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Relationships are relationships, part 3: you are what you tweet

There has been a fair amount of talk lately about online bullying. And rightly so: the recent suicide of B.C.’s Amanda Todd reminds us not only that our words have the power to harm, but that they are just as potent online as they are in person. Sadly, sometimes even the death of a struggling teen isn’t enough to make us take a step back and think before we type.

Behind fortresses of keyboard and screen, internet users nonchalantly hurl insults and f-bombs at their friends and enemies, at politicians, corporations, colleagues, and strangers. And you know, I wish I could say Christians were different. But I can’t. Some of the most hurtful words I’ve seen online have been offered on religious forums and newspaper articles: because someone has chosen to worship God with the wrong musical instrument, or because another person’s perceived understanding of Koine Greek has led to different dietary regulations.

Of course, these acts of verbal violence would never take place “in real life”–because there are some things we just wouldn’t say to someone’s face, right? That should strike us as being problematic, because it assumes a false dichotomy: the notion that online life and offline life are mutually exclusive. It’s not a new idea, but one that has plagued us since the early days of the internet. The fact is, it’s simply not true. Role-playing games are a nice escape, but I’m no Guitar Hero®. Meanwhile, anonymous online comments fall somewhere between irresponsible and dishonest. Don’t get me wrong: I fully support an internet that is open and free. But as a disciple of Christ, I am committed to a certain way of life, and I can’t hang it up in the closet any time I turn the computer on. That calls for a certain amount of transparency, and a certain amount of self-awareness. What does that mean? It means that if I choose to be a jerk online, it’s not because I’m living in some alternate, virtual state. It’s because I’m being a jerk. Like it or not, this is real life.

Last week, Laura Marie Piotrowicz suggested that living life in a fishbowl is part of being a Christian. I think she’s right. But in the case of the internet, perhaps we’re better to think about living life in an aquarium… or even in the ocean. And for those called to be fishers, that’s a wonderful thing! You may remember that earlier this year, I compared what we do online to The Apostle Paul’s letters. The medium has changed, but our vocation remains the same.

I’ve worked with a number of dioceses and church groups as they have considered their own online ministries. The conversation usually begins by talking about policies: the perceived need for new policies that are somehow different than the ones we’re already using to provide guidelines for face-to-face relationships. It stems from the same mentality: the assumption that somehow, online relationships operate by different standards. The temptation is to maintain the status quo.

But I think if we’re willing to see the internet as nothing more than a different medium (with its own idiosyncrasies and methods,) we might be better able to see it as an extension of face-to-face communication. In terms of policies, that should make things pretty easy. For instance, if our communities maintain standards like these:

  • Two people should be always be present when meeting with youth or vulnerable persons
  • Windows should installed in doors

Then the decisions we make about online ministry might look something like this:

  • Online groups (Facebook pages, etc.), especially those dealing with youth, should always have two administrators who are accountable to one another and to the community
  • Emotionally-charged pastoral conversations should not occur over private email

When you think about it, it’s common sense. But the mentality that online relationships are different than offline relationship has become so ingrained in our society that often we don’t give it a second thought.

What do you think? Do you find it easier to consider your beliefs offline? Have you been the victim of others who have “checked their faith at the door” in online conversations? There are no wrong answers. You can disagree with me. But let’s discuss it like the people we are called to be. Remember, this is real life.

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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