It’s August 15. I’m coming off of a particularly unhurried and reflective season where I’ve dabbled less in social media. As I dip my toe back in the murky waters of the interwebs, I see dissent and division.

  • Longtime Black church leaders steeped in a biblical tradition of social justice are suddenly being called “Marxists.”
  • A nurse pleading with her Facebook followers to wear masks for the sake of a healthcare system on-the-brink gets a comment from a man who says: “The government won’t take away my freedom to breathe.”
  • A liberal friend posts: “I don’t see any other way through this storm than exchanging violence with violence.”

I’m anxious. I’m grieved. I sit and listen for words to percolate up from my center.

I post this on Facebook.

Post wisely over the next months.
Contribute to discourse, not division.
Check your facts.
Resist memes and cheap digs.
Create beautiful content.
We can transcend the bitterness and be better, even when we disagree.

Over the next few days, nine people comment. They resonate with it. And that’s it. I move on, trusting that a word offered in heaviness and hope might find its way into souls that will listen.

In the next week, texts and DM’s begin pouring in. One says, “Hey, that Facebook post about being wise and contributing to discourse…it’s going around as a meme. Did you get it from that?” No, I didn’t.

Another friend writes, “There’s some guy who posted an image with your words and it has thousands of shares.”

Someone writes, “Some people are really pissed off by that meme you created.” What meme?

Last I checked, across platforms, words I offered with care have been shared hundreds of thousands of times as a meme, created by someone else, without attribution. Words lifted, carelessly taken by another, sent into the tornado winds of the interwebs as a meme that – quite ironically – says Resist Memes.

Words meant for good from a particular person scattered into thousands of different feeds, now as an image. Words, then, that incite vicious debates on other feeds of people I don’t know — like “Who posts self-righteous bulls**t like this?” and “You have no f#@kin right to tell me how to think.” The meme floats away with words lost in digital space.

Breathe, Freedom, and Marxist…Oh My!

What is a meme? On the tech blog Lifewire, Paul Gil writes that a meme is “is a virally transmitted image embellished with text, usually sharing pointed commentary on cultural symbols, social ideas, or current events.”

Notice, there’s no telling if it’s substantive or not. It just is. And it’s the way many get information today.

As a variety of social commentators note, memes helped elect Donald Trump. Hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of people trust memes to convey real and truthful information. Plus, it’s a cheap way of spreading a message. It requires little intellectual investment and may not contain even a grain of truth. Created in two minutes on your phone, it can take on a life of its own with a reach far beyond a television advertisement that cost a candidate $100,000 or more.

While there is so much to question about the role of social media today (just watch The Social Dilemma), my relatively insignificant incident of being meme’d prompted some serious reflection on the degradation of our discourse, on our capacity to communicate, on our shared commitment as a people to language that connects and conveys meaning.

I thought about the words passing across my feed — Marxist, violence, freedom, breathe, government — words that incite anger and passion, offered without the most important thing needed for communication — face-to-face connection.

Sturdiness

I ’d been prepping for a class I’m teaching called “Reading and Writing for the Pastoral Life” when I came across an old book on my shelf. Setting aside my phone, I opened it, hoping for a word that might ground me.

“Caring for language is a moral issue,” Marilyn McEntyre wrote in the early 2000s in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies wrote. “Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another.”

I closed the book and sat silently. My prayers these days are mostly inarticulate groanings, and all I could muster was, “Lord help me. Lord help us. My words, our words, are so cheap.”

Barbara Brown Taylor

Years before McEntyre penned her words, and even before blogs and tweets became a thing, Barbara Brown Taylor lamented the cheapening of our discourse. In When God is Silent she writes about the assault on language in an age of too-many words. Human beings once relied upon the “inherent stability” and “sturdiness” of words. Now, so much of our dialogue is vapid. We scroll mindlessly, our intake as nutritious and satisfying as the carob pods the prodigal son devoured in his hunger.

We were warned in the 90s by conservatives that Derrida, Rorty, and the deconstructionists would destroy civilization, that words would become meaningless. Perhaps they were right. Yet, the same conservatives cheer a President who regularly cheapens words, tweeting (at times, over 100x a day) 280-word rants to name-call, blame-shift, and project. And now when the moment is ripe, liberals pontificate about the importance of truth with about as much sincerity as Pontius Pilate when he asked, “What is truth?”

While there is far-too-much false equivalence happening nowadays, I do think it’s fair to say that both the political left and political right far-too-often appear to use words as tools for manipulation rather than conduits of connection.

That’s why I decided to teach this course – “Reading and Writing for the Pastoral Life.” My friend and fellow-Twelver, Jeff Munroe, created and taught it a few years ago. Then it sat dormant, in a course catalog, longing for revival for-such-a-time-as-this. I thought about my students, studying the Word of God in an attempt to communicate good news across the connection-chasm in an age of distrust.

When I went to seminary, pop-up notifications didn’t appear on our phones (because phones were plugged into walls) and Twitter hot-takes weren’t a thing (because, what’s a Twitter?), so we had space in-between to reflect and not react. My students are wrestling with meaningful language in a culture of too-many-words in too-quick-a-time in a way my generation didn’t. And so, this class invites them to the work of slow-marinated, reflective writing.

They begin by reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a wisdom-text for aspiring writers. Then they get to choose from a list I offer them. Some are reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. Others are wading through Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Some are enjoying Dan White’s Love Over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, and Healing our Polarized World.

The Underneath

Do you sense a theme? You see, wise pastors (and chaplains and social workers and all the many vocations they engage) are needed today – women and men who survey what Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor calls “the underneath” and Rev. Craig Barnes calls “the subtext,” that deeper place within that holds our hopes, our longings, our needs, our fears.

And no matter your religious or political allegiance, your underneath matters (Psalm 42:7). Liberals have underneaths and conservatives do too. We’re all brim-full of fear and longing. So, these texts offer a way of seeing beneath and beyond when we’re fixated with the illusory surface-appearance.

A student discovered this recently. He shared with me that he’d started an essay for my class as a rant about a political grievance. His first draft was animated and angry…but it was a needed therapeutic exercise to expel the demons, he said. Round two was tough. He sat in silence, listening for a burgeoning word from within, but only heard the snickering of his inner critic. Yet, committed to listening, he waited.

Eight days later a hopeful path forward emerged. His essay revealed all the goodness that comes with deep and fruitful reflection, words offered with care and compassion. “Strangely,” he told me, “in the in-between I found myself less compulsive in all areas of life. I ate better. I paid attention more. My soul feels larger for it.”

I pray that in these challenging times, my students are (re)discovering the inherent stability and sturdiness of words. But then comes the challenge of speaking good and thick words truthfully and prophetically in an age of suspicion. Stuck in our reactive-reptilian brains, we’re hair-triggered nuclear reactors, waiting to explode. My students are afraid to speak, at times, because any word – racism, privilege, justice, even mask — might result in a Monday morning email from a church elder or a rebuke from Aunt Judy on Facebook.

Do you listen well, even when you disagree? Do you pay attention long enough to provide hospitality to the cacophonous voices within that rise up?

Who Said That?

Test yourself for a moment. Do words like these awaken primitive defenses within you? Are you crafting a reactive-response even as you read?

People hate this kind of talk.
Raw truth is never popular.
But here it is, bluntly spoken:
Because you run roughshod over the poor
and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I know precisely the extent of your violations,
the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
taking bribes right and left
and kicking the poor when they’re down.
Justice is a lost cause. Evil is epidemic.
Decent people throw up their hands.
Protest and rebuke are useless,
a waste of breath.
Seek good and not evil—
and live!
You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
being your best friend.
Well, live like it,
and maybe it will happen.
Hate evil and love good,
then work it out in the public square.
Maybe God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
will notice your remnant and be gracious.

If this were posted on social media by Chuck DeGroat, I can imagine a range of reactive responses. Some might say, “Preach” or “That’s so good.” Others might wonder if I’ve been reading Critical Race Theory.

What’s your gut reaction to these words? Do you read them to validate your theology? Do they offend you? What stirs within?

They’re the words of the Old Testament prophet Amos. (And no, Amos was not a Marxist).

They’re true words. True enough for liberals and conservatives and libertarians. True enough for Calvinists and Anabaptists.

Words meant to lead us into quiet, unhurried reflection rather than hair-trigger reaction.

Can we listen? I’ll confess, I struggle to listen. But I’m trying. I long for deep to speak to deep, for our shared fears and longings to manifest in connected conversations rather than disconnected divisions.

My meme continues to float in digital space, severed from a trusted source, in cyber-exile, where words go to die. I’m not particularly bothered that my name isn’t on the floating meme. After all, I’ve written on narcissism, so I hope I’ve dealt a bit with my own.

But I am bothered by the lack of care for words today. Two thousand years ago, words were affixed to the Cross where Jesus hung saying, “King of the Jews.” They were words meant to mock. But the Word himself would not be mocked. God’s outstretched arms embrace even the mockers, because he knows the underneath – he knows how scared we really are.

Today, I see too-many words that label, demean, twist, distort, and mock. I see my own words, sometimes offered anxiously, only cheapening our discourse. I long to offer words that are sturdy and stable, even as they are challenging and disruptive. I wonder if I can listen as much as I wonder if you can listen. But I don’t despair.

Even now, in the madness of the moment, I trust that a story is being written beyond the scope of our seeing by One who spoke a word into chaos, ushering light into darkness.

Chuck DeGroat

Chuck teaches Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His sojourn as a pastor meandered through Orlando and out to San Francisco, where he started church counseling centers in both places. Chuck is a church consultant, a therapist, a spiritual director, and author of four books. He’s married to Sara and has two teenage daughters.

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