of someone. To engage in abusive behaviour is sometimes known as flaming. A good troll will get their kicks without being identified as such.

Identifying a troll isn’t always clear cut. The most boring of them are very obvious. Commenters on the Guardian’s website may recall a particularly nasty troll called MoveAnyMountain (MAM) which posted hateful things about disabled people on a number of threads before eventually being banned. It may sometimes be easy to cast the term “troll” at someone you disagree with, but that doesn’t mean they actually are and to misidentify someone as a troll is generally considered poor form.

This was recently put quite succinctly by a message that was retweeted to my attention from @renireni who stated “Amount of big name twitterers who use the word ‘trolling’ to deflect accountability is astounding.”

In my experience of them, they are often concerned about either a single issue or at least a very narrow spectrum of issues. To use the MAM example above, they never expressed much interest in threads which didn’t include any aspect of disability rights. I have come across several atheist trolls in my time who seem only to have negative things to say about “religion.” I wonder if they have anything positive to say or have any other interests!

Another feature is that they often ask others to justify themselves, without giving much justification of their own views. In other words, they ask others to do a lot of the “work” for them. Goading others into wasting their time is seen by the troll as a victory for them. This is linked to another characteristic: a lack of real engagement. I have seen some who delude themselves into thinking that because they post and reply to others, that they are engaging. This is rarely more than simple hectoring, however, and I’ve seen good commenters being battered online by a barrage of naysayers who show no open-mindedness or willingness to discuss matters on anything other than their own terms.

What Peter taught

Moving away from general observations to more specific ones, I wish to talk about responding to trolls from a christian perspective. Foremost in my mind is Peter’s instruction to the dispersed churches when he writes “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” He carries on but I would encourage you to read the whole section in context.

I read this as both an encouragement and as a warning. For me, the ability to communicate an idea effectively shows that you have understood it. Even if someone disagrees with you, if they understand what you are saying, then at least any debate can be conducted with parties talking about the same thing. There are few more depressing debates than when two people use the same words to describe different concepts.

For this reason, I think it’s a fairly good idea to have close to hand an explanation, in your own words, the reasons for your faith. On this blog, one of the first posts I made was about a scientific approach to faith (not a methodology, but an approach that was as evidence-based as possible) and later I wrote a summary of Easter, which I see as being at the heart of my faith.

The warning comes with how we do this. If asked, I will direct people to read these, but I don’t arbitrarily send them to anyone I disagree with. Though I doubt I always succeed in explaining my faith “with gentleness and respect” I do try. Where I fail to do so, it is more often than not a reaction against those who show no gentleness or respect; i.e. “an eye for an eye”. I don’t claim that I, or any other christian, is perfect.

In the next part, I’ll look at what Jesus taught and what Paul did, before concluding in a third part later on.