August 6, 2018 Length: 23:02
Dn. Michael Hyatt is the chair of the Ancient Faith Ministries board and a Deacon at St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. Most people know him as one of the top leadership mentors in the country and the Founder and CEO of Michael Hyatt & Company, an online leadership development company dedicated to helping high achievers win at work and succeed at life. In this commentary (which is actually a sermon given at St. Ignatius), Dn. Michael assesses the impact of social media on people in general and Christians in particular.
Be looking for the return of his Ancient Faith Radio podcast At the Intersection of East and West in September!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: one God. Amen.
My name is Deacon Michael Hyatt. I’ve served as a deacon here at St. Ignatius now for 31 years, and there’s something that’s been bothering me for the past few years that I want to share with you this morning. It’s what I want to refer to as our growing culture of hate. I’m not talking this morning about the kinds of unacceptable behavior that exist on the fringes of our society, things like bigotry and prejudice and outright racism, but rather the general culture of intolerance and incivility that seems to have become a permanent part of our cultural landscape.
You might argue that this is nothing new. Twenty years ago, George James wrote an article in The New York Times entitled, “The Venerable History of Incivility.” He said, “Incivility in bipartisan politics and government in America is as old as the Republic,” and he’s right. But in recent years, something’s changed—don’t you sense it?—for the worse.
I first began to notice this in the 2008 election. Prior to that, political nastiness was confined to television ads and editorial pages and perhaps partisan books, but something happened in 2008 that democratized this incivility and made it a routine, never-ending part of our daily lives. I’m referring to social media. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not condemning personal media per se. I wrote an entire book on how to use social media to build a platform for getting your message out. Yet I think if we’re honest we have to admit that social media has created a climate that makes it difficult for us as Christians to escape the spirit of our age. It has become a sort of Matrix that threatens to poison our relationships and to destroy our witness.
On my recent sabbatical, I read a fascinating book by Jaron Lanier, who’s a brilliant Silicon Valley technologist, an insider, if you will, who is considered one of the fathers of virtual reality. He’s a researcher at Microsoft. The book is called The Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I read it twice. The title seems extreme, but I’d encourage you to read it. I promise you’ll never look at social media the same again. He opens chapter one with this paragraph:
Something entirely new is happening in the world. Just in the last five or ten years, nearly everyone started to carry a little device called a smart phone on their person all the time that’s suitable (now get this!) for algorithmic behavior modification. A lot of us are also using related devices called smart speakers in our kitchen or in our car dashboards. We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now.
He goes on to argue that social media is making us lonelier, sadder, and, yes, nastier. He cites lots of research to support his assertion. By the way, he’s not a conspiracy theorist. He’s not saying that Mark Zuckerberg and the executives at Facebook cooked up a plan to make the world worse. They didn’t. Instead, it’s the unintended consequence of their business model, the algorithm, if you will, that determines what posts you see and what posts you don’t see. He goes on to cite the work of Chamath Palihapitiya—much harder to say than it looks—former vice president of user growth at Facebook. Don’t miss that: former vice president of user growth at Facebook. At a public discussion at Stanford University, he said this:
The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created (and by “we,” he means Facebook) are destroying how society works.… No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem—this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem….
I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds—even though we feigned this whole line of, like, there probably aren’t any bad unintended consequences. I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of [our mind], we knew something bad could happen.
So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundation of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.
That’s an astonishing admission by a Facebook executive. But maybe you’re wondering: What does that have to do with us as Christians today? I’d suggest everything. You and I are swimming in this cultural soup. It’s incredibly powerful, enormously toxic, and it’s affecting how we relate to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and even our witness to those outside the Church.
For example, did you happen to see the president’s Tweet yesterday morning? I’m not trying to be political; I’m simply trying to give an illustration. I’ll be hard on both sides. He said, “LeBron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made LeBron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike.” Meaning, presumably, Michael Jordan. Honestly, who’s surprised by this? I’m not. This isn’t surprising. Again, I’m not trying to be political. Whether you voted for or against Trump, you have to admit that this is very much in line with his particular style of Tweeting. It’s just more of the same. What did surprise me was a Facebook post from a Christian friend of mine, who said, “This is what our racist pile-of-garbage president was Tweeting last night after we all went to bed.” Then he quoted the president.
Now, this wasn’t from a nominal Christian. No, it was from someone I know to be an outspoken, committed Christian, someone who has been public with his faith, someone whom I know to be a good husband, a good father, and a noted philanthropist. Yet, he too was caught up in dehumanizing the president in exactly the same way that he felt the president was dehumanizing LeBron. It was as if he had been hypnotized and completely unaware of what he was doing. Yet he had become the mirror image of the very person he was criticizing. That, my friends, is the danger of social media in an age of growing hate. If we aren’t careful, we become what we oppose.
Worse, his post was much like a match in a dry forest. Here’s some of the comments that he got on the post, many of the people, again, I know to be Christians. One person said, “Your comparison of Drumpf is insulting to garbage. He is toxic, treasonous, nuclear sludge.” Another said, “Deplorable really isn’t a strong enough word,” and another said, “He’s such a Dumpster fire of a human being.” Again, I’m not here to defend or condemn the right or the left. People from both parties engage in this kind of uncivil, polarizing, and shameful rhetoric. You may think the other side is worse than your side, but you would be guilty of confirmation bias. It’s bad on both sides.
But as Christians, we can’t simply allow ourselves to conform to this world and exchange Christ’s love for the world’s hate. St. Paul warns us in Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but”—what?—“to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” But, practically speaking, how do we do that, especially when we spend so much of our time, for many of us at least, on social media? I suppose we could just quit social media, or create alternative Christian ghettos so we wouldn’t have to expose ourselves to this kind of pollution. But Jesus didn’t call us to that. He called us to be in the world but not of the world.
So I’d like to suggest this morning three specific ways that we can be authentic Christians in a world of growing hate, so that we’re not caught up in all this rhetoric. The first way is to remember our citizenship. I used to think, growing up, it would be really cool to have dual citizenship. Maybe some of you thought that, too. Well, guess what? I do, and you do, too. All of us have dual citizenship. First and foremost, you and I are citizens of heaven. St. Paul said, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). St. John Chrysostom said this:
If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours. Of our city, the Builder and Maker is God. Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are withal but strangers and sojourners in it all. We are enrolled in heaven; our citizenship is there.
But we’re also citizens of this country, and that’s a good an honorable thing. I think we should be model citizens as Christians. But we dare not get the priority confused. Our first citizenship is permanent; the second is temporary. The first will last through eternity; the second will soon pass away.
Here’s how I think of my allegiances. First, I’m a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, first and foremost. Second, I’m a citizen of the United States. Third, I’m a member of a political party. There’s a priority here. My allegiance to Christ and his kingdom trumps all other allegiances. If I am more loyal to my party than my country, that’s treasonous. When Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11, we weren’t Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or Independents, no: we were all Americans. We set those labels aside, and we discovered our combined citizenship. Similarly, if I’m more loyal to my country than to God’s kingdom, that is idolatrous. Now, those words may seem harsh, but we have to be clear. Historically, bad things happen when Christians get these two things confused.
From an earthly perspective, we don’t have a dog in the hunt, as we say here in the South. We can in theory at least be a little bit more objective. We don’t have to defend stupid things that are said by our party’s leaders, nor do we have to attack and insult members of the other party or people who have a different opinion than ours. By the way, it’s fascinating to me that Christians in the first few centuries didn’t write political commentary. It’s notable by its absence. They didn’t criticize their rulers even though they lived under some of the most brutal dictators the world has ever known. I don’t think it was because they were afraid. Many of them, as you know, were martyred. No, I just think that they were busy doing other things, like loving their neighbors and sharing the Gospel with the world. And as a result, what? They turned the world upside-down (cf. Acts 17:6) and conquered the Roman Empire.
So the first way that we can be Christians in an age of growing hate is to remember, to really remember in the public places our citizenship.
The second way is to resist the world. We’re called upon to do that, and in many places in the Scripture we’re reminded not to be conformed to this world, but we have to understand what is happening so we’re not manipulated by it. We have to be, as our Lord commanded his disciples, wise as serpents but harmless as doves. So let’s get practical. Fox News and MSNBC are the two most-watched news channels in the country. On the surface, it seems like they could not be further apart, right? Those on the right think that MSNBC and perhaps CNN are propaganda machines for the left; those on the left think Fox News is a propaganda machine for the right. But I would suggest that they have more in common than you might think. While the rhetoric is different, the business model is the same.
Let me give you a little quiz to see if you know how the business model unites these two seemingly disparate networks. You get one point for each correct answer; score yourself. Question 1: How do these channels make their money? If you said, “Advertising,” give yourself a point; that’s the correct answer. Question 2: What exactly do these networks sell to their advertisers? If you said, “Your attention,” you would be right; give yourself a point. Both networks want to reach as many people as they can and keep them glued to their programming for as long as they can. That’s the game. Whoever does it best makes the most money. Question 3: What is their number one method for making sure you tune and find it impossible to tune out? If you said, “Fear,” give yourself a point; that’s the correct answer.
I recently read about a television reporter who was explaining how it works in the newsroom. He said each day begins with the production meeting between the show’s producer and the reporters. The producer would start the meeting by saying, “Okay, who’s got something scary?” Now, why would he do that? Because the scariest stories cause people to tune in and stay plugged in. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “If it bleeds, it leads”? That’s what they mean.
If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to read a book called Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling. In this book, he provides overwhelming evidence that things are not as dire as the news media wants you to believe. In fact, the world today is safer by any measurement, and he provides tons of data to prove it. But you’d never know that if you watch TV, right? Moreover, Rosling provides tools that you can use to discern what’s true, what’s false, what exaggerated, and how to discern truth from fiction. It’s very good.
The important thing to note, though, here, is that this business model is so pervasive. This truly is the scary part: that every advertiser-supported media business must resort to fear to survive. Just notice, for example, how even the weather is marketed to us based on fear. Then there’s social media. Lanier points out in his book that Facebook monitors every click, every like, every comment we make. It’s constantly feeding that data—your data, our data—into its algorithm, so it can in turn feed you the exact posts that will what? Keep you engaged. If you think Facebook is addictive, it is. It’s engineered that way. That’s why it’s no longer just cat videos and birthday parties that are appearing in your feed. They’re now feeding you stuff designed to provoke a reaction, to make you angry. Why? You guessed it: to keep you engaged. Remember, that’s the game.
So we can’t always trust what’s in our newsfeed. Most of what we’re seeing is either fake news or exaggerated news. By the way, both sides use this. Very little of what we see is what we used to call journalism. Rather than being mindlessly sucked into this business model, we have to become more intelligent media consumers, especially as Christians.
The first way we as citizens in a wave of growing hate can be authentic Christians is to remember our citizenship. The second way is to resist the world. The third way is to reflect our Savior.
It may sound cliché. We’ve said it for a couple of decades now, but we have to ask: What would Jesus do? before we speak or before we act. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to fall into the trap of returning evil for evil. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had online where people justify their bad behavior by pointing to their opponent’s worse behavior. I don’t know about you, but that didn’t work too well when I was a kid, and I don’t think it works too well when we’re adults either. It simply makes our culture more coarse, less tolerant, more uncivilized.
Think about it this way: How many of us ever changed an opinion because someone shouted at us, or attacked us personally, or unfriended or unfollowed us, or compared us to Hitler? Right. No one. Why people think that this an effective strategy is beyond me. It only serves to alienate us from one another and create more division, two attributes which are the hallmarks of the devil.
This is where we would do well to imitate our Lord. St. Peter said this:
Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that you should follow his steps, who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth, who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously.
Christ was an example based on this passage in 1 Peter 2 in three ways. First, he didn’t respond in kind. The word “revile” means to criticize in an abusive or angrily insulting manner. Christ didn’t do this. He didn’t threaten. Earlier this week, I had someone threaten to boycott my company because I happened to mention online that I was pleased with how well the economy was doing. Now, think of the logic here. He jumped from that to an assumption that I must be a Trump supporter because I found something good with what was happening, and he was indignant and he was offended.
Christ was an example in another way. He entrusted himself to God. We’re not going to be judged by our peers. We’re going to be judged by him who alone judges righteously. To summarize Jesus’ strategy, he shut his mouth. Frankly, it’s sometimes maddening to read the gospels and to see how Christ refused to defend himself, even when he was falsely accused, and yet we seem to be so thin-skinned, responding to every perceived insult, almost reflexively. We would do well to follow our Lord’s footsteps and be silent, or to follow St. James’ admonition to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.” As sons and daughters of God, Jesus says to us:
Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
If I’m honest this morning I have to say that I fear for our country’s future. This increasing nastiness, polarization, and hate is scary. Yet I also believe that we as the Church of Jesus Christ may be facing a rare opportunity. If instead of allowing ourselves to be poisoned by our culture, we remembered our citizenship, resisted the world, and reflected our Savior, what can happen? What if we assumed positive intent, gave one another the benefit of the doubt, and listened more than we talked? What if we loved our neighbors as ourselves? May God give us the grace to do just that. Amen.