This post is not about any one thing in particular. And at the same time, it is about a great many things that take place on the internet. Here’s the Bible passage I want us to reflect on for a few minutes:
“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:1-3).
I see at least four prohibitions in these verses.
1. Do not spread false reports. Obviously, this means we should not lie about other people or tell tales we know to be untrue. But it also means we should be careful not to spread false reports even if we honestly thought they were true. It is terrible thing to ruin someone’s reputation. Doing so by an honest mistake may make us feel better about ourselves, but it does nothing to help the rest of the world feel better about the person they now despise. Unintentional sins are still sins. Of course, we all make mistakes. We may later find out that the report we spread was not the truth we thought it to be. But in those unfortunate cases, will we make the announcement that we aired as widespread as the initial dissemination of the error? Take twenty minutes some evening and watch the ESPN Film Judging Jewel. It will make you think twice before you jump to conclusions and pass along reports you really know nothing about.
2. Do not be a malicious witness. Even if your think the person you are attacking is a right awful nasty oaf, the ends do not justify the means. There are a great number of indignant truth-tellers–and just as many weeping prophets for the weak and wounded–who would do well to consider whether their real passion is to spite, to malign, to seek vengeance, to devour and destroy more than it is to seek the things that make for unity, purity, and peace. How many “champions of the truth” and “champions for the marginalized” have won their lofty titles by take-downs more than uplift?
3. Do not assume the majority is always right. God warns us against siding with the many just because they are many. What do you do when everyone knows that the athlete is on performance enhancing drugs, the politician is a crook, the pastor is a bully, the celebrity is an addict, the friend is a fake, and the business owner is a bigot? Well, if you don’t actually know the details, then the best course of action is probably to keep your mouth shut. Go watch Pride and Prejudice (the really long version your wife wants you to see) and think about the character Mr. Darcy. People are not always what they seem–often for the worse, but sometimes for the better. It’s easy to assume the worst about those on the “other side.” We instinctively just know that Hillary is a loser or Ted Cruz is a jerk. We are sure that the negative information we just saw tweeted about the cop must be true, because we know better than to trust cops. We don’t hesitate to pass along the latest scoop about the shooting victim’s past, because we’ve already sized up those kind of people. Too many of us have sides drawn up nice and neat. We have a mental list of bad guys and good guys. We read the events of the day with a powerful narrative already in place. But the majority is not always right, least of all the majority of “what everyone knows” according to the maze of our minds.
4. Do not assume the little guy is always right. God also warns us against siding with the poor just because they’re poor. Your version of cosmic justice is no excuse for perpetuating a local injustice. This is where the Age of Internet Outrage makes things unbelievably difficult. Here’s the scene that plays itself out over and over: It is alleged that Powerful Person/Organization/Institution A has done something terrible to Oppressed Person/Organization/Institution B. The charges sound really bad. If true, they demand cries of anger and recrimination. But what if it is not yet clear that the alleged crimes or offenses took place? What if there is another side to the story that has not been heard? What if–as in the case of the charges against UVA–the real story is no real story at all? Doesn’t wisdom dictate caution and patience? But of course, caution and patience in such situations are often pilloried as siding with the powerful or adding to the victim’s pain. And thus we are forced to decry alleged criminals lest we be deemed guilty of supporting the crimes themselves. To be sure, the preferential treatment of the powerful is despicable. But that does not make the preferential treatment of the poor any less dishonorable.
Please, please, please, let us be more careful with our words. Let our blogs be based on knowledge and our tweets be founded on facts. Let us be among the last to speak our minds if we are not one of the first to know the truth. Let us not confuse a social media scroll with actual research. Hearing a report is not the same as the right to speak.
Every blogger, every tweeter, every Christian in this digital age would do well to pray through the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the ninth commandment:
God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause. Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are devices the devil himself uses, and they would call down on me God’s intense anger. I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name. (Q/A 112)
Sounds right to me. Sounds a lot like the Law of Moses in Exodus 23. Sounds like Jesus too. Lord help us show the world a better way.