Sanctuary and Social Media
Given by Kara O'Neil, 23 May 2021
Recently I was embroiled in a bit of an online 'battle' which resulted in a public post being removed, and a very paltry apology being posted. The subsequent post, on which I continued to comment, received an additional 500+ comments, not all of course by or to me, but in no doubt prompted by the time and effort I put forward to “continue the argument”. I think I stayed up until nearly 2am that morning, and I know I was up at 6, typing again.
The comments continued well into the following day and evening, until, ultimately, a newspaper article was written and a much-needed discussion was had. There is, honestly, a part of me which doesn’t feel like enough was done, but there is another part of me which knows, beyond a doubt, that my efforts online produced that news article, and prompted the discussions which needed to be had.
It's absolutely true that I could have just turned off the computer and gone to bed. But I felt, in my heart, that what I was saying needed to be said; and no one else was saying it. I commented primarily alone that night, and I even got the pleasure of a few threatening and demeaning private messages, intended to scare me off my task.
My favorite was when someone messaged just to call me “psychotic red-headed misfit” (yeah, that one's going on a t-shirt for sure). Another asked if "a trip to the General’s office" wouldn’t really be the best thing for me, and that "maybe the General could 'explain' things" to me. It is this veiled threat, and the ideology behind it which led me to write this sermon, because on top of these nasty comments and threatening messages, I received a plethora of private messages from people unable to speak up. These messages were thanking me, prompting me, and complimenting me. I knew, although it wasn’t publicly seen, that I was making a difference for people, and I knew I had to keep doing it.
Unfortunately, we are very often constrained in what we are able to discuss and what we can do. As Unitarian Universalists we are natural advocates. We advocate for humanitarian efforts, for the earth, for equality, and more. We also, often, claim to be pacifists. But what, exactly, is a pacifist?
Many argue that Jesus was a pacifist, using phrases such as “turn the other cheek” or talking about rewarding “the meek”, but I’m not sure I fully agree that the man who fashioned whips (John 2:13 – 16) or encouraged his disciples and followers to “sell your cloak and buy a sword” (Luke 22:36) could be fully considered a “pacifist” in our modern understanding of the word. In fact, the word itself appears to be coined by the French peace campaigner Èmile Arnaud and adopted by others at the tenth Universal Peace Congress in 1901. So while articulations of pacifism can be traced back to the early church, I do not agree that the definition of pacifism which rejects all violence and military action can be attributed to the religious leader who, in Revelations, is painted as the leading warrior of armies.
I would argue, instead, that Jesus was, maybe, just really really savvy at knowing when to pick his battles. And while we are not all followers of Jesus, or ascribed to any particular Christian theology, I think this same skill of discernment is absolutely paramount to balancing personal and professional constraints with the Unitarian Universalist activism and peace-making efforts.
We are often limited in what we can say, and what we can do, and it can be not only difficult, but extremely frustrating to attempt to balance this dichotomy between our spiritual hearts and the expectations of our community. So we must then ask ourselves: How can we build a more peaceful, more inclusive, safer society when we live under community and professional expectations which all too often prohibit protest, activism, or even, often, political speech?
I believe the answer is to learn to balance the line between expectations of silence and our rights of free speech, and I believe that line may, surprisingly, live in social media.
I recently spoke with a leading expert in child victimization who stated that studies are beginning to show that social media is maybe not quite the evil it has been portrayed to be and that, in fact, online bullying is rapidly being understood as potentially less dangerous than in-person altercations. However, online friendships are offering a place of safety and refuge which seem to hold nearly as much emotional merit as friendships in real life. This is not to say, of course, that we don’t need people in our lives – if this pandemic has taught us anything, I believe it has taught us that there’s nothing quite the same as sharing coffee or tea and engaging in delightful conversation with peers, colleagues, and friends. However, it does mean that online bullies might harm us less than we thought while, alternately, online support can help us more than we thought.
This means that social media can offer us an incredible opportunity to build Sanctuary when we are unable to demonstrate grander gestures, or to physically support another human.
So maybe, sometimes, instead of simply turning off the rhetoric or posts we dislike, it is necessary to stay up and keep typing. It’s easy to disengage or walk away, and sometimes it’s necessary. I’m not trying to tell you to pick petty fights or try to win silly arguments. But I will say that I believe the “don’t bother, it won’t matter anyway” statement as a means to excuse oneself from engagement can be incredibly damaging.
There’s a meme I love that floats around social media which says, “I don’t share my political thoughts because I think it will change the minds of those who think differently. Nor do I share my thoughts to provoke public social media arguments. I share my thoughts to show the people who think like me that they are not alone.”
Yes, social media can certainly be a negative space – when you share toxicity, you increase its presence. However, as with all things, there’s two sides to this coin: when you share love, and acceptance, you increase its presence. And, sometimes, staying up until 2am to argue for human decency is a beacon of hope and love for a lost soul, scrolling through social media sites simply because they just can’t find the energy to do anything else.
You don’t have to flip tables or fashion whips. You don’t have to use abusive language, or fight petty battles. In fact, I sincerely hope you do not. But in a community where action is rare, and political movement is simply not allowed, our freedom of speech may be the only fighting tool we have – and as Unitarians we must learn to balance pacifism with pragmatism.
Sometimes, your words, even on social media, can create Sanctuary. Sometimes, just posting opposition to hate can be the conscious act of bearing witness, or compassion, or lending support or validation, that another person needs to see. John Buehrens published an article in UU World Online on pacifism and pragmatism. In this article he wrote:
“Unitarian Universalism can be a healing presence in society to the extent that we model listening patiently to one another's perspectives, speaking temperately, and respecting one another's ministries and rights of conscience. We are not a peace church. We are not a war church. We are religious community of both pacifists and pragmatists, taking different spiritual paths toward a common goal: a world of greater justice and peace.”
I believe it is time we evaluate how we can build that peace using the tools available to us as Unitarian Universalists while living under the constraints required of us. I believe that Sanctuary can be built, partially, by brave and judicious use of social media.
I was heartened to receive the messages of thanks and encouragement for my recent “battle”, but I was saddened that more people did not join publicly. Too many said they were afraid, or that they thought disengaging was a wiser choice – some said they thought they were wrong, but by then it was 'too late'. However, by realizing that we can, in fact, affect others with our words, I hope they’ll sit to the keyboard the next time an issue warrants a voice of peace and acceptance.
The power of the pen has lessened only in that the pen is now a keyboard, and more people wield it’s power. So hold your swords close and use them as best you can. If this is the only way we can advocate for peace, then I say we wield it well.