The comment resonated with me because I had just spent time with a young man who was visibly shaken by an email he’d received from a Christian colleague. The message was largely composed of capital letters and exclamation marks. And in addition to that, over the past month I had been shown several emails sent by mature Christians that were at best rude, and at worst bullying. I’m not whining about genuine criticism. I’ve been involved in leadership in the Christian world long enough to have had my fair share of critical letters. They often followed a pretty predictable format.
Firstly, the correspondent told you how much they appreciated you and that the only reason for writing was to uphold the good name of whatever you were both involved in. Then came a couple of paragraphs often laced with scripture, that basically told you that you were a heretic, a fool, or worse, and the letter would finally wind up with something like, ‘Love in Christ, Basil.’ Of course, I didn’t like getting them, but the truth is that, like it or not, there was often at least a grain of truth (and sometimes a lot more than a grain!) in what the writers were saying. And at least you knew they had gone to the effort of writing the thing, sticking it in an envelope and walking to the postbox. The sheer effort of all of those stages meant that many such potential missives (or should that be ‘missiles’?) probably never saw the light of day. The writers may have left it a couple of days, couldn’t quite remember why they had felt so screwed up in the first place, and decided to watch telly instead. Life is different now. I have just read an article in which a journalist writes of watching her friends and even her family destroy years of relationship with a thoughtless text or Facebook posting. As she grappled with the reasons why people would send such material she concluded that the instant gratification of ‘getting it off my chest’ is so great that it often overrides considerations of perspective, kindness and even common decency. She admits, ‘The truth is that I am far more likely to send a hurried email or text to a friend who has offended me than take the time to have it out with them face to face.’
I recently heard a comment from an MP who spoke of the offensive emails he had received from some in the Christian community. He said, ‘I don’t know what kind of God those people believe in, but he is certainly not compassionate or loving.’ He was not commenting on the substance of their argument but on the way it was delivered. The Bible urges us, ‘Let your conversation be always full of grace’ (Colossians 4:6). It repeatedly warns of the destructive power of our words. I believe that some of our electronic correspondence – whether by email, text or Twitter – is quite simply, in Harvard’s words, ‘a violation of our community’s standards’. We all know our greatest dread with email: it is that we hit ‘reply all’ or copy somebody in by mistake. We have every right to be afraid. Jesus said, ‘Everyone will have to give an account of every empty word’ (see Matthew 12:36). Jesus’ words are worth musing on and perhaps they might cause us to pause before we next press the ‘send’ button: they mean that the ‘cc’ box is never empty.
Rob Parsons is founder and chairman of Care for the Family
Illustration: Elisa Cunningham
Follow Rob @Rob_Parsons