Wonderful to hear from you and many thanks for your question. It’s a deeply topical and relevant one, especially as we live through this phase of the ‘communications revolution’ and seek to navigate a world in which we are more interconnected than ever.
Political disagreements amongst believers
Let me start with potential disagreements between followers of Jesus, on political issues. Firstly, I think it’s worth stating that this is exactly what is to be expected. The Kingdom of God is necessarily epi-political. That is to say, it is not aligned with any political party, movement or tradition. It’s always interesting and sad to see both Christians and non-Christians try and squeeze the Gospel into man-made political paradigms or political party documents, Ultimately, it doesn’t work. The Gospel is too big, too transcendant and far too important to be reduced to something as temporal as human politics. Accordingly, no political party perfectly reflects the Kingdom of God. However, there are various public policy positions that either sync up with or contradict the ethical framework that God has set down. If followers of Christ have disagreements on these issues, we should handle them lovingly, graciously and prayerfully but without compromising on truth. That being said, when it’s a believer that we’re discoursing with, we can deal with issues on a case-by-case basis (without labelling each other because one particular disagreement), we can be more focused on Scripture as our primary source of truth and we can be more committed to prayerfully seeking truth together. We must also - to the extent possible - keep our debates ‘inside the family.’ One of the greatest risks of political discourse between Christians is that it affects the unity with which we present Christ to the world. There’s plenty more to say on this, but I hope these thoughts are helpful.
Online political engagement
As always, our best starting point on the question of online political discourse comes from Scripture. I think a helpful place to start is with Peter’s prescription that all of our discourse needs to be carried out with graciousness and respect (1 Peter 3:15) and Paul’s prescription that our conversation needs to affable, empathetic and seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6). To these two guidelines, we can add Jesus’ mandate to render to Caeser that which is Caeser’s and to God, that which is God’s (Matthew 22:21). With these verses anchoring our heart-posture (for God) and our ultimate allegiance (to God), we must also acknowledge our mandate to take our responsibility for political engagement seriously (1 Peter 2:11-17 and Romans 3:1-7).
So what does all of this look like in our 2018 world of the 24-7 media cycle and the whirlwind of vitriol we encounter in online political discourse?
I think we need to start by acknowledging the limitations of online political discourse. Necessarily, online engagement has some pretty big limitations. For example, there is a distinct lack of reciprocity in an emotional sense (no eye-contact, no place for body-language, very little capacity for relational capital to be built or acknowledged etc.). Accordingly, there are some fora and people in relation to which online political discourse is neither productive or useful.
That being said, I disagree with the notion that the limitations and difficulties of online political engagement render it something best ignored by all citizens of God’s Kingdom. Of course, it’s not for everyone; and for those who struggle with it, my recommendation is to avoid it to the extent that it is becoming a stumbling to you or to others in your sphere of influence. However, for some, it can be a powerful way to graciously, prayerfully, thoughtfully and effectively do at least 3 things:
- Present the beauty of the Gospel to those who would not otherwise be exposed to it;
- Reflect Christ’s unique brand of love in a forum in which it will stand out; and
- Further the Biblical ethical framework as the best blueprint for human flourishing.
Done well, political discourse by Christians (both online and off-line) achieves the above. A few things I suggest as guidelines in this context are:
- Foster a heart-posture that seeks to lovingly share your views, rather than to win an argument
- Be quick to encourage and recommend other resources, instead of trying to deal with issues exhaustively (e.g. share youtube links, books etc.)
- If possible and appropriate, offer to meet with someone directly to take the discussion further.
- Always stay focussed on arguments/views being presented rather than the people presenting them. For example, avoid statements that often appear online like: “The problem with liberals…,” “The problem with non-Christians…” or “what I hate about atheists is…” (Any sense of stigma directed at people undermine any substance you may want to share).
- Don’t be discouraged. Remember that your objective is not to persuade everyone online, win arguments or save face. Your objective is to honestly and graciously present the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the outworking of the Gospel truth in how it relates to a given political-policy issue.
While one of our prayers is always that Christian moral reasoning is as influential as possible in the political discourse, our greater prayer is that people come to know the Lord Jesus Christ personally. It’s important for us to remember that God’s first priority is not to transform the legislation of a nation. It is to invade the hearts of a nation.
St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ is a pretty dense but probably the most seminal text on a Christian’s responsibility and opportunity in the context of political discourse. If you haven’t already, it’s a great place to start.
Hope these thoughts help; and thanks again for your question.