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Dear Christian trolls of the Internet

Photo: Patrick/Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Patrick/Wikimedia Commons

Dear Christian trolls of the Internet:

We need to talk.

I think you know what this is about. Or at least I hope you do. Your passive-aggressive condescension and thinly veiled bullying have gone on for far too long. Sometimes, I wonder if you’re even aware of what you’ve become: trolls. That pains me, because everyone else seems to know. And the advice, “don’t read the comments” isn’t very helpful for those of us committed to fostering relationships, and building community online.

don't feed the troll Flickr: Bri (CC BY-SA 2.0)

don’t feed the troll
Flickr: Bri (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. The word, in this context, means more or less the same thing that it does in fairy tales: those who hide in safe and protected places (under bridges is a good metaphor for our purposes), attacking pretty much anyone who crosses by. Maybe those victims are sharing reflections on their own spiritual journeys, whether here, or here, or here. Maybe they’re publishing news about developments or struggles in the Body of Christ, like here, or here, or here. But you, Christian trolls, are always ready and waiting, armed with snippets from sacred texts and memories of the church in days gone by. Someone interpreted scripture in a new way. Someone used the wrong prayer resource. Someone loved too hard, or served the wrong people, or worshipped too contemporary, or invoked the wrong saint, or demonstrated truthiness too truthily.

And so you attack. And you consume.

Listen: I get it. This was never your intention. You meant only to correct fellow Christians (whether or not you still see them that way) who had gone astray. But I’m not sure about your approach, Christian trolls. You see, I’ve watched you for some years now. And while you always seem to have something to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you add anything constructive to the conversation. Why is that?

We’re all trying to figure out how to accommodate fair and healthy conversations online. That, in itself, is a lively discussion, and many people are working hard to provide guidelines for civilized discourse. But you know what? I feel like this should be easier for those of us called to lives of discipleship. Those called to a lives of love. Those called to lives that witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than ‘Jerks for Jesus.’

Of course, Christians have always been there to support and correct one another. St. Paul’s Epistles provide the perfect example: in his travels, and with his letters, Paul ministered to fledgling congregations in the early Church. And they weren’t all kittens and roses: Paul reprimanded the Corinthians for their divisions; he explained what servanthood looked like for the Philippians; he clarified the relationship between grace and law for the Galatians. But these corrections took place within the context of relationships that had been built around love and prayer:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:3-6)

In short, Paul did not troll the early Church.

“But people are WRONG,” you say. “Wrong on the Internet!” Yes, Christian trolls, that can happen—just as people can get it wrong in face-to-face relationships. And in those circumstances, let me suggest a few options:

  1. Breathe. Take a walk. Eat a sandwich.
  2. Engage the matter, peacefully. A difference of opinion need not provoke name calling, personal attacks, or blanket statements about one particular denomination/gender/whatever. (Galatians 6:1)
  3. Contact the individual privately. Email them. Call them. Hear them out. (Matthew 8:15)
  4. Pray about it. Talk to your pastor or priest about your concerns.
  5. Continue to engage others in the public forum, exercising the fruits of the spirit. They may offer perspective you haven’t considered. Forgive others. (Romans 12:18, Colossians 3:12-15)
  6. Consider your witness: love others. (John 13:35)
  7. If none of that works, shake the dust from your feet, and walk away. (Luke 9:5)

Christian trolls, you are better than this. Be who you are: trolling is not the ministry to which you were called, and a troll is not the person God created you to be. Let’s live out the faith of baptism in our relationships with one another—both online, and offline.

About Jesse Dymond

I'm a priest from the Diocese of Huron, serving as Online Community Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I have a lifelong interest in computer technology, and continue to pursue interdisciplinary studies in science and theology. I love composing and performing music, cooking, photography, sailing, and riding vintage motorcycles.
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14 Responses to Dear Christian trolls of the Internet

  1. People are wrong on the internet? Say it isn’t so.

  2. Good, thoughtful piece of writing, Jesse.

  3. Amen Jesse! You said what I have wanted to say but couldn’t put into words. They don’t just troll the internet but also Letters to the Editor, papers and our congregations. Well said.

  4. Amen Jesse! You said what I have wanted to say but couldn’t put into words. They don’t just troll the internet but also Letters to the Editor, papers and our congregations. Well said.

  5. Jesse, that is a wonderful post. I just read it aloud to someone for whom it provided great encouragement. I don’t recall the scripture that equips & compels us to judge others in ways that belittle and discourage & distance people from the love of God.

  6. Alleluia! Amen!

    And in some other forums (fora?) in which I am active I would fully expect a troll (anonymous of course) to tell me I’ve spelled Alleluia incorrectly, and that I probably don’t pronounce Amen right either!

    By which I mean to say that this thoughtful blog applies to large segments of the Internet, where it is very common to have meanful comment on some well-thought but not universally accepted opinion deteriorate, almost “instantly” (within a few comments) into a flame war.

    And while perhaps it is a greater offence to be a Christian troll (and Jesse has supplied the biblical references to support that notion) because it negates everything Christians are called to be, trolling in other forums is just as much a violation of good manners and societal norms. Ad hominem attacks, misquoting, making stuff up, using foul language, racism, sexism, most isms, are just as offensive in an Internet group about birdwatching as they are in one devoted to discussion of serious Christian questions, and would probably not be tolerated in face-to-face groups.

    The enabling principle for this kind of behaviour is the notion that anonymity allows freer expression of ideas than indentifiability. I’m not sure that anyone has actually ever demonstrated the truth of that, but it is without doubt the single most important factor for trolls. It allows them to be offensive, without having to take responsibility for the offence. Which is one of the reasons that I generally do not use aliases in Internet groups or Facebook groups to which I belong.

    That has occasionally brought me personal attacks, from people hiding behind a pseudonym, to which my usual response, if it is tolerated by the group, is to withdraw from the group. Usually that solves it. However, I had one experience with a group moderator (it happened to be an email group for expressing particular political views), who, when I asked to be dropped, began to send a torrent of abusive email, and I had to actually persuade three providers of free email addresses to block the guy before he gave up! I would hope he wasn’t a Christian, in the real sense of that!

  7. Sad, isn’t it, that he should have to say this.

  8. Jesse, telling truth, carefully, and with love. Well done, guy.

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