Years ago at the church I served I got in hot water with a parishioner after I gave a sermon illustration that was critical of Billy Graham. My parishioner thought that a “great man” like Dr. Graham should ever and only be spoken of positively. All things being equal I would agree. But this was at a time when a new tape had been released from the years of the Nixon White House in which Billy Graham could be heard talking to the President about Jews. Their comments were not pleasant. Indeed, they were blatantly anti-Semitic. The comments caused a small uproar, of course, but soon enough Nixon’s former White House counsel, Leonard Garment, came to the rescue with a NY Times op-ed piece defending Billy Graham. The upshot of his defense was that it is perfectly normal and acceptable for well-known people in particular to have a public self and a rather different private self. Such things are inevitable, maybe even necessary.
When I mentioned this in my sermon–that happened to be on the topic of hypocrisy–I made the point that it was actually Mr. Garment’s defense that would never do. We as believers in Jesus cannot be selectively transparent to him, toggling our Christ-likeness on and off depending on the company we were keeping, how many people were listening, or whether we were at home or out and about in society at any given moment. The Fruit of the Spirit don’t go off duty.
I have been thinking about that in connection to emails lately and particularly all the WikiLeaks emails from various people but particularly some inside the Clinton campaign. Clearly people say and express things in email they would not say elsewhere, in public, or in front of the person in question whose character you just impugned in one way or another. In fact, we all know that when email started to become a regular, and then a daily, and then an hourly and a minute-by-minute form of communication, things changed. Stuff you’d never have written in an actual letter to be mailed suddenly found its way into your email. People got shorter with each other. We fired of sneering criticisms of colleagues or family members because email is just so . . . so quick and so . . . private it made it easier to do. Sometimes we’d cyber scream at someone by using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS to make a point far more boldly than we’d ever do in person, on the phone, or (again) in a letter we took the time to compose, fold, stick into an envelope, etc.
Of course we now know that our trove of emails are potentially not private at all. Be glad if you’re not famous enough to get hacked but it could happen. But even if it never does and your emails remain nicely ensconced on your server (or in the cloud, wherever that is), still as Christians we need to think about our email selves. Are we displaying the Fruit of the Spirit also there? If the local newspaper published snippets of my emails, would I be ashamed or try to invoke some nonsensical private vs. public argument to defend my own character?
Email changed the way we communicate. We all know that. But it ought not change our Christian character. In the wake of lots of people being embarrassed by WikiLeaks, maybe now is as good a time as any to ponder these things as followers of Jesus.