The internet has provided us an amazing resource for engaging with our fellow man, discussing/debating ideas, and heaping foul abuse and nastiness on each other. Engaging in flame wars on the internet and mocking the viewpoint of the other person will do little to change the other person’s perspective. I am shocked at how often my brothers and sisters in Christ devolve to rants and abuse rather thank thoughtful discussion and debate. It is a sad reality that most men don’t bother to be gentlemanly or Christlike while engaging in internet discussion. Unfortunately, even pleasant arguing isn’t typically effective. It takes much more to effectively engage another person and properly represent Jesus in the process. I think the beginning of the problem is that most folks don’t reflect on what is needed to effectively represent Christ in the digital setting. Here are my 7 commandments for acting like a gentleman and an ambassador for Jesus.
- Engage the other person’s ideas. One of the worst things about internet debate is the tendency to avoid actually engaging in substantive discussion. Most folks jump over intelligently engaging and go right to taking cheap shots at the other guy. I am a big fan of asking questions. Inquiry can be the most powerful tool in debate, largely because most people don’t bother to thoroughly consider their worldview, so challenging questions can encourage them to assess their position more thoroughly. Simply encouraging folks to explain themselves can effectively create an opening for real debate. Plus, encouraging cols to explain themselves can be very disarming. Most folks are geared to fight. Refusing to play along with that plan can be powerful. I strongly suggest checking out Paul’s experience on Mars Hill. He didn’t blast the philosophers. He found common ground and engaged.
- Refrain from Ad Hominem. The king of internet discussion tactics is calling names or attacking the individual who is presenting the opposing perspective (ad hominem). It’s easier than dismantling an argument and can be satisfying for folks who are mainly looking to unleash some of their rage on an anonymous stranger. In addition to being a terrible way to win a debate, it is also pretty contrary to what Christians are supposed to act like. We are not enemies with non-believers. In fact, we share the gospel in an effort to help folks, not to win against them. We are called to glorify God, not us.
- Don’t assume that the other guy is stupid just because you disagree. Some of the most astonishingly brilliant men in history have been wrong about all sorts of things. Being incorrect is a factual problem, not a matter of intelligence. This is especially important because when we consider someone to be intellectually inferior we tend to become condescending or approach them with contempt. These attitudes are out of line when dealing with folks as representatives of Jesus.
- Be respectful, polite, and grace-filled. Most folks are looking for excuses to look down on you, talk down to you, stereotype you, or just plain be nasty. Don’t allow folks an excuse to pigeonhole your position. It’s far better to present a version of yourself that will defy their perspective. In addition, your politeness (particularly when the other person is being nasty with you) will make any observers of the argument more likely to be sympathetic to your viewpoint. It is of particular importance that you are aware of the limitations of the medium. The folks who are interacting with you have no way to know if you are being jovial, angry, condescending, sarcastic, etc. They will generally read inflection and tone into your words (and not charitably). This makes it necessary to be a bit exaggerated in your politeness, particularly when the other person attacks you. Jesus directed us to do good for those who attack us and the book of Proverbs informs us that soft words break hard bones.
- Know how to present your case. Engaging properly will mean nothing if you don’t know how to effectively argue your point of view. This means being well read and putting a little thought as to how to effectively argue. There is all sorts of great material out there to learn how to defend the faith. Arguments range from defenses built on philosophical, moral, scientific, and all sorts of other grounds. However, you have to actually learn to do it. I highly recommend the Poached Egg Apologist as a resource for learning more about apologetics.
- Be honest. It’s easy to make stuff up, particularly when folks are not in any way capable of checking up on your words. Be honest and maintain integrity. Don’t become a monster in response to the attacks of a monster.
- Don’t take it personally. Any stranger who is attacking you because of your faith isn’t attacking you. They are attacking Jesus. Take joy in the opportunity to stand with Christ, don’t get angry, and remember that Jesus prayed for the folks who crucified Him. I think the best advice I could offer on this matter was spoken by Peter, as he watched his wife being crucified by Roman soldiers, the day before he himself was crucified. He told her to remember how the Lord loved those who crucified Him. Love defined Jesus, and Peter, and it should define us. No one is crucifying you. Love folks, even if they are unlovable at the moment.