Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It, Douglas S. Bursch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.
Summary: A discussion of the nature of online media, why it divides us, and how Christians can have a reconciling and redemptive presence.
I’m not sure if social media platforms were ever idyllic places, although my son tells me that it was a lot better before my generation got on Facebook and Twitter. In recent years I’ve seen both the delightful and disturbing parts of this media. On the delightful side, I host a book page with over 10,000 followers with fascinating discussions around books and the bookish life of bibliophiles. Then there are mean-spirited and outright false postings, sometimes in repeated comments that, in one instance, led to blocking someone I considered a good friend. I felt I was being used rather than engaged and that what I did was right but I am still disturbed about it, five months later.
Douglas S. Bursch saw plenty of angry in talk radio, where he worked as a host, trying to elevate the show to thoughtful discussion. He explores the peculiar nature of online media, its “always on” nature and how easy it is to post half-formed, often emotional responses to those we don’t even know. We may have thousands of connections and yet feel strangely anonymous, even as are those on our friends list. He calls this “networked individualism” where we are loosely connected to many people but deeply tied to few. Many really exist to meet some need of ours, and when they don’t, they are dispensable. We become numb to relationships. Part of what encourages this is that the media fosters “disincarnate communication.” We show what we want others to see as do they in curated versions of who we really are. Furthermore, social media facilitates a tribal mentality both through our willed choices of who to like and follow and the algorithms that track our behavior and show us who and what we want to see and read. Often, our own tribe has no motive to resolve conflict–we so affirm each other, and those on the outside, in the security of their tribe, are so odious that why bother. Unlike a real world situation where we do have to live with different people, we don’t on social media, and sadly learn ways of relating that translate into the real world as well.
Bursch, a middle child (like me) describes the theme of peacemaking and reconciliation in his life that came to fullest fruit in coming to faith in Christ who reconciled him to God and others. He presses out the implications of this for the online behavior of those who count themselves Christ-followers. He argues that bringing people closer to God and one another ought be a way of life online (and in real life). He proposes five questions that ought to be part of our peacemaking plan:
- Is reconciliation my motivation?
- Are people my priority?
- Am I communicating truth with love?
- Where is the grace?
- What is the Spirit saying?
He even presses this out into the unpleasant encounters we have with internet trolls, who he reminds us are actually people (unless they are bots).
He also addresses something I’ve always wrestled with as a peacemaking middle child. There are some things we cannot make peace with. Deliberate falsehoods. Racism. Sexual predation. Unjust systems. One of the constructive things he commends is the platforming of the marginalized, particularly by those of us who are socially dominant. It may be that instead of spouting our own ideas, we invite the ideas of those pushed to the margins.
Bursch believes in the power of posting peace. He describes a woman by the name of Freedalyn who, when COVID broke out, went silent, until some discovered she used libraries for internet access. Many had been concerned because they had experienced her quiet, caring presence online. He concludes the book with ways we might make room for the Lord in our online engagement.
At the end of each chapter, Bursch provides questions for reflection and exercises that include the assignment to post online with the hashtag #PostingPeace. The combination of a theology of reconciliation with concrete practices that runs through this book offers the chance of helping us more intentionally and charitably engage online. It has been of growing concern to me that there are no winners in the divisive discourse we see and sometimes join online. Furthermore, when Christians join in such discourse, we turn many against Christ. The warning of Matthew 18:16 haunts me and I don’t want to go swimming with a millstone around my neck! Douglas Bursch not only helps us understand the challenges of online media but offers hope that we can pursue a better way that makes a difference.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.