Review: Posting Peace

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:

  1. Is reconciliation my motivation?
  2. Are people my priority?
  3. Am I communicating truth with love?
  4. Where is the grace?
  5. 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.

The Adults in the Room

Photo by nappy on

Remember when we were kids and we got in a quarrel because we both wanted the same crayons or toys, and an adult stepped in and helped us to figure out that we either had to share and work it out, or go to our rooms? Usually we figured out that some crayons or toys and being in the same room was better than no toys and our own rooms. When we were older, when we got into fights over a disputed call playing baseball or basketball, we eventually figured out that playing the game was more fun than continuing to argue or going home. We’d call a do-over, or flip a coin and get on with the game. We were learning to be the adults in the room when no adults were around.

Watching our political discourse, and the social media discourse around it. I find myself wondering where have all the adults gone? What I’ve seen over the last number of years is an escalating fight that has lost the sight that you need an opponent, an opposition, those who are on a different team to have a good game–that it is the game and not the fights that matter (unless you are talking about hockey). Of late, it seems that the objective is not merely winner take all and leave nothing on the table. It is winner subdue or wipe out all and be the last ones standing. Suddenly it is OK to show up in public buildings with assault weapons, destroy property, and threaten the lives of public servants and their families.

The game I’m talking about is our country–this troubled place of 330 million people drawn from all over the world, from every religious faith and none, living in rural, urban and suburban settings, black, white, brown, and more. Increasingly, the question may be asked, could the fabric of our union unravel, and what could that mean?

For so many years, I think we’ve thought, “it could never happen here.” Except that it has within our very short history. It was called the Civil War. Over 600,000 young men from the north and south died because inflammatory talk escalated from words to a contentious election, and shots fired.

As a Christian, the most troubling part of that history was that churches mirrored the divisions in American society. People who believed they worshiped the same God, read the same Bible and recited the same creed didn’t care that they were deeply divided from each other. Most churches, north and south, didn’t care that blacks also worshiped the same God.

It doesn’t appear to me terribly different today except that the vitriol comes via social media and competing news networks, rather than old fashioned newspapers.

It can happen here. Children who play with matches often don’t really understand that you can burn down the house until they burn down the house. Then there are those who don’t seem to care about the house as long as they are the ones wielding the matches.

There are so many different doomsday scenarios for how it could unravel. Anne Applebaum, in The Twilight of Democracy fears the rise of authoritarian government. In a place that appears to be unraveling, a strong leader who sets things in order, no matter what else they do, has an appeal. David French, in Divided We Fall (released yesterday), thinks we could be headed toward a bloodless secession as red states and blue states ideologically harden and the United States becomes two or more separate “countries.”

I find myself wondering at times that Octavia Butler in The Parable of the Sower might be more prescient. She portrays a dystopian United States of 2024, rife with disasters both ecological and political, and where street gangs rule (writing in 1993, she portrays a California increasingly ravaged by fire seasons).

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that when you listen to those doing the fighting, they all love the country and are deeply concerned about it. Granted, many of their concerns are different. What troubles me is that our binary, zero sum thinking that says you have to choose between caring for mothers and the unborn, that you have to choose whether to care for blacks or police, that you have to choose whether to care for business or God’s good creation, is leading to destroying the very place we love. Have we lost the creative imagination and skill at negotiation found at the intersection of both-and?

It’s time, and past time, for the adults in the room to step forward, and for those who should be adults to act like it. We cannot keep escalating our toxic discourse, including our toxic social media postings that are just kindling for the fire. Whether our future is authoritarian, or one of Balkanization, or civil war in our cities (which we have already tasted in some places), each signals the death of “the land that we love.” Each signals the triumph of the argument over the game.

I don’t know if it is too late at a national level for “adults in the room” to matter. All I know is that I want to work for solutions in terms of “we” rather than “us versus them” wherever I can. If someone has to be my enemy for me to be part of your party, I’m not interested. Perhaps it is quixotic to hope that there will ever be enough adults in the room to expect our political leadership to act this way. But that is just politics. There is so much more to life in this country than politics, which we’ve made into a kind of god. Perhaps the best thing at times is to dismiss this as childish and start looking for adults of integrity who will seek the common good, not as political messiahs, but as public servants.

All I know is to start with us, dear reader. Will you be an adult in the room? Will I? And who else can we get to join us?

I Am Bipolar

No, I am not speaking of a psychological condition of mood swings from manic to depressive. (I should also say that I do not want to make light of an illness with which I’ve know talented and high-functioning friends of mine to live.) It’s simply that I am bipolar (although I’d like to come up with a different term) when it comes to many questions of truth and practice, particular around my faith. I draw this term from an insight of a long-time friend who observed on numerous occasions that I was with him that truth is bipolar and that orthodoxy is the idea of living in the tension of bipolar truths. I’ve found this to be so.

I believe:

  • in a God who is both Three and One.
  • in a Jesus who is both fully God and fully human in one person.
  • both that God is sovereign, and that our choices matter
  • both that we are saved by grace through faith and that we are God’s workmanship created for good works in Christ (these two ideas appear in consecutive verses in Ephesians 2:8-10).

Historically, Christians have gotten into problems when they’ve been uncomfortable with those tensions and emphasized one pole at the expense of the other. I can understand the temptation. While I can articulate to a certain degree how each of these pairs relate to each other, I cannot fully logically reconcile them. Heresy often is the emphasis of one end of the polarity at the expense of the other rather than a complete rejection Christian conviction.

Now, for some of my atheist and other skeptical friends, this all seems crazy and irrational. Yet I would observe that there are a number examples from science to every day life of bipolar truths. We understand light as both wave and particle. For Americans, we have the motto of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one. Every society wrestles with the tension of individual rights and social responsibility.

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I’m convinced that as infuriating as these tensions can be, when we try to eliminate them by emphasizing one pole of a truth at the expense of another, or one position in a debate while demonizing one’s opponent, we not only make the world simpler, but smaller and lose something of the richness and wonder that pervades life, as puzzling as it can be.

I’ve been considering this quite a bit recently as I’ve reflected on Rich Nathan’s recent book Both-Andwhich attempts to articulate a vision for life that reconciles many apparent opposites in an either-or world of polarized discourse . Here are some of the other tensions of belief and practice in which I think we are called to live:

  • we both welcome all people as they are and invite them into the transformational journey of discipleship following the wise and gracious leadership of Jesus.
  • we are to live both in the world and not be of the world.
  • we both believe in revealed truth and use our minds to understand the world in which God has place us.
  • we both form communities centered around unchanging truths and welcome the exploration, questioning, and inquiry that enlarge our understanding of these truths and their relevance for our day.
  • we both pursue in word and deed heralding the presence of the rule of Jesus, and realize that the only universal fulfillment of that rule can be in his personal return when “the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” as we love to sing in the Hallelujah Chorus.

The question some might raise is whether this leads to a kind of relativism or shifting ideas about truth. And here I would say that the idea of truths in tension, or bipolar truth, is different from either believing truths that are in utter contradiction (such as that there is both a God and there is no god) or a type of syncretism, that attempts to blend ideas from different and ultimately contrary systems of belief or thought. Both poles find their sense is the character of God, the person of Christ, and the way God has created and ordered his world and church.

I’ve often despaired at the either-or options served up to us in our society, and even more when Christians side up on one side or the other of these polarities and try to get me to join them. Why must I choose between mothers and babies? Why must I choose between free enterprise and the environment? That doesn’t mean that I think Christians will always have the best answers to reconciling these polarities. But I do think that if we see living in tensions like these as an extension of living in the polar tensions of our faith, we might have something to contribute to a society that hungers for peace but struggles to surmount the divide between the various things that polarize us.

Thanks to those of you who have walked with me through this post, which represents an effort to think out something that I think is important both for our faith communities, and for our engagement with the wider world that may not share our convictions. I’d deeply value your thoughts and challenges to this thinking!