It was difficult to be a Hoosier last week, particularly as one caught in the crossfire between Indiana’s narrow-minded lawmakers on the Right and the rage of the political Left. The battle cry “Boycott Indiana!” reverberated through social media channels even though many Hoosiers vehemently oppose the discriminatory new RFRA law. My very own neighborhood mourned one of the casualties of this battle: a major economic development that was canceled when the funders heard about RFRA.
It was amidst this firestorm that I read Gareth Higgins’ superb essay “A Newsfeed of Fear” (Sojourners, May 2015). Given my present frame of mind, Higgins didn’t have to twist my arm to convince me that fear was a prevalent factor in the version of reality that we are fed through media channels.
Higgins’ essay reminded me of the prophetic hope of the Israelite people that is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible: “None shall make them afraid.” If God’s people are indeed shaped by a perfect love that casts out fear, how then, I wondered, do we begin embodying an alternative to the newsfeed of fear in the way that we read, tell, and embody stories?
Higgins suggests that the answer to this question involves practicing the virtues of context, compassion, attention to detail, and pause. Space didn’t allow Higgins to elaborate on these virtues, so I would like to suggest my own interpretation and offer an additional fifth: gratitude.
1. Context: The most important factor in forming an alternative to media-driven fear is to be engaged with our neighbors in our local contexts, embodying a different kind of story — a story of hope and healing that emerges as we work toward the flourishing of our places. Ultimately, our lives embody the stories we believe. A different story is possible, but it begins with the everyday sorts of relations and economies that we share with the neighbors of our particular place.
2. Compassion: Formed from Latin roots meaning “suffering with,” compassion is at the heart of the way of Jesus. Does our reading (or writing) of stories lead us into the sufferings of others or does it merely steer us down the moral high road from which we can cast down curses on those who don’t agree with us? Getting riled up by posts on our newsfeeds is easy, but does it lead us into the costly way of discipleship that enters willingly into the struggles of those around us?
3. Detail: We’re no longer surprised about the rising inattentiveness of our technological age, but how does it make us susceptible to internet fear-mongering? For one thing, we are never critical enough of the stories that zip through our feeds. Instead of mindless scrolling, we need to cultivate — in face-to-face settings — the social arts that foster attentiveness to detail: listening, conversation, inquisitive minds, and healthy skepticism.
4. Pause: Since the earliest days of ancient Israel, Sabbath has been central to the identity of God’s people, and in the spirit of Sabbath, we need to learn to pause from our incessant media consumption. I’ve learned a great deal about technology Sabbath from the Sabbath Manifesto, a group driven by principles that include: “Connect with loved ones,” “Get outside,” and “Find silence.” Pausing, ceasing, and resting all contribute beneficially to our ability to be compassionate and attentive people.
5. Gratitude: Learning to focus on reading and telling stories that cultivate gratitude is also vital for our health and well-being — gratitude for the wonder of creation, for human fortitude and creativity, and for a well-crafted story. As John Pattison and I explain in our recent book Slow Church, gratitude leads us into a life of trust in God’s sovereign providence, in which fear is driven out. As grateful people, we are content and don’t have to be anxious about controlling the world; we are freed to slow down and be attentive, generous, and compassionate to those with whom God has surrounded us.
Our local churches are the communities in which we are learning how all five of these virtues intersect, where we work together with our sisters, brothers, and neighbors to craft a different kind of story. It’s there we learn compassion through bearing with one another through the tragedies of life, recover the skills of attentiveness through conversation, figure out how to be a Sabbath people, and practice gratitude through celebrating the Eucharist together.
The story into which we have been called is not necessarily the most buzzworthy, but it is beautiful and true, and it will ultimately heal our broken creation.
C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of the forthcoming book Reading for the Common Good: Toward the Flourishing of our Churches, Our Neighborhoods, and the World (IVP Books, Spring 2016).