The notion of fervent discipleship has become, for some, a constant effort to tweet and post about heresy within the church and then make sure that the widest audience possible is aware of the perceived danger. I know Elder Ted Wilson had the best of intentions in 2010 when he told the audience at the General Conference Session, “Hold them accountable.” I am also sure that he did not envision the path this would take. The admonition to “hold them accountable” is causing our denomination to spiral into endless public shaming of perceived variant targets. As a community we have abandoned irenic generosity and have become entrenched in pursuing the illusive goal of community purification. This is not true discipleship.
Jesus portrayed Spirit-filled people as a source of living water for others (John 4:13), not as a sort of honor brigade that roots out any questioning or variance protruding from a particular interpretation. As soon as we play the blame game, the devil wins; Satan, after all, means “accuser.” And accusing has become so easy with social media.
Here’s an example. A few months ago the decision of the Huntsville First Seventh-day Adventist Church to hold worship services on Sunday jolted the Adventist cyberworld. Based on speculation and with little care taken to understand the strategy and motives of those involved, Hunstville First received a barrage of criticism and condemnation in the blogosphere. After the initial fuss, the church’s evangelistic initiative seems to have been forgotten. Thus, few will know the success of the undertaking, while many critics continue to harbor poorly reasoned negative, even condemnatory opinions of the leaders. Social media and the mandate to “hold accountable” has given a false sense of empowerment to many who have chosen to pursue the counterfeit discipleship of accusing others within the family of God. Appropriate Christian efforts at corporate integrity would include truth seeking, personal conversation, and follow-up with generosity and kindness undergirding any accountability exercise.
With each individual now controlling an instant printing press and bully pulpit, social media has given scapegoating a massive shot of steroids. Prior to social media’s rise, anthropological philosopher Rene Girard wrote copiously about the destructive nature of this timeless, insidious, malignant mechanism within all human groups (“I See Satan Fall Like Lightning,” Orbis Books, 2001). Girard uses the term “mimetic rivalry” to encapsulate the process where people imitate each other in an escalating frenzy of scapegoating, so that, in effect, cultural stability comes to depend on identifying a problem person/group and enacting violence against them in a misguided attempt to force the community to move to a higher plane. The desire to target another as the “problem” feels intuitive and feeds our own egos. This community tension searching for a scapegoat orchestrated Jesus’ crucifixion. Currently, we see this system manifested in the cadre of Internet warriors battling for their version of truth and demanding blood from their favorite scapegoat. Dwight Eisenhower said, “the search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.”
Social media expedites demonizing in previously unimaginable ways, as sharp verbal violence ricochets immediately amongst groups. Jon Ronson (“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Riverhead Books, 2015) explores the chaos and pain that have invaded people’s lives in the Social Media Age. Generally this public shaming is unfair, out of proportion, lopsided and just plain hateful, a demonstration of snowballing mimetic rivalry against a targeted “problem” individual or group.
Is this the way of Jesus? When the church leaders claim to be above the human condition of society, the church suffers from a lack of self awareness. Yes, mimetic rivalry can be seen in the 150 years of our denominational existence. Frequently, it seems as though our identity has depended on the continued existence of a negative “other” so that rather than looking upward, our goal has been focused on identifying and fully exposing problem groups.
Currently, social media users face the task of sifting through posts which claim to give an inside scoop about a speaker, pastor, independent ministry, institution. Eyes blur with a barrage of information. Yet, when one focuses on the nature of these “facts” one typically sees that the evidence is flimsy. Quite often the “damning” information is based on a narrow perception of one or two people as they lift few paragraphs from the context of an enriching speech or program and use these isolated words to scapegoat the group or individual. Are efforts to call out “heresy” actually sabotaging our goal of being Jesus’ disciples? Are we ignoring the description of church in 1 Corinthians 12 as a living, breathing body?
Attention to correct belief is in the Adventist DNA. Seventh-day Adventism was founded with the intention to peel away doctrinal varnish that accumulated over centuries. Early church leaders wanted to get to the truth through Bible study, with a willingness to turn from traditional interpretations and a deep realization that truth would not be discovered all at once. J. N. Loughborough famously stated that “the first step to apostasy was to get up a creed.”
In time, catalogues of beliefs can become subject to the rule of church politics squelching the spirit of our ancestors.
Can efforts to distill doctrine into a static, orthodox purity cause one to lose the essence of Christianity by minimizing the kindness and forbearance and gentleness to which the New Testament writers refer so frequently?
Girard makes a strong case that any human effort to achieve purity will inevitably degenerate into mimetic rivalry.
Through the ages, misguided God followers have attempted to please Him by coercive attempts to form a homogenous group of believers. Despite any rationalization given, scapegoating does distort true discipleship. The development of the Internet, for all its inherent democratization, has allowed information to be spread around the circle at light speed, and has allowed the sharp tool of public shaming to become today’s weapon of choice. While intentions may be to enhance and promote the cause of Jesus, public vilification results in division and fracture, so that the effort to build up the body, paradoxically, results in fragmenting the body.
It is time to come out of the Babylon of judgmental scapegoating. Creating an online public documentation of another’s errors too easily becomes a permanent record of false witness, and is the ultimate exercise of missing the point. This is a counterfeit discipleship. Let’s avoid cruelty, ridicule, half truths and force. Let’s persuade by love, witness, spirit, reason, rhetoric and if need be, martyrdom. Let’s rediscover the way of Jesus.
Carmen Lau is a member of the Spectrum / Adventist Forum Board of Directors.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6822