The magnetism of peace
In 2005, I was gifted a book called Slander, by Ann Coulter. There's no other way of describing my experience of reading that book than to say that it was responsible for my political birth, for good and for ill. I learned from Ann that mainstream media is agenda driven, not facts driven. I also learned from her that historians, like scientists, are generally not unbiased observers. They bring political philosophies and personal hobby horses to bear on events of the past and present. As obvious as these things are to most adults, these were world shaking revelations to me in 2005. "Truth is everywhere at risk!" I realized, and set about a self-appointed quest to contend for its preservation in my own small ways.
What ways were those? The most cliche ways in existence, that's what. I consumed a shocking number of hours of political talk radio, read books (mostly polemical), and regurgitated a constant flow of talking points on social media about history, politics, culture, and even theology. I spent hours every single day inviting yard barkers in my car speakers to yell at me, whereupon I would log onto my computer and yell at my friends on social media. Oh, I also blogged. Really dumb, amateurish stuff, let me tell you.
But a series of experiences over a period of years caused me to divest from those overwrought, ill-conceived habits. The first experience was the progressive realization that I was talking to myself. The only difference between a person who yells about ideology (any ideology) on social media and someone who does it on a street corner is that the former doesn't have to wear a coat if they want to yell during winter. It hit me, "I'm like a crazy person."
Around that time I also changed careers. What had allowed me for the better part of seven years to consume talk radio for eight hours a day was a career driving delivery trucks that only had AM radio installed. I quit my last driving job in 2012 and entered Dallas Theological Seminary full-time. While I underwent few changes in my politics at that time, I did realize very quickly what an absurdist echo chamber the world of talk radio is. I had been angry for seven years, and suddenly, though my politics and worldview hadn't shifted, I was no longer angry. It was finally clear: talk radio was an intravenous drip of pure angst, and often anger. It wouldn't be too hyperbolic to compare my recovery of peace with Nebuchadnezzar's return to sanity after he'd spent untold months roaming the wilds of Babylonia as a wild animal:
At the end of the days, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to the heavens, and my reason returned to me.
But in actuality, my divestment from social media agitation was more gradual than immediate. It was clear that wielding a Facebook megaphone was an exercise in futility. On Facebook, the majority of one's "followers" already know you personally. No one likes to be preached at by their friends. It's a human reality. We are more receptive to judgment from strangers than from those who know us, because it hurts less.
I had only partially learned my lesson. Twitter suddenly seemed like a worthwhile indulgence, so I dove in and proceeded to elbow my way into discussions with countless strangers about all the topics that mattered: politics, theology, ethics, social sciences. After all, this was the year Barack Obama was campaigning for a second term in the White House. He had to be stopped for the sake of humanity. I know, because I watched Dinesh D'Souza's 2016: Obama's America.
Despite my best tweets of 2012, Obama won a second term.
I was disappointed for a variety of reasons, but most centrally because I had an overwhelming sense that American values broadly speaking were no longer identifiable with my own. It was a moment when I realized, with not a small amount of panic, that the sociopolitical portion of my identity no longer had a grounding in the culture around me. Social conservatives, especially Christians, had been uprooted by the general election of 2012.
Shortly after that election, I read an article at First Things that became instantaneously pivotal in my life, and for my identity as a Christian. The author of the piece, a Catholic by the name of Elizabeth Scalia, gave voice to my feelings:
[America isn't] coming back because half the country doesn't want it, or didn't even recognize what it had and therefore won't miss it, and because for young adults and the generations coming up, the backbone of conservative theory (rugged individualism, privacy, minimal government) is a complete non-sequitur; it does not compute.
But Scalia wasn't just bellyaching about millennials. She began her piece with the words, "I am relieved at the outcome of the election," and finished with a declaration that became my own:
Believers who feel defeated by this election have actually been given a great gift; they've been given the opportunity to divest themselves of the sin of idolatry and pride. The battle is not between parties; it is between things seen and unseen. It is between light and dark. The stuff before our eyes, all these earthly concerns, earthly governance, it plays out ultimately for the profit of our souls, not our retirement accounts. If we are professing Christians, then we understand the narrative is moving forward to a certain conclusion; the pageant of salvation leads, always, to a complete divesting of everything that has come before. The only way to victory [...] is to play strictly for God. And God's ways are not our ways, His thoughts not our thoughts, His "shining city on a hill" like nothing in our imagining.
In reading Scalia that day, I was able to untangle my identity in Christ from my identity as an American. I wouldn't say I "lost" my American identity. I still retain most of my political leanings from that stage of my life and will endeavor to educate my children about their country's history and instill in them a certain appreciation for America's political accomplishments over the centuries, as well as the sacrifices that fueled those accomplishments. But I have learned that political agitation in the age of social media is an hilariously overrated endeavor, and that, getting back to Scalia, the only thing that really matters is to "play for God".
Perhaps not coincidentally, overlapping with the demise of my commitment to online political activism was a long inquiry into Orthodox Christianity that had begun in 2010. There are two canonized, Orthodox saints whose exhortations have, along with that Scalia article, shaped my current perspective about the merits of using social media megaphones for "contending for truth on the internet". Both of them were Russians whose lives partially overlapped between the mid-18th and late 19th-centuries. The earlier of the two, St. Seraphim of Sarov, is known above all other things for a quote famously attributed to him:
Acquire the spirit of peace, and around you thousands will be saved.
Most people who invoke this quote cannot tell you its actual origin, and therefore cannot speak to its context. And most Orthodox websites seem content to let the quote dangle out in space devoid of any context at all. Hence, it is somewhat up for grabs what St Seraphim was precisely getting at. As such, the quote is often rendered with minor affectations reflecting the user's own interpretation. Sometimes it is, "Acquire the Spirit of peace", which ostensibly refers to the Holy Spirit Himself. Other times "spirit" is not capitalized, ambiguously conveying that an "attitude of peacefulness" is what the saint had in mind. Others take this angle further, rendering that which must be acquired overtly as "a peaceful spirit". Everything I've read inclines me to believe that St. Seraphim's intention was probably more in line with the latter interpretation. "Shun the spirits of angst and confrontation" would be a likely parallel expression of the saint's exhortation.
A peaceful spirit is reassuring. All parents understand this. If a crisis is ever unfolding, a parent instinctively remains calm around their child and reassures them, "You're safe." There's a great moment in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar that elucidates this idea. After the two main protagonists realize their mission to save humanity has likely failed, Anne Hathaway's character coldly reminds Matthew McConaughey's "Cooper" that his knowledge of relativity should've prepared him for this moment. But Cooper's concerns are more basic. He's concerned about his 10-year-old daughter whom he previously left with the impression that everything would be ok, and now she was doomed to die without ever hearing from her father again. Then this exchange happens:
I think this principle is universal. Healthy people simply don't gravitate to the loud guy on the corner yelling and preaching and panicking about "saving the culture". They gravitate to the person who maintains their peace in the midst of chaos. This is why I no longer (for the most part) provoke discussion on social media about topics of contention, whether it be politics, faith, or social issues. I'm always happy to answer questions if asked, but I'm much more likely to engage such topics in a one-on-one situation where I and my interlocutor can see each other's eyes and sense each other's personhood. Instigating such discussions in an impersonal venue like social media, with the megaphone of a news feed, simply does not change hearts and minds. It might have an effect on that minor demographic of people who don't yet go about their lives asserting a false certainty about virtually everything, but that demographic is waning fast thanks to social media's orientation toward confirmation bias.
The second saint I mentioned is St Theophan. In a famous letter to a wealthy young socialite who sought his counsel, Theophan exhorted her thusly with respect to her concern for the betterment of an impersonal "humanity":
If each of us did what was possible to do for whoever was standing right in front of our eyes, instead of goggling at the community of mankind, then all people in aggregate would at each moment be doing that which is needed by those in need, and by satisfying their needs, would establish the welfare of all mankind...
Fyodor Dostoevsky, the famous Russian, Christian existentialist wrote in The Brothers Karamazov an important corollary approximately fourteen years prior to Theophan's letter:
The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. The more I hate men individually, the more I love humanity.
When I was in high school, I attended the same Southern Baptist church in Mesquite, TX as Operation Save America's founder and former national director, Flip Benham. Flip was and is known for his highly contentious, questionable mode of engaging the abortion industry in America. Parallel to his national ministry was local, Dallas area "Noel Ministries", headed up by Kristine O'Dell, sister-in-law to the same church's pastor. The contrast between these two ministries was the contrast between Theophan's "goggling at the community of mankind" and Dostoevsky's "love for man in particular".
I personally saw it on display one Saturday when Kristine took a handful of us from the youth group to visit an abortion provider in the Dallas area. Kristine had experienced abortion directly. She had chosen to have her daughter aborted some years prior to her embrace of Christ, and her newly established ministry now bore the posthumous name of her daughter, Noel. While the rest of us looked on, Kristine knelt silently in prayer on the edge of the sidewalk that passed along the front of the abortion clinic's property. As young girls occasionally passed by on their way to abort their children, Kristine would gently plead with them to speak with her for a moment. Most of them didn't, but a couple of them did and ended up never entering that place as a result.
Illustratively, Flip Benham arrived on the scene at the same building, without forewarning, to engage in his own protest. As Kristine quietly conversed with a young woman, out of no where came Flip. Disregarding the law about trespassing on the provider's property, Flip swaggered across the front lawn barking aloud various and sundry anti-abortion platitudes to no one in particular, like a drunk homeless man in a public park, culminating in his finger-wagging charge to the girl in conversation with Kristine that "You're going in there to murder your child!" The girl broke away from Kristine in that moment and fled into the building to escape Flip's ire.
It was many years later that I fully understood the significance of that moment. A young girl was actually on the fence about whether to snuff out the life of her child, and in her most vulnerable moment, the salvific "peace" being offered by Kristine was drowned out by the crank on the corner, and a life was literally lost. It's an extreme example, but its application is layered and far-reaching. Because I can no longer distinguish social media preaching from the crank on the corner who preaches to no one in particular, I can no longer accept that social media is a legitimate venue for affecting meaningful, positive change of any kind.
As an ironic aside, I used to look down my nose at people who used Facebook solely as a platform for sharing pet and baby pics. I now think this is one of the few valid uses of the platform.
But I digress. In no way do I want to offer myself, personally, as a model. I do hope, however, that my experience traveling the spectrum of social media usage (and the conclusions I've drawn from it) can provoke even one person to rethink the "noise level" of their online presence, and invest more in "the person standing right in front of their eyes" instead. And may I heed my own words, and those of Ss. Theophan and Seraphim.
Acquire the spirit of peace, and around you thousands will be saved.
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