Voices: Discernment in the courts of the Internet

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In recent weeks, the interdepartmental dealings of a well-known divinity school have become a matter of public record. Within days, the emails, published by a well-known conservative blogger, became the subject of much analysis, as opinions were leveraged back and forth. Complete strangers to the institution, such as myself, were invited to have opinions about a matter in which I had no immediate vested interest.

Myles Werntz 150Myles Werntz

I do not link to them here for one reason: Their publication is part of the problem.

Publication of internal documents is nothing new. At times, it is a matter of public safety, bringing to light that which we would rather keep in darkness. We are indebted to people like Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers, and to Deep Throat for exposing corruption within the Nixon administration.

Inhaling digital culture

But we now live in an age that is largely immune to the distinction between a cultural war and an in-house fight. Rather, we inhale a digital culture in which *every* secret is one that must be exposed, and every squabble is one that we must have an opinion.

When these myriad opportunities appear, calling for our judgment, we have collectively lost the ability to ask a fundamental question: “Why should I have an opinion on this?” The question may seem silly, for the Internet is rife with “discernment blogs” that thrive on public pontification, and on publications—such as the unnamed one previously mentioned—that invite total strangers to render judgment upon situations they know little to nothing of.

Our instinct is to render judgment on the exposed inner workings of strangers. But again: Why should we?

TBV stackedJesus’ idea

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In what seems to be a totally arcane proposition, I want to suggest we direct our attention to Matthew 18, in which Jesus suggests a different way of dealing with our disagreements. His words begin with a simple criterion—offense. Should I find myself offended by a member of the faith, personally wounded, with my own self at stake, then I may enter into the process.

But in making this step fundamental, a great number of public controversies cease: If two people are fighting over a private matter in which I have no direct involvement, it should be occasion for me to ask not only why I should render judgment, but also whether or not I have distanced myself from something that rightly should concern me.

In other words, if two people are having a disagreement, and I find I have no dog in the fight, why is that so? It may certainly be because I have allowed my sphere of concern to shrink, to become too small. But more often, it is because it simply is not my issue to sort out.

Intramural fights

A great many times, intramural fights are best left to be sorted out internally. If they are unresolvable, then—and only then—others are invited into the process to help mediate. But even then, the intent should be resolution of the problem, not to garner support for one side or another, and in doing so, expand the wound.

Our habits of publicizing error often are not followed with this in mind. We do so to score points, to signal our virtue and to puff ourselves up, but not to bind a wound or to render aid.

The Internet is good for many things, but not for mediation of disputes, and certainly not for rendering judgment. If anything, it has encouraged us to wade into disputes that are not ours to take on, at least not yet, making our opinions known about interpersonal issues that are not ours to sort out.

Our digital culture is one of conflict and fury, which is not to say Christians should avoid it, but to engage it as ministers of reconciliation. There are a great number of things which we are invited to render judgment upon, but only a few things which we rightly should or which we properly can.

Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian ethics and practical theology and the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene. Email him at [email protected].

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