Monday, November 18, 2013

Christian Discipleship, Social Networking and Unfriending

Friends. Friendship. We Christians have, along with most other people, understood these words differently from yesterday. In the past, we referred to friends as people who we trusted, shared our core values in common with, did things with and for. We saw these friends, the closer the better, as ends in themselves and not means to any end. We did not use the word easily or lightly; we cherished our friends. Today, with the advent of social networking, things have shifted. We now use the word friend to refer to anyone, in any social network, who connects with our profile in that network. In some networks, we call them followers, as on Twitter or in the world of blogging. We may call them "circlers" as on Google. On Facebook and other networks, we now "add" or "friend" people. Their profiles are connected with ours and they are now "friends." We tend to see these friends in terms of quantity rather than quality; the more the better. This holds true especially if we play games, have a product to sell, or are on mission to raise awareness for our chosen cause.

The results of this paradigm shift on relationships is predictable. It is evolving, too. First, the Internet has ruined or spoiled countless marriages. Today, the divorce rate is 60 percent, up 10 percent from the 50 percent that it had stood at for decades. One spouse (or both) will turn to the Internet for entertainment or to social networking for to get support. Result? Internet addictions develop that drive wedges in relationships. Partners tend to find photos or posts that contain shocking information on a spouse, which can result in anger, rage, leading to divorce. The practice of unfriending can harm or destroy in-person relationships. Many of us, even if we are Christians, are hurt by the experience of being unfriended and, if we encounter this person face-to-face, our interactions with the person will be altered and usually for worse. For social networks are us, for social networks are, in other words, people in cyberspace connecting with each other. It is evident that we feel differently about our online friends from those we call friends, face-to-face. It's clear in how we are often emboldened to say many things online that we would not have the courage to say offline (yes this has the reverse effect of emboldening us Christians in sharing our faith!) This is the reason we see the phenomenon of cyber-bullying, and hear about (maybe even see) its devastating effects. Mental, emotional and verbal abuse, online or in-person, are just as damaging as in-person physical abuse. And it's clear in the ease where we hit the "unfriend" or even the "block" buttons on social networks" without feeling bad about this. In face-to-face relationships, we are much more likely to realize that the other person has feelings or that dumping him or her has consequences, whether to us or others. We are far more likely to work things out with a friend, for example, who says nasty things to us or racist comments about another, if we know this person face-to-face. Online, we often feel free to remove the person from our networks or even block them.

In my experience, I estimate that I have lost over 1000 Facebook friendships in my four and a half years of social networking. I have lost these users for a wide variety of reasons. Many were fellow former or current fellow parishioners or acquaintances, who did not care about the causes I posted and that showed up in their Timelines. Some took offense at my political or religious posts that they no doubt disagreed with. Many dropped me because of misunderstandings or conflicts that led them to the conclusion that I was not a good person. Most recently, two people removed me from their social networks for the third reason. A series of misunderstandings led one of them, who claims a devout Christian faith, to angrily conclude that I was not the caring, good-hearted Christian that she had "been under the impression that I was." This person has her version of the story, which I know she will justify. This person and I had shared an intimate online friendship; I shared with her things that I never shared with even any pastor or doctor. Sadly, the deep trust and care that we shared only days ago, are all gone. The second person is one whom I introduced to the first person just discussed here; I had shown caring and support for that second person for years, prior to this sorry event. The series of misunderstanding involved that person indirectly and so that person blocked me. I currently wrestle with a mix of grief, anger and self-doubt about these last two rejections.

As I read the Bible, Christian discipleship extends to all areas of life, including to how we treat other online users, what we post and what websites we visit and what blogs we follow. It involves what type in comments and in emails. It also involves the spirit we have when we hit the "Unfriend" or "Block" buttons on another user's profile. We Christians should post and share posts that lift up and glorify God and that spread the word about the Christian faith. We should avoid websites and blogs that don't glorify Him and that exalt sinful lifestyles that displease Him. We should use our time wisely and not waste our time on too many online games or even online "causes" that are more about awareness than action. We certainly should not have anything to do with cyber-bullying. This includes spreading gossip that ruins others' online reputations. We should not post nasty, bullying, hateful or harassing comments or statuses that alienate others needlessly. We should not be taken in by the unfriending practices that so many users are engaged in. In my opinion, we should unfriend users only when we truly fear that keeping them in our networks puts us, our families and our friends in danger (like predators or stalkers). That does not include unfriending people because they offend us, disagree with us, annoy us, or bore us with their statuses. Unfriending fellow Christians violates the principle of forbearance; unfriending non-Christians closes any doors to sharing the Gospel with them. Unfriending anyone closes the door on caring for them.

Christians, we need to remember and ask ourselves when we go online: Do we keep in mind, whenever we visit websites or blogs, post or comment, that Christ sees everything that we do? Do we keep in mind that, every time we post, leave comments, or hit the "Unfriend" or "block" buttons, that the people we are taking acting about are real people?

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This photo is by Karpati Gabor.

This photo can be found here.

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