On Facebook posts and Sensitivity and Sealing Wax

On Facebook posts and Sensitivity and Sealing Wax

I received a lot of comments (both on- and off-line) about the above picture that I shared on Facebook. I didn’t mean for things to get so real. I tend to just post things that are amusing or thought-provoking. Facebook isn’t really the venue for deep discussions – most things that need to be said require more than a few lines to be precise. And asynchronous communication (read – the internet) punishes imprecision without mercy, especially when rhetorical devices like hyperbole or generalizations are used for effect.

Before I get into the meat of what I have to say, here are my disclaimers:

  • I’m sorry that some of my shares and re-posts have offended. Part of this is due to the inherent flaws of the medium – when I share things like this, they are not meant to be viewed as theses, but as nuggets. Facebook or Twitter are far from where I chisel my personal manifesto. Instead they are places where I share things that have made me think. But not all things that make me think are (1) pleasant or (2) dogmatically consistent with other things that make me think.
  • Still, it is a poor [profession] that blames the [tool]. The fault ultimately lies with me: there are many battling beliefs crammed into the catacombs within me, and I tend to try to couch the violence of these ongoing wars in humor (or worse, bravado). Taking a step back, I realize that this is no way to win hearts or even to start discussions. The greatest spiritual leaders were many things: blunt, inflammatory, stubborn. But they were rarely flippant. I can’t imagine Gandhi saying many things with a photograph and superimposed, blocky, white font.
    I’ll try to avoid such insincerity in the future.

With that said, here are my thoughts, stripped of flippancy and bravado. I will try to be as precise as possible (hopefully without too bloody a sacrifice of succinctness).

 

Defending Free Speech

It was pointed out to me that the purpose of these protests was to defend free speech. This is an excellent point – in fact, I consider the defense of free speech to be the best excuse for the behavior in this photo. That being said, I don’t believe that what’s being defended is free speech.

Freedom of speech is reciprocal. If you defend one CEO’s right to express his opinion, you should defend another group’s right to express their outrage. The tricky thing about inalienable rights is that they’re universal. (Well, they’re supposed to be. But that debate is how the content of the photo was generated, isn’t it?)

In short, we are all free to act – free to speak. We are not free to choose the consequences of our actions. No one – from quarks to God – has that freedom.

(brief aside) Another Thing That Isn’t Free Speech

As a tangent, I think that selling the general public on the idea that Spending Money = Exercising Free Speech would go down in history as the greatest con ever were it the machination of some conspiracy (which I’m not saying it is). We’ve been lulled into thinking that things that are easy to do, things that come naturally to us (Shop. Consume. Donate.) are synonymous with things we don’t want to do, things that are hard (Protest. Activism. Work.).
I wonder if Jim Crow would have been abolished if those just a few generations ago had this as their paradigm.

Instead, we abdicate responsibility. We spend our token and a warm fuzzy is dispensed: “There, I’ve done my job. Let those better connected/better leveraged/more organized/more eloquent use my ‘voice’ justly.”

Meanwhile, the ‘vote’ funnels upward (as all ‘votes’ tend) to those who take their cut, then use the remainder to restrict us from using our actual voices (and this is not a party-specific observation). The gap widens, power is consolidated, all while we placate ourselves on illusory good feelings and warm chicken.

(The irony there is that the former will give us an ulcer and the latter heart disease. And the money that we could have spent on health insurance is now gone. And I’m guessing that those in the photo aren’t for a public option, nor will their money be used to support it. … I’m slipping into flippancy again. Sorry – I’m a work in progress.)

 

the Heart of the Issue

[Tardy disclaimer: the opinions that I expressed below are not recently-acquired. While this shouldn't matter, I feel inclined to point it out.]

There is a phrase in scripture that has always resonated with me: “looking beyond the mark.” We live in the Age of Distraction, and looking beyond the mark has never been a more pressing issue than it is now.

We are happy to choose Good over Better or Best. Nationwide fights over what a city mayor calls a Christmas tree or like that in the photo above get national news coverage while people fighting to reform campaign finance and systematic, legal corruption in Congress struggle to get wheels off the ground. Even assuming that the former fights are The Good Fight, there should be little disagreement that they are not The Better Fight or The Best Fight.

It’s human nature to lean this way – no one group of people has a monopoly on distraction. The Best things are hard to do - really hard to do. It’s simply easier to be distracted by the Good things. And our physiology turns this into an addiction quickly. After all, dopamine floods the brain whether you’re correcting someone who’s wrong on the internet or whether you’re volunteering at a local nursing home. And so what if the fix at the keyboard is slightly less strong than that at the home? The Calculus of Indolence is quick: 80% of the warm fuzzies for 10% of the effort? Who wouldn’t go for a steal like that? I know I do it constantly.

But who are the only people that Jesus flipped out on, whom he had no patience for? Those who were supposed to be examples of holiness, but were more focused on calling people out for picking corn after sunset on a Friday. And maybe that was a law, but it was the least important of laws. They glorified that law while ignoring the most important laws: love, acceptance, mercy, service. They choose Good over Better and Best, though they possessed full knowledge of the hierarchy. They were meant to be the exemplars of his teachings, but they weren’t.

“A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

What does that really mean? Probably not that I am the arbiter of goodness, doling out judgments for ears of corn picked. But that I need to be so loving, humble, open, selfless, serene, and sublime that the world can’t help but look at me and see God through me. That they’ll want to get close to Him because of me.

Maybe if we all decided that, on the 1st day of August, 2012, we would all get together and serve those in need, it would fit into that paradigm. But I just don’t see the activity in the photo passing the Candlestick Test. It is, at best, a distraction. At best, it’s Good.

 

the Issue is Not About One Group of People…

Some commentators have been upset because the photo is an attack on Christians. The heart of the issue is greater than Christianity – it encompasses all of humanity. Everyone should be doing what’s Best. But very few do. Failure to follow ones espoused beliefs is in no way a Christian monopoly. I recognize that.

If Christianity does get attacked most often (ask a Muslim if this is the case), it’s simply because Christianity makes an easy target. It’s hard to attack an ideology that is amorphous. Christianity, on the other hand, has a codified creed – a rhetorical bulls-eye on the chest.

…but This Photo Is

Still, the thing about being a city on a hill is that, well, you’re visible – regardless of how well kept your roads are at the moment. Such is the burden of discipleship. It may not be fair to be held up to a higher standard, but that’s the contract that was signed. A person doesn’t get to be proud of being “of a peculiar people,” then indignant when he is called “peculiar.”

The best thing about truly embracing the concept of not judging is that you stop caring about being judged. Isn’t that a cool example of goodness being a reward unto itself? The Best things tend to be.

 

the Specifics

With all that groundwork laid, I’ll address the last rebuttal pointed out to me: most Christians do line up to volunteer at food banks and homeless shelters. Therefore the photo is factually inaccurate. Therefore let’s discard the underlying message.

First of all: of course Christians are volunteerists. I considered the exaggeration of the photo’s caption to be rhetorical rather than literal. Maybe that goes back to my failure to be sensitive. (Again, I apologize for that.)

I don’t have data one way or the other regarding the allocation between Good, Better, and Best in the Christian communicty (well, no data that isn’t purely anecdotal). So let’s look at all 3 possible responses to the rebuttal:

  1. “No, they don’t.”
    Let’s ignore this one for the sake of argument. Let’s say that 0% of the population fails to volunteer at food banks and homeless shelters. Everyone regularly feeds the hungry, heals the sick, cares for the widows and orphans, loves their enemies, is a peacemaker, etc.
  2. “You’re right. They do all the Best things that they can.”
    Yet there are still millions of poor in this nation alone (and extreme poor elsewhere). It looks like, despite our best individual efforts, a deluge of people is falling through the cracks. Maybe it would be a good idea to find other, supplementary ways of helping the unfortunate. It’d probably have to leverage economies of scale: maybe some kind of systematic, widespread, nationwide form of giving/support? A robust safety net, maybe? (After all, people have to be fed fish and bread before they can be in a state of mind to hear the Word.)
    Sadly though, I have a feeling that most people in this picture are against that type of social support. Maybe I’m wrong. Hopefully I’m wrong.
  3. “They do some Best things, but they could do more.”
    This, I think, is likely the closest to reality. And, when I stripped away the rhetorical devices of the photo’s caption, that’s the message that resonated with me.

To the people in the photo (and to all people, really): go do the Best things instead of being distracted with activities that are (at best) Good. Don’t settle for the lesser of two dopamines.

 

“Go do the Best things instead of being distracted with activities that are (at best) Good”

I’m pretty sure, if I were forced to boil down the Sermon on the Mount to one thesis statement, this would be it.

5 Comments

  1. Mike
    Aug 15, 2012

    Well said! The backlash you alluded to receiving from your initial posting of the photo is another example which illustrates your point. Instead of chastising or criticizing you / your post, why not focus that energy towards a better cause? You are correct, more “reward” with minimal effort. The “benefit vs reward” or “law of diminishing marginal returns” analysis we all seem to subconsciously do in our heads is a telling commentary on the general lethargy that has resulted from our ever-decreasing attention spans. Perhaps if we, as a society, were to slow down and take the time to think through and formulate a well reasoned argument (or at least attempt to decipher one) less of these types of posts would be misconstrued, their meanings warped beyond recognition.

    As I write this, I notice a tinge of judgement coming through. I want to take a moment to make a disclaimer of my own: I am fully aware of the fact that, I too, am guilty of these snap judgements, and lack of focus at times. Any judgement that may, unintentionally, be present in my statements stems as much from personal dissatisfaction, as much as from any external locus. I purposely use the inclusive term “we” through out this post, in an effort to offset this.

    Perhaps, though, an inability or unwillingness to recognize personal short comings is another reason we tend to focus on the corn, if you will. It is easier to put others to the candlestick test, than it is to hold ourselves to the same standards. In general, it seems that we focus more on others than on better understanding, and improving ourselves. Just because we have the right to free speech, doesn’t mean we should or are always qualified to use it. It seems inappropriate to judge those around us when we refuse to judge ourselves, or when, more ignorantly, we believe we are personally beyond reproach.

    If nothing else, your post has indeed been thought provoking, as I believe it was intended; thank you for taking the time out to write it!

  2. stephen
    Aug 15, 2012

    kurt – very thoughtful and well said. i will admit to being one of those snarky people who reposted this image and made some flippant comment about those awful people – without giving it the thought that i should have. FB makes that sort of thing far too easy. i’ve gotten into trouble in many different ways by trying to engage in deeper political discussions via email or FB, and i keep reminding myself that those media are deeply flawed venues for those kinds of discussions. i appreciate your thoughtful dissection of this image and what it REALLY means. i’m glad to know that there is someone out there who is doing good work, and striving to do best work. i am inspired to examine my own life for good, better, best, and which of those i choose.

  3. Lynne
    Aug 15, 2012

    The best thing about truly embracing the concept of not judging is that you stop caring about being judged. Isn’t that a cool example of goodness being a reward unto itself? The Best things tend to be.

    Kurt, what a wonderful piece and so thought provoking. My favorite quote is above. Most often I laugh, but I can’t seem to do that with those I love, respect and admire. It always feels deeply personal…

    I’d love to be able to figure out what the “best” things are, but as life presents opportunities to serve — whether good, better or best — it’s hard not to take them up; recognizing that tomorrow a “best” may present itself is OK with me. I’ll take that up then. Maybe the culmination of good and better helps us learn what is the best. Wipe a child’s tears, give him a smile, a warm coat, a hot lunch, a place to play, a mentor, and see that he has a roof over his head. Help his mom and dad get on their feet…Become their friends… Does it matter which one is good, better, or best?

    “Go do the Best things instead of being distracted with activities that are (at best) Good”

    Since I can’t seem to determine in my own mind and heart what is “best”, I feel that when I can do ANYTHING it’s better than nothing…The widow’s mite was her best, I think. Hopefully I won’t be so distracted by the good and better that I won’t recognize the “best” when I am presented with it.

    I understand you’re looking and speaking more to the global scale of social, economic and political avenues. I guess I am more into the one-on-one sphere of influence…the trenches, so-to-speak. For now, I guess, I’ll have to just be one who stops by the wayside…that’s the responsibility I don’t want to abdicate.

    My disclaimer…a shallow thinker with no philosophical training. Just an old woman making my way in this world.

  4. Pop
    Aug 17, 2012

    this is a very good example of why I want you to teach. While I may not always line up I always seem to appreciate the thought and lucidity. Thanks – I love you.

  5. truthspew
    Oct 8, 2013

    I’ve caught a hell of a lot of flak for stuff I’ve posted on Facebook. it’s resulted in my not speaking to some family members over time. And it really got hot when you had the competing groups surrounding equality in RI. i really, and mean really pissed on someones corn flakes.

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