Pardon the bloated metaphor, but imagine for a moment that the Internet is a buffet. A lot of what's served is lukewarm macaroni and cheese, passable but forgettable. Sometimes you stumble upon a dish that is both delicious and good for you. Buzzfeed is cotton candy, The Economist steamed broccoli. And Christianity Today—well, you can decide what culinary comparison fits best by the end of this editorial.
Recently, it seems, someone on the wait staff put out a heaping plate of sour candy. We are all going back for more, and it's making us quite sick.
Call it the tart deliciousness of moral outrage. From mayors' sex scandals to pastors' oddball comments to judges' incoherent rulings, we are reminded 24/7 of the extent of human folly. If anything, a nonstop news cycle gives us nonstop proof that sin pervades every person and institution. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, original sin "is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved"—and tweeted, we might add. There is no shortage of reasons to be outraged.
When justice is dashed and human dignity is maimed, anger is our right response. But what we do with that anger is the line between wisdom and our own folly. Increasingly, it seems, many of us are using it to show our social media and blog followers that we are on the right side of contentious issues. Who knew that being offended tasted so good?
Two recent examples of outrage from online Christendom: As the world welcomed Prince George Alexander Louis this July, some Christians reacted by harrumphing that secular media were inconsistent in calling him the Royal Baby, not the Royal Fetus. "How grand that the clump of cells in Kate's womb has now, as of today, crossed over the threshold of personhood!" snarked Baptist blogger Owen Strachan on Twitter. Strachan's pro-life point is well taken. But his reaction carried the whiff of a party pooper, out to set straight everyone who was simply celebrating the birth.
Another example came when, the day after the May tornado swept through Moore, Oklahoma, John Piper tweeted two passages from Job about calamity. Hours later, Rachel Held Evans launched a takedown of the Reformed pastor's entire "abusive" theology. The popular blogger even linked his teachings to the Sovereign Grace Ministries abuse scandal. (Evans later apologized for jumping the gun.) The Moore tornado seemed more a chance to rally the troops than to mourn for 23 victims and consider the church's practical response.
And this is to say nothing of Mark Driscoll, who gives fans and haters alike plenty of sour candy to satisfy our outrage hunger. Outrage at his comments, or outrage at comments about his comments. Whatever one thinks of the Seattle pastor's teachings, our virulent reactions keep us spinning in the dirt, each side further convinced of the rightness of its views.
The Rise of 'Outrage Porn'
Political cartoonist Tim Kreider put his finger on our problem in a recent essay: "So many letters to the editor and comments on the Internet [come from] people who have been vigilantly on the lookout for something to be offended by, and found it." Kreider admits that his job requires him to be "professionally furious." Yet he has come to lament the rise of "outrage porn." "Some part of us loves feeling (1) right and (2) wronged. But outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but, over time, devour us from the inside out."
Outrage begins to eat us alive when it is not channeled into creative love. It does not produce the righteousness we rightly seek (James 1:20). And there is only so much love you can demonstrate in 140 characters on a glowing screen.
But there's something more insidious about our outrage. Journalist Katie J. M. Baker wrote that one reason she indulges in "hate-reading"—wherein one visits a website just to feel outraged—is that it "never makes me feel inferior. Instead, I've realized, it makes me feel superior."
I wonder if at the root of our Internet outrage is the need to show that we are righteous—specifically, more righteous than others. That the ancient impulse to justify ourselves apart from God is driving so much Twitter and Facebook rage (including my own). It wouldn't be the first time that religious folks "trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt" (Luke 18:9, ESV).
The Reformed and the progressive bloggers, the Driscoll lovers and haters, the proponents of modesty culture and the despisers of it—all of us are equally under the power of sin. All of us receive the righteousness we so long for only through redemption in Christ Jesus. We can cultivate an online culture where we speak the truth in love only when we set aside the sour candy and feed on him instead.
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