A Sea of Voices

The Sermon on the Mount, Social Media, and the Art of Contempt

I remember getting a Facebook account when I was in junior high out of a mixture of curiosity and peer pressure, and a decade later after on and off addiction to the “social” platform, I’ve found myself blocking it across my digital devices. Facebook had always been a distraction and a time consumer. It is a constant temptation to self-promote and compare personal image with those of other people, cultivating envy and shame, a modern way to play an ancient and primitive game. But never has my being on social media so depressed me as have the past couple weeks. I have watched post after post of anger, contempt, and hatred unfold. So, I decided to take a step back from Facebook, not because I am “above” that kind of behavior, but precisely because I am so deeply vulnerable to it. Through prayer and personal repentance of my own contempt towards those I disagree with, I came across a wonderful passage from Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. This spiritual classic was written in the late nineties, but it is amazing how relevant it is to our culture of online outrage. Willard’s own convictions are themselves deeply informed by the words of Jesus Christ spoken on his great Sermon on the Mount, or “discourse on the hill” as Willard likes to call it.

I want to reference The Divine Conspiracy because it is based in wisdom far beyond my own scope of understanding. No mere human can come up with this kind of life changing power. Willard himself was prophetic in so many ways because he truly believed only Jesus had the power to heal and reconcile all people to himself, and if we are going to heal our own contemporary divisions, we must look back to the Sermon. No other prophet or leader has been able to match the words of the Sermon. And dealing with anger and contempt is central to its message.

Willard writes boldly that “anger and contempt are the twin scourges of the earth. Mingled with greed and sexual lust, these bitter emotions form the poisonous brew in which human existence stands suspended. Few people ever get free of them in this life, and for most of us even old age does not bring relief” (p. 150). This might seem like a contradiction to the mantras on social media reflecting the belief that anger and contempt are not only merited but necessary to implement social change. Being educated in the art of when to be angry and who to be angry at is what qualifies one as a social “insider.” Willard continues,

“A leading social commentator now teaches that despair and rage are an essential element in the struggle for justice. He and others who teach this are sowing the wind, and they will reap the whirlwind, the tornado. Indeed, we are reaping it now in a nation increasingly sick with rage and resentment of citizen toward citizen. And often the rage is upheld as justified in the name of God” (p. 151).

Willard’s next sentence shows the heart of his point: “But there is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it….the answer is to right the wrong in persistent love, not to harbor anger, and thus to right it without adding further real or imaginary wrongs.”

It is almost impossible right now to be on social media and escape seeing posts harboring intense anger, on both sides of the conservative and liberal spectrum. And clearly this anger is being acted out through rioting, verbal abuse, and political scuffles among national leaders. It is everywhere. It is furthermore almost impossible to be on social media without being sucked into the vortex of thinking in such black and white, us vs. them, kinds of mentality. By simply scrolling through a sea of angry voices it was easy to lose the kingdom alternative so beautifully outlined by Dallas Willard. The answer Willard echoes is not original or mind blowing, but rather very simple, and thus, revolutionary: repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand. We repent by renouncing our self-righteousness and entitlements and learning how to love our neighbor. We pursue xenophilia, hospitality for the widow, stranger, foreigner. We forget what happens to our reputation. All of this is outlined in the Sermon.

I cannot tell Christians everywhere to log off their accounts right now, but I can write about how much clearer the kingdom of Jesus appears when the sea of anger and contempt is no longer bouncing around my field of vision. I can see how justice is incarnational and personal instead of detached and digital. I can begin to see what I can do today to love someone who may have gone through their day, their week, their life, unloved and forgotten by a culture of anger and contempt. I can stop being so interested in being on the right side of history. I can begin to live the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus desired, in flesh and blood community with other messy people who are different from me and yet entirely like me in their brokenness and beloved-ness.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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