Facebook’s recent addition of five new emoticon “reactions” (Love, Sad, Angry, Wow, and Haha) gives social media users more options for expressing their gut reactions to the content that passes through their feeds. Long limited to the somewhat vague expressive range of the “like,” the Facebook throngs can now indicate their disapproval or outrage about a post or an article by clicking a furrowed-brow angry face icon.
As if we needed more ways to express outrage.
Whatever else social media has done to reshape society (and it has done much, for good and for ill), it has certainly added fuel to the fire of a culture of outrage. Spend ten minutes scrolling Facebook or Twitter and you’ll likely see articles deconstructing one group or insulting another. Discourse in the comments sections often devolves into middle school name-calling and playground vulgarities, not unlike the debates we have seen on television here in America during the current presidential election.
The toxicity of our outrage culture has reached new heights, or should I say plummeted to new depths. Something needs to change. I think it’s time that we rediscover the power of a forgotten yet deeply Christian virtue: kindness.
It’s true that kindness doesn’t make for very good TV during political elections. And I know that kindness is hard to muster in a world where our social media feeds are full of people saying infuriating things. But we must rise above the vicious, reactive cycle of rhetorical hostility.
Donald Trump might call kindness boring, spineless, weak, sissy or worse. Relative to the theatrics of the American media industrial complex, he’d be right. But kindness is actually revolutionary. And kindness is the way of Jesus, who did not tell his disciples to badmouth their enemies, but rather to love them (Matthew 5:44).
Kindness is not a virtue limited to grandmothers or Boy Scouts. It’s not the same thing as “niceness.” It is radical, fearless and courageous. It can break down seemingly impenetrable walls and reconcile people and nations.
As a Christian university president, I care about how the rising generation lives out the way of kindness in an increasingly polarized and mean-spirited culture. In the rubble of the culture wars, I believe radical kindness is the way forward if Christians are to make an impact in the world. Of course Christians should still stand up and fight for convictions under attack, but more often combative and defensive posturing ought to give way to listening and civility, even with those we see as ideological opponents.
The way of kindness is not just having right theology. It’s being the right kind of people. It’s about prioritizing relationships, recognizing the image of God in every person we encounter. Kindness is Rick Warren saying yes to an invitation to address a gathering of Muslims, or Focus on the Family president Jim Daly initiating a quiet conversation with pro-choice activists to promote foster care. It is pastors standing up against the bullying and the harsh discrimination against those in their communities who identify as gay.
To many in the church, this kind of kindness makes us uneasy. It sometimes backfires. But erring on the side of being too kind is better than never trying to build a bridge at all. The isolationism and overconfidence often characteristic of Christian fundamentalism can be relaxed without relaxing the gospel on which we stand.
At Biola University I have been calling this a posture of “firm center and soft edges.” More than a century after Biola was founded in downtown Los Angeles as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, we are still as committed to the centrality of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ as we ever were. This is our firm center. But in our engagement with the world beyond our campus borders, even with those with whom we disagree, Biola’s posture is one of “soft edges.” We partner with, listen to and learn from those who believe differently. Far from a slippery slope toward convictional compromise, this sort of engagement only makes Biola stronger.
We invite respected thinkers to campus who may not align with our distinctive theological beliefs. We believe it’s important to hold conversations that model disagreement well. That’s why last year we held an event that gave platform to two gay Christians with differing views on same-sex relationships, and another event featuring Cornel West and Robert George, two men who maintain close friendships even while disagreeing on so many issues. Our Center for Christian Thought even hosted an entire conference called “Disagree,” about the merits of healthy disagreement. All of this prepares people to better articulate their convictions and live them out in compassionate relationship with those on the other side of an issue.
Not long ago I sat in my office with the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty who wrote in one of his books: “People today who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. And people who have strong convictions often are not often very civil.” That’s why I wrote my book Love Kindness, not to find a middle road but a higher ground.
We need both civility and conviction.
Facebook emoticons will not cut it if we want to foster healthy engagement with people of opposing views. Nor will “unfriending” avoidance. But kindness can help bridge the divide, kindness from a place of “firm center and soft edges”, if you will. We need this more than ever in our world.
Photo by Ludovic ETIENNE