The history of religious wars in human civilization is a tragic commentary on those who adhere to religious traditions. From the French Wars to the Crusades, much blood has been shed in the name of the Holy. The dissonance between movements to perpetuate Goodness and the actions which deliver Evil is proof of how much the religious communities often miss the mark. Where violence reigns, religious people are acting out of ideology, rather than following a God of benevolence.
There is a variant form of religion war taking place online. Seth Godin, a popular blogger, remarks on today’s marketing in the digital age as hailing back to the ancient ways humans organized themselves: tribes. He rightly notes the easy accessibility these days for ordinary citizens to congregate around shared values. His book, Tribes, inspires leaders to harness the power of tribes to affect great change. Yet it is precisely because we tie our identities so closely to our online tribes that when tribal conflicts break out on the internet, we are armed and ready to fight.
One only needs to read through comment sections to witness the carnage of online religious wars. Shielded by anonymity and distance afforded by the screen, religious people prove themselves capable of dishing out the harshest of vitriol. People are farewelled, heretics are hung on virtual stakes left and right, lines are irrevocably drawn by the most passionate of gatekeepers. When our favorite bloggers are criticized by a blogger of an opposing tribe, we throw down the gauntlet in the comment section — a slew of Scripture verses and apologetics takes calculated aim, and battle ensues. The war leaves people exhausted, either disillusioned by the lack of civil discourse, or bonded even more fiercely to their original cause.
Some people have sought to blame the digital age for the intense polarization along the spectrum of religions. But this blame is misplaced. Humans have dealt violently with each other from the moment the ancients began etching words on rocks and bronze. The medium through which we pass on ideas have evolved to the rapid fire instant messaging available to us today, but we have yet to bring about a revolution of sweeping peace. And this, I believe, is where the faithful can stand in the gap with their prophetic witness. If the Church has survived the brutal hypocrisy of the terrible religious wars of history, there is more than hope yet of instilling pockets of light within the darkness of online bigotry and hate.
Marhsall Mcluhan, the philosopher who coined the phrase “The medium is the message,” says this: “we become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” The internet is not our god, but merely a tool. To rise up with a prophetic witness, we have the option to beat swords into instruments of peace. The comment sections have as much potential to be a battleground as it does a place of liberation. Here are three ways religious communities can harness the power of our medium in response to the brewing religious wars.
1. Choke out Fundamentalism.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for fundamentalism to thrive in the digital era where dissenting voices are easily accessed, where every person, regardless of stature and influence are handed a microphone to speak up against oppressive ideologies.When the powerless are given a voice, religious institutions will struggle to coalesce into an oppressive structure; the shared power breathes fresh air into living structures, along with an willingness to change for the good of the people.
2. Foster Civil Dialogue.
The democratization of ideas afforded by the internet demands we learn the skill of civil dialogue. The pluralistic religious landscape online is such that one must contend for his or her convictions within the wider marketplace of ideas. Very few people are persuaded to change their gospel truth due to vitriolic verbal attacks, but hearts are moved when a person of faith put forth their convictions with kindness, thoughtfulness, and respect for the other. These kinds of comments don’t necessarily garner the most attention because they aren’t capital letter shouted, but tenderly put forth. The goal of the faithful isn’t to clamor for attention, but to walk in the right path. Religious leaders hold this sacred task of modeling and guiding us into civil dialogue.
According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, Americans are more polarized than ever politically. Despite this finding, the same survey reveals America continues to be highly religious, as “eight-in-ten say they never doubt the existence of God.”
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, the executive religion editor for The Huffington Post, writes about thestunning resurgence of Progressive Christianity, and he makes this argument:
“The rebirth of progressive Christianity may also be connected with the advent of the Internet that allows immediate access and connection between Christian activists and communities on issues such as pro-LGBT, anti-poverty, and torture.”
The internet is being used as a tool to do good in religious communities all over the world trending under the hashtag #ReligionDoingGood. For every nasty attack uttered online, somewhere there is a person of faith turning their cheek in an act of mercy. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The common good triumphs over bigotry. There is a religious war being waged online, but love will win. For the religious, this is Good News indeed.
Cindy Brandt blogs at cindywords.com and serves on the board of One Day's Wages, an organization fighting extreme global poverty. She studied Bible/Theology at Wheaton College and holds a Masters of Arts in Theology from Fuller Seminary.