Taming Flame Wars
The Bishop of Stafford’s pastoral letter for November 2017
Back in the summer I was reading some accounts concerning a particularly sad problem in one of our churches where some of the members are not getting on with one another. At the same time on the television screen there were pictures of the devastating forest fires that swept across parts of Europe and I was reminded of some verses from the Letter of James:
‘How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire… no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God’ (James 3:5ff).
As always, scripture gets to the heart of the problem and challenges us. If only we could be better at thinking about what we are going to say before we say it, so much upset could be avoided and relationships healed rather than broken down. The kind of threats that some leaders of nations make reported in the world’s press have no place in the Christian Church. We have to be prepared to make a stand and if necessary tell our Brothers and Sisters in Christ when what we are hearing them say is unacceptable to us, but try to settle our disagreements in an agreeable way and use our common Baptism in Christ as the ground for appropriate discussion in language that aims at reconciliation – and is acceptable to God.
But it is not just the spoken word that can cause offence and misunderstanding and make bad situations ever worse. If James were writing now he might well add that social media, email or text can equally become inflamed into a roaring inferno and lead to a situation getting completely out of hand. If only we paused and thought about how we would feel if we were to receive the text or email we are about to send!
In a recent survey undertaken by YoungMinds and The Children’s Society 83% of young people think that social media companies should do more to tackle cyberbullying. The survey of over 1000 people aged 11-25 showed the extent to which this bullying takes place. Some 48% said they had experienced threatening, intimidating or nasty messages and 20% had personal, private or embarrassing information being shared publically. However, 60% said that despite all of this social media had a positive effect on their friendships and could help to promote good mental health for young people.
These are important issues and we cannot shrug them off and say they are someone else’s problem because they start with you and me. How we relate to each other does have an impact on those around us and through them goodness or disagreement spreads out into the wider community. Listening to gossip or saying unpleasant things about another member of our church family or failing to challenge unacceptable comments gives a passive acceptance to the kind of attitude and behaviour that causes bullying like that highlighted in the survey. It also turns people away from the Church because they think (with some justification) that we are hypocritical – and Jesus reserved his strongest condemnation for those he judges as ‘hypocrites’. We need to express our opinions with care.
The English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the adage ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ and in this month of Remembrance it is good to be reminded that good communication is a more effective tool than direct aggression. But we also have to remember that bad communication – spoken, written or through social media – can result in unhappiness and violence and ultimately even war.
At most Services of Remembrance we make an Act of Commitment to ‘pledge ourselves anew to the service of God and our fellow men and women: that we may help, encourage and comfort others, and support those working for the relief of the needy and for the peace and welfare of the nations’. Perhaps our starting point should be thinking more about what we are going to say or write or text or email or place on our social media before we actually do it!
With best wishes and every Blessing,