Dr. Joel Rainey is husband to Amy, father of three, and Lead Pastor at Covenant Church, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He serves on the adjunct faculty of two seminaries, and the author of three books. This was originally published at Joel’s blog, themelios.
“Clinton-Trump Debate Expected to Be Rare Draw in a Polarized Age.”
That was the New York Times headline that led my news feed yesterday. The article predicted the possibility of as many as 100 million viewers–20 million more than the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that has thus far held the record for the most viewers. 83 percent of registered voters are likely to watch. But many of the reasons behind these predictions have little to do with issues affecting our nation or the expectation of high-minded debate.
And the NYT article didn’t hide that fact, stating clearly that “the uniquely uncivil presidential campaign is about to produce one of the biggest civic gatherings in decades. . . .many may tune in merely for the spectacle.” Comparing this debate to the Ali-Frazier fight, former talk-show host Dick Cavett stated the painfully obvious; “There’s possible drama and fireworks and insults and horror and disaster and potential enlightenment. It would attract anybody.”
In short, most people aren’t tuning in to be educated on substantive issues. Most will be watching hoping for a train wreck. And in the event of a train wreck, expect lots of pictures. And tweets. And Facebook statuses. And further polarization, contention, and all-around nastiness.
With that looming context in view, it might do Christians well to remember Paul’s words: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
There are times when followers of Jesus should engage, and engage fully in cultural conversation. This is especially true when the principles of the Kingdom dictate a higher and more worthy approach than what we hear and the manner in which we hear it. There are other times when the conversation is set up in such a way as to make it unredeemable, when Christians should just walk away and “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness.” (Ephesians 5:11)
I’m not saying a Christian shouldn’t watch tonight’s debate. But I am suggesting that our best response to anything said tonight might just be silence. Rick Warren has well-stated that the western church has successfully severed the hands and feet of Christ so that all that is left is a big mouth.
So if I may be so bold, let me make a simple suggestion to any Christ-follower reading these words ahead of tonight’s debate. When it comes to your use of social media, just stay quiet tonight.
I think this is a good idea for three reasons.
Division is not our business. Inevitably, there will be someone who responds to this with “but TRUTH divides!” And that’s true. But anyone who believes either of these candidates deals in “truth” is living in a dreamworld.
The kind of polarization we have witnessed in recent months–some of which has actually escalated into actual physical violence–is simply antiChrist. Followers of Jesus may disagree with each other–even strongly so–about how to solve a problem. But in the end, our commitment under the Lordship of Jesus should be to the solution, not to attacking those with whom we disagree. Can we all be honest enough to admit that tonight’s “debate” isn’t going to be about issues so much as personalities? Let’s not contribute to the national division we are experiencing by throwing our own vitriolic, social media-empowered gasoline on that already-raging fire.
We aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. Currently, less than 8 percent of the electorate is “undecided.” And even if that number was larger, the chances of changing someone’s mind with a Facebook post is slim. The greater chance is that you lose a friend, or lose your testimony. Tonight, refuse to be part of the social media “echo chamber” that in the end, solves nothing and only deepens the division.
We may throw away greater opportunities. I’m the pastor of a church filled with people who will vote for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, and Jill Stein. (a few in our congregation have told me they are writing in “Mickey Mouse” as a protest vote, but I digress.) Each has different reasons for supporting their chosen candidate, and none at this point in the election wants to hear their brothers or sisters say “how can a Christian vote for THAT person?!”
Let’s be honest. That question could legitimately be asked of ANY of these candidates for various reasons. But when we take to social media with those opinions, we are–more often than we realize–throwing away greater opportunities for unity with each other, and walk in relationship to each other. If someone you know perceives that you think they are “stupid” or “ungodly” or “unenlightened” or in any other way less than you because of a social media statement about this debate, you may very well lose any further opportunity to engage with them about issues far more important than this temporary kingdom in which we find ourselves.
This is especially true for church leaders. Pastors, elders, deacons, small group leaders, Sunday School teachers and others who lead need to realize that if your social media presence causes you to be seen as a shill for one candidate or one party, your influence in the body of Christ will be greatly diminished–perhaps deservingly so. You have a much higher calling that should not be wasted on this nonsense.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul compares his ministry to that of a “master builder.” In the end, he states that we will all stand in front of Jesus, and “each one’s work will become manifest.” (3:13) In Paul’s mind, there are two kinds of builders; those who build with “gold, silver, and precious stones,” and those who build with “wood, hay and stubble.” At the end of the age, he tells us that the first group will be rewarded, and the second will have their work burned up. Because in the end, it never truly amounted to anything.
As I observe how tonight’s presidential debate has been set up, advertised, publicized, I see a lot of wood, hay and stubble. Should you watch? That’s up to you. Should you vote? I believe you should. Should you watch waiting for the right moment to pounce on the one you want to lose? I’m pretty sure that kind of activity on social media won’t amount to anything.
Tomorrow will be a new day. I expect, given what has been predicted, that a blanket of negativity and caustic rhetoric will have been thrown over our national discourse once again. That will be our opportunity to shine a unifying, clarifying light. That will be our opportunity to truly face our national division in a more effective way.
But tonight, maybe we should just keep our mouths shut.