This morning’s post comes from Lynne M. Baab. She is the author of numerous books, most recently Reaching Out in a Networked World, which considers the ways congregations can express their identity and values in an online world. She has also written several books and Bible study guides on spiritual disciplines, including Sabbath Keeping and Fasting, and lots of articles that are posted on her website, www.lynnebaab.com. She is a Presbyterian minister with a PhD in communication, and she teaches pastoral theology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.
I’m writing a chapter for an edited book, and my writing this past week has focused on the ways human sin is manifested on the internet. I wrote about different theologies of sin that help us understand the nasty things that can happen online: broken relationships, predation, exploitation, and aggressive and fradulent self promotion. The internet can nurture destructive practices like addiction to pornography and gambling. The internet can encourage us to objectify others and view precious human beings as commodities. My writing this week was not pleasant or encouraging.
Then yesterday I conducted an interview, for my upcoming book on friendship, with a man who has left Facebook. He talked about finding Facebook to be a time waster that promotes pseudo- community. He finds most Facebook status updates to be banal and uninteresting. He also has concerns about privacy and power. He was scathing in his expression of distaste for this medium.
I’ve had a busy week, so I’ve spent less time than usual on Facebook. I finally had time to log on last night. One of the first posts I saw was by a friend who had spent last week at the Special Olympics, where her son won two medals. She had written briefly about the profound challenge she experienced from meeting the athletes at the Special Olympics. Several people had commented warmly on her post, asking her to express their congratulations to her son and thanking her for her comments about the humility and perseverance she witnessed in the athletes.
Then I saw a post by a friend who just received her nursing certification. That would be a significant achievement for anyone, but for her it has special meaning. She had spent several years in Calcutta, living in a poor neighborhood with a team, trying to help their neighbors. She decided a specific skill like nursing would help her make a greater impact, so she returned to the United States to get training. Her graduation last month, and her certification this month, are steps toward her return to India to serve the poor.
Another friend had posted a photo of herself holding her tiny granddaughter for the first time since the baby’s birth almost three months ago. The baby was born many months premature and spent about 2 months in intensive care, with her grandmother looking on but unable to hold her. This landmark event, being held by her grandmother, signaled a level of weight gain and health that followed many weeks of intense prayer for my friend, her daughter, and the tiny baby. Many affirmations of that prayer support have been posted on Facebook over the past three months.
Last night, as I looked at Facebook, I also saw photos of kids and mountains, an invitation to sign a petition urging the development of sustainable energy sources, a link to an interview with the Dalai Lama about interfaith relationships, and updates about a missing child. I saw comments expressing support and care for people facing all sorts of challenges. I saw a couple of scripture verses, and I enjoyed pondering why each person had posted that particular verse. I saw love. I saw love for God and for God’s beautiful creation, and love for people.
I know the ways the internet can be destructive and addictive. I just spent a week writing about them. One of the things I’m arguing in the book chapter I’m writing is that the internet now functions like a place. And, like any place, it can be the locus of loving interaction or terrible exploitation, and everything in between.
Last night, reading those Facebook posts, I saw the Kingdom of God. I believe the Kingdom is present wherever people support and pray for each other, wherever people learn from God, wherever people show their commitment to serve and obey Jesus. Interactions facilitated by the internet cannot replace face-to-face interactions, but electronic forms of communication can help us to stay connected to people we love. They can provide a way for us to express care for them. They can help us show love, and anywhere that love is, God is (1 John 4:7, 8).