Truth, Power, Love, Hate - and Social Media and Elections

Violence is what happens when you try to resolve a religious dispute by means of power. It cannot be done. Trying to resolve ultimate issues of faith, truth and interpretation by use of force is a conceptual error of the most fundamental kind. Just as might does not establish right, so victory does not establish truth

You cannot impose truth by force…greater is the pursuit of truth than the exercise of force
Religion leads to violence when it consecrates hate…You cannot create a free society on the basis of hate

Do not wage war on the children of darkness. Make sure instead that you and your children are sources of light

The above quotes are not from a Christian (though they could easily be) but from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ wonderful book Not In God’s Name. A book I thoroughly recommend. 

Rabbi Sacks’ sets out to analyze specifically religious violence but just about everything he says is relevant to any situation where force is used to impose someone’s idea of truth. His conclusion (correctly to my mind) is that it always fails and always will fail because of the most basic conceptual mistake: truth is not amenable to imposition by force. The results are firstly, bitterness at being thus assaulted; second, what he describes as the consecration of hate - people mostly behave as enemies because they perceive themselves to have been made enemies of, and; third countermeasures by those imposed upon, force is met by force, perception of being hatefully treated by hatred.

His almost shocking conclusion is that the only way out of the cycle is powerlessness. On the subject of religious violence to deliberately separate out religion (truth) and politics (power).

Sacks has, I think, a rather Utopian view of the neutrality of the state:

The liberal democratic state does not aspire to be the embodiment of the good, the beautiful and the true. It merely seeks to keep the peace between contending factions. It is procedural rather than substantive. It makes no claim to represent the totality of life…It does not invtie its citizens to worship the polis, nor does it see civic virtue as the only virtue. (NIGN p.229)

One might reasonably ask what happens when the state is perceived by one party or another to have been hijacked precisely to make universalising and substantive claims on all. Law will be used to impose a state-authorised morality and civic virtue will indeed be seen as the only virtue (”fundamental British values” being an obvious case in point). When that happens the state has ceased to be an arbiter and itself become a contending faction. 

But that aside, what of his contention that powerlessness is the way out of the standoff? His suggestion that the house of study must replace the battlefield? The best picture of a standoff with power is the cold war nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The problem of course is that nobody can be the first to disarm because that makes you a defenceless target. Why wouldn’t the other person simply destroy you? But to not do so leaves you with perpetual heightened tension with no way out. 

Catch 22. But you have to admit a very Christian Catch 22. We follow one who refused to retaliate to the point of his own life being taken for the sake of his enemies. And who insists that his followers do likewise. Retaliation is what non-Christians do, not Christians:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also; if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well;    (Matthew 5:38-40)

Jesus had a principled willingness to be walked over.

But what about the recent US election? I suggested in my previous post that this is an election in which for many young voter social media has played a significant, but not healthy, part. In Rabbi Sacks’ terms I think that limiting access only to views that you already agree with is like turning the house of study back into the battlefield. If religion can consecrate hate that leads to violence then so can Twitter - just read the comments on many politicians’ Twitter feeds if you are in any doubt about that. 

Truth is not established by by force. Facebook might not look like a means for exerting force - it isn’t a battle fleet - but by dint of having 1.79 billion users it is precisely that. And in that way people have tried to use it: to deny the face of the Other, make substantive moral claims which it is hoped would be assimilated by the state. The use of social media to disrupt the neutrality of the state, turn it into a competing party and then use it to impose views by force on the unwilling. 

How should Christians respond? I suggest Rabbi Sacks is right - embrace powerlessness. The thing we must not do is fight with the same weapons. The Apostle Paul tells us that our fight is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of evil. Peter says:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people   (1 Peter 2:13-15)

Be willing to be powerless in this world’s terms. And don’t use the weapons of the world, instead do good. I am suggesting that social media is definitely a weapon of the world and Christians must avoid at all costs using it the way the world uses it. That might be by simply deleting the app and having nothing to do with it if you can’t be self-controlled in the way you use it. It might mean that you deliberately follow the feeds of people with whom you disagree so that you are not inadvertantly sucked into the way it can shut down competing voices and debate. It might mean you use it as deliberately as you are able to bless those with whom you disagree. It definitely means not saying anything online that you wouldn’t say with the Lord Jesus in the room.

No, we commit to the word of God (that’s our weapon, the sword of the Spirit, we are people of the book not the Twitterstorm, still less the riot), to prayer - including for our enemies for them to be blessed - and to doing good. The Christian question for election outcomes we don’t like is not “how can I push back?” but “given this situation how can I bless for the good of society and the sake of the Lord Jesus? Given this outcome, what is the most redemptive way for me to behave? How can I bless my opponents? How can I avoid being swept up in a tide of sentiment and dismay and instead be self-controlled, loving and kind, full of the fruit of the Spirit?”

The danger of the social media election is that it makes everyone, both before and afterwards, ask the wrong questions: how can my group win? How can we dominate the state? How can we use its laws and constitution for the good of us and the detriment of the Other? The Christian instead will always ask, how do we bless the Other, how do we serve not dominate, what does kindness, love and the redemption of God look like in a  world full of hate?

Jesus called his disciples together and said:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28)