Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.
I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.
Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.
In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…
“While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” ~Matthew 9:10-11
This past fall, in the final ramp up to the election, I saw an increasingly common message in my social media feeds. Each individual message varied slightly, but more or less the message would read:
“I care very deeply about X, and it seems to me obvious that all ethically minded people believe X. Therefore, if you don’t believe X, you are a villain and I don’t want to associate with you. You have no place at my table. Reveal yourself so I can unfriend you and waste no more time on our relationship.”
The first time I saw it, I thought nothing of it. “Ok, interesting … a little dramatic.” But then I saw it again. And again. Then I saw you could download a tool to automatically remove any Trump supporters from your friends list. Then I saw a tool to do the same for Clinton supporters. And then I started hearing people “unfriending” people in the real, flesh and blood world. People would say to me, “I just couldn’t believe my friend/cousin/brother-in-law supports Trump/Clinton … I’ll never speak to him again. I don’t want toxic people like that in my life.”
I understand the impulse. I am a person of strong, fiercely held beliefs. I believe in an objective moral order. I frequently clash, and strongly, with those who disagree with what I believe are tenets of the moral law. How liberating it would be to end those conflicts by painting my foes as irredeemable villains and dismissing them from my presence: “Be gone, fiend!” And then I could turn to myself in my own satisfaction and pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this foolish person who I have so rightly chastised.”
And yet, it seems such a sentiment is very far from the mind of Christ. Indeed, he told us such prayers will never make us justified. To unfriend someone–to cut someone out of our circle of relationship because they have failed us in thought, word, or deed–suffers from some serious misapprehensions.
First, it misunderstands conversion. Maybe your foe is really wrong about something: truly, grievously wrong. Do you think casting anger and resentment at them will make them see the error of their ways? Do you hope to convert them with disdain and hatred? Maybe the truth is that you just want to punish them, to get revenge on them for their small-mindedness … and it should go without saying that desire for revenge has no place in a heart that sincerely invites Christ to dwell within it.
Second, it misunderstands friendship. Friendship is not an endorsement of all the thoughts, feelings and political stances of your friends. If anyone who is my friend sees our relationship as an endorsement of my inherent sanctity or of the moral purity of my beliefs, you should unfriend me now because I will disappoint you. I am a sinner, and a struggling pilgrim on the way home–I will say and do many more stupid, sinful things before I reach my destination. But friendship is not based on us being judge, parent, or schoolmaster to our friends. Friendship is based on love and, at the end of the day, all love is unearned. It is a free gift, given in spite of the recipient’s weaknesses–otherwise, it is not love at all.
And finally, since so many of these “unfriend requests” come as the result of a political disagreement, it is worth noting that this action also misunderstands the way Christians are to be political. The Church is political. We believe in Incarnation, and that means our beliefs will take shape in this world. The Church has a responsibility to engage actively in the struggle for peace and justice. But the Church’s first and foremost responsibility is to be the Church, which means that it has to look like Jesus. Jesus’ priorities shape not only our political agendas, but how we are to pursue them. To quote John Howard Yoder (and Charles E. Moore’s recent reflection on him in Plough), we cannot “wield power and wealth ‘as instruments of coercion and pressure, obliging an adversary to yield unconvinced,’” but must instead “show what life is like when God is on the throne.” If we are forbidden to wield power and wealth coercively, how much less ought we use love and friendship in such a manner? Jesus would not have done so, and thus, neither should we.
Christ ate with sinners and, in fact, specifically sought them out. He told us to never judge our brothers and sisters while we still have logs in our own eyes, and to never throw stones while we ourselves stand sinful before him. He commanded us to love our enemies: modeled this for us, loving us unto death while we were still his enemies. Love, mercy, and friendship – even to those who don’t seem to deserve it. That is the Gospel. Even on Facebook, even in an election year.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
Over the past five years, I have gradually become attached to a laptop. A couple of months ago, I reluctantly got a smart phone. Of course I know I am not all-that-strange for these personal facts, but as one who prefers to be more centered on my spiritual life and my relationship with God than on things, I actually feel ashamed to admit that I spend most of my time interacting with machines.
Of course, the technology can aid me in my connecting to God and neighbor, right? It’s a tool I get to control how I want, right? It doesn’t control me, does it?
Well, a quick assessment of my day reveals that I do, in fact, use technology to connect with God and serve others. I use the Daily Catholic and CRS Rice Bowl apps for prayer. I frequently listen to hymns and read Scripture reflections online. And, I certainly use technology for acts of service and activism and help moderate a Facebook group called The Vocation Discerners (which I founded years ago.) I certainly stay in touch with my dearest friends and family through email, Twitter, Facebook, texting, and even Instagram. Of course my ministry as a writer here and elsewhere requires technology too. These are not bad things!
Still, I am not proud of how much of my life is consumed by technology usage. In this season of Lent, a season that invites consciousness and conversion, I’m trying to honor my cravings for less screen time and more soul-centered time. This focus is causing a clearer portrait of the roots of my struggle to come into view.
A writer I greatly admire, Sara Zarr, recently wrote a reflection of her Internet history of the past twenty years. In the piece, she shares how she began this Lent with the intention of tracking (and possibly changing) her Internet habits. She acknowledges how using it has its pros and cons, and much of her patterns of usage are ultimately rooted in the core human need to connect, to relate. As for her Lenten intentions and possibly changing those patterns, she states “it turned out Lent … happened to be a time where I got to see and experience and lots of reminders of why I wanted to change it in the first place.”
I really appreciate Sara’s honesty about her tendency to use the Internet compulsively. She said it, but I’ve experienced it too: “It is the easiest, fastest way to relieve a moment of loneliness, to procrastinate, to fill a void, to get an ego hit, a dopamine rush, approval…I mean, we all know how that works. It’s hard to turn off and look away.” Whoa, doesn’t she just name exactly what continues to drive us all online? Certainly, much of the shame and guilt I feel about my own technology usage is due to the things that drive me into it—not because of the fact that I am using technology itself.
Spirit is involved in all of this. God is with us in our loneliness, in our habits of avoidance, in our needs for approval and connection. Spirit invites us into holiness and health, not disappointment or frustration. If we let the tools of technology lead us to the right places of prayer and communion, we can meet God, deepen our relationships, and serve others. But, if our human weakness and its sinful nature gets the best of us, we can lose control and technology can become self-serving or even an addiction.
Much of what’s at work is our living in a bit of gap. There’s a gap between our preferred behaviors and our actual behaviors. We can find God in this gap and discover ways to serve others, live in community, to share and participate. That’s what living the Gospel is all about.
It’s part of the reason why the Time article about the “sharing economy” fascinates me so much. I couldn’t help but to think about Jesus’ mission when I read about how many people are giving of their time and resources in order to connect with their neighbors or complete strangers (and yes, at times, to earn a bit of money) by sharing their car, their stuff and their meals. Our Gospel living is about connecting, relating and serving. It’s about communion and building community. It’s about willing the good of the other. If technology helps us with that, then it indeed can be a tool used for God’s purposes.
As we ponder the signs of this time, such as what is occurring in ecology, I believe that technology usage demands our attention. On this topic Ilia Delio writes, “…We humans are becoming something new with technology. Technology is evoking new patterns of relatedness which now include an artificial device. Hence, we need an operative definition of IT as ‘intentional technology.'”
As it turns out I need not be ashamed about my technology habits, as I’m united with many in my dilemmas. Instead, I can heed the invitation of this Lenten season and let my increased consciousness influence my choices. By the grace of God, I can change and become more intentional in my use of technology. With more intentionality I shall gain more freedom. By the grace of God, we all will.
I watched The Social Network last night, mainly because I was curious. Similarly, I joined Facebook five years ago, shortly after it started and around the same time that I entered my community, because I was curious. Curiosity is usually what causes me to conform, even if I have mixed feelings or I am not really sure how an action may fit with my Christian living.
The story of the creation of Facebook is very real: it’s friendships, energy, ideas and passions spiraling around young, talented people in a legalistic, money-driven era. The true story felt like a visual time-capsule to me, like something that historians and psychologists will be able to study in 50 years when they are trying to make sense of why humans relate as we will then.
The film reminded me that it’s true that organic, creative projects change the world and humanity forever. This fact echoes my understanding of the Gospel- the call to build the Kingdom that gives me great joy. In collaborative communities we create change and help people connect more deeply, and it’s really powerful and good. Plus, the story got me thinking about how relationships can be twisted collisions of trust and distrust, hope, love, faith, confusion and betrayal. Is that a tragedy? I am not sure. This reality seems to fit with the story of Jesus, too.
Nonetheless, I am disturbed. I have found it fascinating- and frustrating- to participate in the evolution of human relating and communication during the past five years, since Facebook (and now Twitter, etc.) have become as common as eating. (At least for the 8 percent of us on earth who actually have internet connection, I suppose.)
Lately I have tried to be more conscientious about how much I use Facebook, mention Facebook in conversations and hear others talk about Facebook each day. Naturally then, I was amused at mass this morning when the priest told a story about how he reconnected with an old friend through the internet and Facebook.
I suspect many of us have had similar experiences. I imagine that a lot of us have found Facebook a helpful tool in fostering relationships and reconnecting with friends. I have, and it is very exciting. I appreciate being able to read headlines and see pictures of babies, weddings and ordinary life stuff of people I know with as much ease as reading a newspaper. This is good, I think, because I believe that relationships are the meaning of life. We grow in union through communication and communion, through all of our relating to each other. In addition, the technology permits a different type of Gospel witness, and this is good.
Nonetheless, I have questions and concerns. I heard a story about a friend-of-a-friend who learned about the sudden death of her aunt through a Facebook post recently. I know of other tragic- and joyous- momentous news that has been shared through family and friends exclusively through technology. I doubt that this is good for our souls and spirits. When things are deep and meaningful, it doesn’t seem healthy to relate with each other without the raw mess of human emotion, inflection and reflection.
Does it hurt us when we learn about big things in our close friends’ lives at the same time as their other 650 Facebook friends/acquaintances? Why does it suddenly seem so hard to relate to each other in real, old-fashioned types of ways, like through visits, phone-calls and hand-written letters as we live and love? Have we lost our human touch?
Certainly, our society has been drastically changed by Facebook technology. Likewise, the way we relate and communicate has radically shifted.
Is this God’s will for us? Is this what Jesus intended when we were commissioned to build the kingdom? How does our modern technological communication impact our souls, our freedom, our prayer and our ability to relate to each other as God designed us?
On this Feast of the Holy Trinity, we are blessed with renewed focus on God who is perfect relationship and who is Love and Truth. In the Trinity we know a love so self-giving and constant that the union changes all creation. We learn how to Love if we listen in prayer to how God the Parent, God Incarnate and the Holy Spirit relate together as three-in-one.
How did God design us to relate to each other? Since we’re made in God’s image, I believe it’s just like the Trinity. Let’s love, give, share, care, hold, touch, heal, help, communicate, commune and just be together in the real, raw mess of relational love.
Let’s love each other, in the boundless, eternal non-technological, human ways. The Bible tells us so:
Brothers and sisters, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones greet you.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. – 2 Cor 13:11-13