Turn on cable news, or God forbid, check the comments on almost any social media post and you will quickly discover that we are living in what can accurately be described as an Age of Outrage. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, polarization on cultural and political issues has increased substantially in the last decade.
In his book, “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” noted Christian author, Ed Stetzer, correctly points out how Christians of varying religious traditions, ethnic backgrounds and economic means have followed their non-Christian friends deep into these divisions. Far from being the solution, we have become part of the problem.
When did it become OK to talk past one another — and at the top of our lungs — instead of actually engage one another in conversation? It was not all that long ago that both sides of an argument took for granted it was possible to “disagree without being disagreeable.” No more.
Outrage, especially online outrage, is almost the default position today. Often what starts out as an innocent statement or even a mistake, quickly escalates into a firestorm of name-calling and vile insults. Too often, outrage is motivated by a desire to punish and destroy rather than to resolve an issue. Contrary to what many seem to think today, it is possible for two people to disagree on an important issue, without one of them being stupid or evil or both.
As Christians, when we become primarily identified with a cause outside the body of Christ, we are trading our Kingdom-based identity for a world-based identity. It’s not supposed to be that way. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans, Chapter 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Of course, this does not mean that Christians cannot come to incorrect conclusions or make bad decisions. But, it does mean that if we take our cues from our faith traditions rather than secular culture, we’re more likely to be setting positive examples of behavior for those around us. And behavior is key. What we do proves what we believe.
Walking the Christian walk is more important than talking the Christian talk. And more often than not, the authentic Christian walk takes us away from rather than toward outrage. To guide us in our walk, it will be helpful if we let Holy Scripture influence our actions rather than social media or the entertainment industry. What we input into our hearts and minds has a profound effect on our “output.” When we constantly input rage, why are we surprised the output is rage?
Jesus offers a better way. The last few weeks, I’ve been preaching on the Sermon on the Mount. The wisdom it offers is an antidote to the Age of Outrage. Its message is as counter-cultural today as it was in first-century Israel. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful and the peacemakers reflect God’s perspective on how we are to engage the world.
If your goal is to become a beat-down artist on Twitter, the Sermon on the Mount approach is not for you. If, however, you wish to positively influence a culture addicted to outrage, then the Beatitudes work. We take some comfort in Jesus’ promise that we are blessed when people revile, persecute and utter all kinds of evil against us on his account.
Being a master of the insult may get you “likes” on social media. But being angry with a brother or sister or insulting them or calling them a fool (Matthew 5:22) puts you on a pathway out of the Kingdom of God. As Christ followers, walking the Christian walk means engaging culture as an Ambassador of the Kingdom of Heaven. Followers of Jesus are not called to withdraw from the world. We are to be “in” the world, but not “of” the world.
This does not mean coming across as “holier than thou.” It does mean as it says in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” And BTW, gentleness and respect work better one-on-one and face-to-face than in the middle of a social media brawl.
Another key message of the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew 6:21, “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This is true on so many different levels. If you want more civility in the world, “invest” in being civil. If you want to see more Kingdom of God influence in the world, “invest” yourself in your local congregation. If you want your heart in the Kingdom of God, invest your financial resources wherever you see Kingdom work being done.
Scripture tells us, “Do not fear what they fear. Do not be frightened. Be strong and courageous.” Do not be afraid to be counter-cultural. Do not be afraid to engage the Age of Outrage with the gentleness and respect of a real follower of Jesus.
Rich Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.