Community formation and social media: Conflict as a place to practice and perfect love

Posted Jul 22, 2014 | New Media Project

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By Deborah Arca, guest blogger


This is the seventh in a twelve-part series on Community formation and social media.

Deborah Arca“And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

The Internet today is a unique and extraordinary space for Christians to practice love and model compassion, charity, and hospitality to the rest of the world. And we need to learn how to do this amidst conflict. Unfortunately, we don’t tend to do a very good job of it most of the time.

As a managing editor at a multi-faith religion and spirituality site, the topic of dealing with conflict comes up daily. Patheos is home to some 350 blogs representing a broad spectrum of religious belief—from Pagan to Evangelical, Catholic to Hindu, Muslim to Atheist, and everything in between. About two years after launching Patheos, the management team decided to create a private Facebook page for our bloggers—a community where they could share ideas, tips, stories, and camaraderie. Right away, there was conflict. One blogger would post a link to a controversial post that offended another blogger. Comments quickly deteriorated, and the threads got nasty. So much for trying to build community! It was a wake-up call to all of just how hard it is to navigate conflict online around faith issues.

But given our commitment from day one to “hosting the whole conversation on faith” and creating a platform where everyone can have a space at the table, we’ve had to learn how to move through conflict while staying in community. It’s clear that one thing it takes to engage in conflict while remaining in relationship is just practice. As we learn to fight well, debate charitably, ask the questions we’d never ask face to face, listen to answers we’d never consider on our own, and test out our voice on the Internet, we will most likely be more confident and better discussion partners face to face. Patheos forces us (me) to deal with conflict head-on, offering us a chance to 1) observe and consider our own reactions, and 2) respond in a way that demonstrates Christian love and community.

We talk amongst our team and with our bloggers a lot about how to deal with conflict on the blogs—especially the mean comments. Some of our very biggest bloggers choose not to engage commenters at all (though the blog community usually does it for them), while others try to practice radical love by responding to each person. Sometimes, despite every effort, a commenter continues to be abusive or disruptive and we have to block that person, but we don’t do that very often.

I’m convinced that respectfully engaging conflict can enrich our lives as people of faith. The more we practice engaging the other while holding on to our own True North, the more we become mature as Christians and as citizens of the world. I am especially grateful for a social media platform that provides a place for progressive Christians to find their voice and articulate their vision; we are becoming stronger together and developing an online presence that has tremendous potential for healing and good in the world.

Finally, if we believe that each person is created in the image of God, then we must remember that behind every snarky or mean-spirited comment is a flesh-and-blood person with a history and a journey often filled with wounds (whose isn’t?), bearing the imprint of God. When I worked for the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, we often talked about the importance of holding young people in a loving gaze until they could see their own beauty for themselves. It takes a great deal of prayer, patience, and maturity to respond and see someone through the lens of love, especially in the combative culture of the Internet. But isn’t that what being Christ-like is ultimately all about?

Former Catholic priest Peter Scholtes wrote these lyrics back in 1966: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love / Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Will they know we’re Christians by our love in this digital age?

Deborah Arca is the Managing Editor of the Progressive Christian Channel at Patheos.com. Before joining the Patheos team, she was the Program Manager for the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project, and then the Programs in Christian Spirituality, at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. She lives in Denver, CO.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Sami Mikhail 22 Jul
    Well focused on the why. A bit lacking on the how.

    I'd be interested in your thoughts on "how to turn conflict into meaningful dialog."

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