War for the Dignity of Twitter

New blog correspondent Jeff Porter joins us for a loose, informal conversation that touches on social media, shame, secularization and white supremacy.
  • Social Media (01:40)
  • Shame and White Supremacy (13:53)
  • Secularization and White Supremacy (25:17)
  • Prayer (32:02)

 

If you follow us on Facebook or follow our blog there are probably a lot of people whose names you recognize, but whose voices you’ve never heard. Most recently we added Jeff Porter to our roster of writers. Jeff’s an academic and a teacher and a campus minister here in D.C.

In June, he and Rick Barry had a long-distance conversation to talk about Jeff’s article, “Secular Supremacy.” One of the big things Rick was thinking about a lot in June and July was his relationship to social media. So that ends up being a big part of what they talked about, as well.

In this episode…
  • Jeff is a Residential Minister at Georgetown University. He teaches philosophy and religious studies at Prince George’s Community College and the Catholic University of America, where he is also a Ph.D. student in the Religion and Culture program.

  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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Interview Transcript

Rick Barry: You said it was a hard week to be on Facebook. What were you talking about?

Jeff Porter: I think a big part of that is just the temptation to try to change people’s minds constantly. I’m very aware of how difficult that is, and that it’s not really my job all the time, but still I fall into that trap. If I’m not careful, the next thing I know, I’m arguing about something with someone that I never really intended. Then I have to take a step back and realize that this is going nowhere, and it’s not even really something that I wanted to set out to do in the first place.

Rick Barry: I’ve been trying to figure out is setting limits that will protect my own mental and emotional health and make sure that I’m not getting so involved in conversations online that I’m neglecting the rest of the work I’m supposed to be doing, but also not letting go of opportunities to speak or ask questions, or learn or help other people learn that are coming up. Where do I draw that line? How do I draw those limits?

As someone who works with college students, if you really wanted to, you could justify any social media rabbit hole as being part of work, part of keeping up with what the kids are talking about. How are you doing keeping yourself out of the digital vortex?

Jeff Porter: I do think that it’s mental health. But even besides that, how do I remain an attentive husband, and an attentive dad, and not get lost in the constant turning of outrage and excitement? It’s important to just walk away sometimes.

Another danger that I think about with social media that I don’t think is talked about too often is that it’ll change how people communicate, how we think. I can experience it in my own life. If I’m spending too much time on Twitter, I notice that I start to think in 140- or 280-character sound bites. The way that I am parsing out an argument, or putting together my thoughts, are simplified, and it’s not very helpful.

Rick Barry: I know I’ve said this before, and I think I even said it to you, but if I had to design the worst possible communications infrastructure for thinking and talking about important topics, or thinking and talking about government and public policy, I don’t know if I could design an ecosystem worse than Facebook and Twitter.

But I’m constantly rubbing up against the fact that, for any contemporary non-profit, we have to be on Facebook. For any organization trying to help people work through politics in the public square, we have to be on and taking in information through Twitter, because that is what drives so many of the stories that end up being on people’s mind, and that’s where so many people’s point of entry into political discourse is. So we need to be there. We have to be speaking there. We have to be seeing what people are seeing, and hearing what people are hearing. It’s been a long slog to figure out how to use these platforms constructively, because everything about having a conversation on Twitter that’s not in DMs means that you’re not really talking to someone. You’re performing a conversation.

Jeff Porter: So if these three platforms are necessary evils, do we have a duty to try to sanctify them in some way? Is there a culture of war for the dignity of social media? Is there a Benedict Option for social media? Should we all migrate to a different platform?

Rick Barry: To me that idea of the Benedict Option-type approach of maintaining a full, robust practice of Christianity by retreating into more protective communities ignores the fact that the only robust practice of Christianity is a Christianity that is engaged deeply and thoroughly with a broken world. Maybe it’s the Lesslie Newbigin in me. I’m a big fan of missionary theology and a missionary reading of the Christian faith. But to me, starting from the calling of Abraham, if it’s not practicing making your faith incarnate in ways that create a lot of touch points with people and communities that don’t share your faith, it’s not actually a robust practice of the Christian faith. I think there’s room for a monastic movement as kind of a subset of specialized practice within the Christian faith. I think it’s good that things like L’Arch and L’Abrie exist for people to have Sabbath, and receive and provide dedicated spiritual care, but I definitely don’t think that’s what most Christians are supposed to be called to most of the time. And I think you just got me to talk myself into staying on Twitter.

Jeff Porter: Well, one thing that has been popping off on Twitter this last week and is really sad for me is some of the scandal on the Geneva Commons Facebook world. I don’t know if you’ve- you’ve seen any of that?

Rick Barry: I’ve seen one headline about it, and it just seemed too exasperating and depressing to click on given the week I’ve been having. So fill me in.

Jeff Porter: I don’t think it’s necessary to get into the details of what the scandal is, but in short, it was originally supposed to be a private Facebook group for PCA elders and deacons. And over the years it seems like it has turned into a very—I don’t know how to say it other than “bro-y,” alt right-community.

And certainly lots of people left once it started to turn that way. But for me it demonstrates that there is really no safe place. Even if you do try to migrate away from these more open platforms where everything is aired out in public, it doesn’t protect anyone from tribalism, or from reducing complex issues and important issues down to memes and bite-sized little arguments that just further exasperate people, troll people, denigrate people. Sort of like you said, these platforms are not designed to be places for really great, robust conversation. Even though you can share lectures, you can share long-written pieces, inevitably in the comments it turns into the quick, bite-sized little jabs here and there. All just to win, I don’t know, argument points?

Rick Barry: One of the arguments in favor of being on the internet and on message boards back before Facebook, when no one used their real name, was that the anonymity gave you a degree of freedom that you didn’t have when you were having face-to-face conversations, or when your conversations had to be tied to your actual identity, when people could easily map what you said to who you are, or when your words could follow you. And that seems, to some degree, be the M.O. behind private Facebook groups a lot of times.

But it almost ignores the fact that, a lot of times, if there are things we wouldn’t say when our words can be tied to who we are, or if there are things we wouldn’t say if we can’t be sure everyone around us agrees with us, they’re maybe things that aren’t constructive to say in society. Or they’re maybe things that aren’t constructive to say as a Christian.

We just had an interview a couple weeks ago with Steve Park about public shaming, and someone I follow on Twitter recently shared a book by one of her professors called Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between healthy shame and unhealthy shame. The semantic range of the English word “shame,” where there’s no guilt in Christ, and the enemy is the one who wants us to be paralyzed in shame for our sin, but there is also a healthy version of what we would call “shame.”

Scripture doesn’t use that word, but the whole scenario of, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” is an example of Christ using shame in a conversation with people. And maybe I’m reading between the lines here, and as someone with a seminary degree you can push back on me on this, but the rich young ruler walking away sad for he has many possessions is, by implication, him feeling ashamed that he is not willing to let go of these things. Or even all of Luke 15 is designed to get the Pharisees to feel shame at their behavior—it’s just a litany of examples Christ is giving them about why they need to feel ashamed of this before they can come to him.

Jeff Porter: I can think of two ideas attached to that:

The first is that, if it’s not shame that is the feeling that alerts someone that they need to confess their sin and repent, I don’t really know what a better word for that awareness would be. Shame in itself is not bad. I think if our goal in any conversation, whether it’s online or not, is to shame someone, then we’re being self-righteous. Jesus is fully righteous. If he shamed someone, it’s for his glory and their edification. That’s not always true for us, as sinners who like to feel good after we own someone on the internet.

But sometimes speaking truth is gonna make people feel shameful. Especially right now, where there’s been a huge about-face about the reality of white supremacy, and the participation of white people who thought that they were supposedly “color blind” up until a couple weeks ago, having to wrestle with the realization that, “I was wrong, and I need to change.” That’s gonna be really uncomfortable. And for some people, that discomfort is an impetus for repentance and self-examination.

Sadly, for other people, that discomfort, that realization that maybe I’ve been doing something wrong, feels like someone is shaming me, and it’s upsetting. And because we’re imperfect people in a fallen world, we’re not ever gonna be able to do that perfectly. So I feel like the short answer is to never intentionally try to shame someone on the internet, because we can’t do that without being above reproach anyway. But at the same time, we can’t be timid because we’re afraid that someone might feel shame. That also is not very biblical.

Rick Barry: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about, I think it was my third job in politics. I was working for a member of the state legislature in New York. Between our Albany office and our district office I was one of two white people on staff. Our district was majority black. Our representative was black. I was a minority white in our district and on our team. And I was young. I was 22, 23. I had grown up in the Massachusetts suburbs, then was four years in art school, then suddenly thrown into campaigns at a bunch of different levels of government.

And I remember one day, I was talking with another member of staff. I don’t even remember what the issue or policy was, but I said something that even now, 14 years later, I just shake my head. I really cringe at remembering it.

And from the other room, our chief of staff, to her credit, did not explode at me for being an ignorant white person who has no idea about the experiences of the constituents he’s talking about. She just, very calmly and casually, jumped into the conversation and asked from the other room, “What data are you basing that on?”

And I had to stop. I thought for a second, and I told her, “I guess just the authority of my own voice and rhetoric, if I had to say.”

Jeff Porter: [laughs]

Rick Barry: And she said, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

She had so much more patience with me then than I am inclined to have with so many other people now. I don’t know how to be that gracious sometimes. I mean, that was the first step in a years-long journey of realizing my own bias, my own prejudice, and then from there realizing that, if I feel this way, and have these things baked in, and our systems are products of the people who craft them, then unless I’m the only person with this, these things are probably baked into the systems around us as well.

And then, concurrently with all of that, learning history that was just left out [of my formal education]. I remember the first time I heard about Tulsa I thought it was made up. I thought it was a conspiracy theory.

Jeff Porter: Yeah, I had a a similar experience with the Philadelphia bombing. I had to tell the person who was referencing it, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Could you say that part again? Because I’ve never heard that, and that sounds insane!”

Rick Barry: So during this moment when years ago I went through this process of self-reflection, and embarrassment before the divine at the way I had ignored the maltreatment of people made in God’s image—or whatever phrase you want to use, if you’re not inclined to say it’s okay for Christians to feel shame. It took me a long time to digest this, and it took a lot of interaction with, and a lot of sitting quietly and listening to Christians who, unlike me, don’t pass for white before I started to understand and get what they were talking about, and actually give it credibility. So part of me feels like maybe it’s not great of me to be impatient with people who are starting that journey now.

Jeff Porter: Oh, for sure.

Rick Barry: But also, I started that journey in 2007, where there was just less information available to us, and [the information that was available] was not indexed nearly as well. There wasn’t the Pass the Mic podcast when my chief of staff asked me that question very gently. So I waffle back and forth. I get that this takes a long time, on the one hand. On the other, for the last 10 years it’s been a lot easier to start this journey than it was for most believers and most Americans who weren’t black in the ’90s and earlier.

Jeff Porter: Yeah. That impulse to shame people for not getting it sooner is just such a human impulse. It doesn’t have to be politics. It doesn’t have to be even morality. I have cousins who live in Bend, Oregon, which is just this really awesome little town on the eastern side of the Cascades in Oregon. It’s got this alpine-y feel, but it’s also high desert. There’s rafting and snowboarding and skiing. A million craft breweries. All that kinda stuff.

And there’s this disdain for Californians relocating there and “ruining Bend.” But the joke is that everybody there is from California—it’s just a matter of how long ago you got there. So people move to Bend from California, and then a year later they’re complaining about all the Californians moving there and ruining Bend.

Even in indie circles, once you discover a band, then anyone who discovers the band after you is just not really as cool, or not as with it.

So of course, when it’s something as important as morality and race, you’re gonna feel even more self-righteous for having learned the lesson before anyone else. “How could you ignorant people not know what I know on the same timeline as me?”

Rick Barry: That’s a touchpoint I’m really grateful for! Because generally (and I don’t remember if I’ve always been this way, or if it was something I saw someone else do or say that I realized was a better way of thinking about it), when it comes to bands or movies or TV shows, if there’s something I like and it becomes popular I’m usually happy. That means it’s gonna be more sustainable! It means more people get to enjoy it! I like this because it’s good, and it’s given things to my life, and I want it to give things to other people’s lives as well.

Maybe I need to transfer that emotional skill over to the deliberate practice of giving, attributing credibility and empathy to the testimony of Christians who don’t share my experience of the country.

Jeff Porter: For sure! That example that you gave of your Chief of Staff is such a good example, because when she “called you out,” for lack of a better term, she had to have known that it was going to make you feel shameful. But she obviously did it not in that spirit. It was in a spirit of love and edification.

She called you out on the fact that you were using some sort of baseless rhetoric. But because it was in person, she could use inflection. She could use tone. And she probably had an established relationship with you as an authority person, but also as someone that you respected. It wasn’t just authority. And she could leverage all of those things in that moment to make you realize something that you needed to realize, and shame was just a part of it.

But when it’s reduced to just a meme, or just a tweet, it’s impossible to pack any of those important nuances in. It just becomes warfare.

Rick Barry: Well, I mean, I’m sure she hated me.

Jeff Porter: [laughs].

Rick Barry: If she didn’t like me, she’s 100% justified in that. I went to art school. I studied creative writing. I was so unplugged from politics. I got a job on a campaign, almost accidentally, and then got promoted, and then got another campaign. And my only skill was writing. I was a good writer who knew nothing about government, nothing about policy. She had to be so annoyed with our representative hiring me. He wanted a press person, but didn’t realize how little I knew about policy. I’m sure I was maybe her least favorite staff member she’s ever had.

But that just makes the patience she had so much more astounding to me.

But the other thing is, when I got called out on something, my faith tells me I’m gonna screw up things like that. It tells me I’m subject to the noetic effects of the fall. If I’m not having ways in which I’m falling short of God’s promises pointed out to me, I’m maybe not practicing my faith properly, or I’m not putting myself into situations where the reality of who scripture says I am is being reinforced for me.

And that’s another thing that I’m having a hard time with. I almost don’t understand the—and I hate to use this term—but I almost don’t understand the fragility of not wanting to have ways in which you’ve done really important things wrongly pointed out to you. Because either that gets pointed out to you, and you become aware of that, or your faith is not true. Either your faith is true, or you don’t have to be called out on ways in which you fall short of the glory of God in very significant ways that should leave you cut off from him apart from the grace of Christ. If we’re not having our sins revealed to us, what are we doing? How are we growing?

Jeff Porter: Yeah. I think that’s important. There’s a long tradition in reformed theology and reformed ecclesiology of always being reformed.

When we think of the Reformation we can, we can point to Martin Luther and his anti-Semitism, and say, “Well, here’s an individual that followed God to an extreme, and preserved an important part of the church that was in dire need of reforming. Yet he was still a very broken human being. There are parts of his life that the gospel never really was able to penetrate.”

I think that we need to extend that same ability to accept the good, and not be afraid of critique, to not only our own lives, but our contemporary church, as well. “What are the things that we’ve gotten wrong in the last 10 years? The last 20 years? What are the things that I’ve gotten wrong?” And be open to it, and not be afraid of terrifying words.

Sometimes critical race theorists have important things for us to learn. That doesn’t mean we have to wholesale accept everything that they’re saying. But different voices can help us understand the shame that we desperately need to be aware of.

Rick Barry: We’re gonna post an article that you wrote (that I literally have two different drafts of on my desk right now) about secularization and white supremacy. You had made a point, or drew a parallel between pastors preaching to us about ways in which we actually live out a secular worldview, even when we proclaim Christ with our mouths, and people telling us that, even though we ourselves are not racist, or even though we call ourselves color blind and don’t hold animosity in our hearts toward people of another race, we may still live in line with attitudes and power structures that are racially biased.

I thought that was a really astute observation, because my whole private devotional life is built around Martin Luther’s four questions: “How does this passage lead you to praise God?” “How does it lead you to confess a sin?” “How does Jesus embody that praise and take that sin upon himself?” And then, finally, “How would your life be any different if you actually believed anything you just reflected on?”

My whole method of Bible study presumes that I don’t, in my heart of hearts, believe what I proclaim the way that I should believe it. And that has been a huge blessing to my life. So how did you draw that parallel? Where did that parallel come from for you?

Jeff Porter: I’m actually working on a dissertation on secularism. I’m a Ph.D. student at the Catholic University of America, and I’m in the religion and culture program. I particularly study the intersection of religion and culture. In my research, I have focused on mostly secularization and what’s called “the rise of the ‘nones’.” This is the emerging survey category of people who select “none” for their religious affiliation.

In the world of secularization theory, some of the loudest in the past decade have been thinking of secularization as a type of culture-building. Rather than the idea that secularization is just a subtraction of religion, more and more people are coming to idea that secularization is a type of culture in and of itself.

That’s certainly an idea that is, I think, very common in sermons. Those of us who go to church, especially at evangelical churches, hear this quite a bit. Maybe it’s “Watch out for the secular world,” or it’s, “Guard against the way that you are living: Do you just walk out this church and immediately adopt the secular culture of the day?” That’s a message that a lot of us Christians, especially conservative or evangelical Christians, can identify with. I became a Christian in high school, and for most of my Christian life, most of my devotional life, I’ve been made aware of the influences of a secular culture.

So during this recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and much greater awareness of things like systemic racism and cultures of white supremacy, I couldn’t help but connect the dots to how this relates to a lot of the secularization research that I do.

In my article I try to break down the three factors that social scientists point to when explain how a culture can have a particular valence—whether that culture is secularity or white supremacy. What is the structure of the society? What are the social statuses of the society? And how do those manifest in metaphysical beliefs?”

In secularity that manifests in this sort of default mode of thinking that God’s not involved in our life. We might make important decisions without really consulting God, or doing it [in a perfunctory way], without a spirit of devotion.

Rick Barry: You say, “without consulting God.” You’re studying at Catholic University, but you’re a Presbyterian and evangelical. For those who aren’t in D.C., it’s very, very common for evangelicals to do their Ph.D.s at Catholic University. But one of the things our [Presbyterian] denomination gets pinged on a lot is making decisions through conversation, and then praying as an afterthought at the end.

Jeff Porter: Yes!

Rick Barry: Opening and closing with prayer, and then just having conversation as though God’s not at the head of the table, leaving him out of the conversation to watch from the outside. A metaphor I use a lot is a family sitting around a table: How involved are the kids letting the parent be in the conversation? Are we just saying, “Hi” to the parent at the start and, “Bye” at the end, and then ignoring them the rest of the time?

What was the relationship to prayer in decision-making that was modeled for you growing up? Is that something that you were already used to coming into the PCA?

Jeff Porter: I grew in what I guess would be an “adjacently-Christian” home. My parents sort of became Christians when I was younger, and then fell away from the church. It was just enough for me to learn some Bible stories, and be familiar with what a church service looks like. So in high school, in a season of need, when I went back to the church looking for answers, things made sense, and it made it easier for me to find Jesus in that mix.

But most of my spiritual formation and my discipleship was in a very Americanized evangelicalism model, where there’s a way of trying to sanctify your own plans by throwing in a prayer at the end.

Prayer

Rick Barry: Before we go, I want us to join together in prayer.

A few episodes ago, I talked with Pastor John Onwuchekwa about group prayer. There was something he mentioned in that conversation that I’ve been thinking about a lot this summer. I don’t remember if it made it into the episode or not, but he talked about how important it is to realize that Jesus prayed at John 17 for us, for the disparate people who are knit together into his body. This is also something my colleague, Reverend Charles Drew, mentions a lot in our classes.

That’s been especially on my mind this week after I finally spent about five minutes breaking a weeks-long Facebook fast. There have been a bunch of crises that came up over the last few weeks—water heaters exploding, family members being rushed to the hospital, all sorts of things like that—that have been piling up for me and for my wife. So I just wasn’t on social media much at all in July.

One of the first things I noticed when I signed back in today was how quickly conversations devolved into people being pitted against one another, even people in the church. So, for my first podcast episode back in quite a while, on my first day back using Facebook in quite a while, I know it would do my heart good to read through that high priestly prayer in John 17, and to be reminded of what Jesus is praying for us. If you’ll join me in praying along with John 17 I’d be really grateful to be reminded of this together.

Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.

“I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

“But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.

“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.

“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”

Lord Jesus, the night you were betrayed, you drew alone and told your Father that you were going forward, not just for the people around you who believed in you, not just so that they could be one with you or one with each other, but so that everyone—everyone! Everyone!—who believes in you can be knit together, as close to one another as you are to your Father.

It’s very easy when we only interact with one another through these digital screens to forget that these people we’re separate from, we’re still supposed to be bound to spiritually. Remind of us of that over and over again. Forgive us for forgetting, for Jesus’s sake. By your Holy Spirit, lead us to do better, for Jesus’s sake. Help us to speak love and shame the devil.

In the name of your son, who prayed these things for us, so that your glory would be made complete.

Amen.

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