Christian Conduct in the Communication Age
We live in an age of instant communication. We can send text messages from our televisions, video clips from our telephones, and music from our cameras. Every person with an internet connection has the ability to speak to a worldwide audience. In an incredibly short amount of time--less than two decades or so--people around the world have changed the way they do business, keep in touch with loved ones, report the news, and even how they shop.
The effects are far-reaching, and easy to see. We have witnessed popular celebrities being laid low, enormous scandals uncovered and traditional journalists left behind as regular, everyday people have taken pictures or made recordings of events and posted them online. The stock market can be swayed in a matter of seconds based on things that are happening on the other side of the planet, and natural disasters have been reported as they are still occurring.
Governments--particularly repressive ones--around the world are finding themselves nearly powerless to stop the spread of information, and the effect that it has on people. The governments of China, Iran, Egypt and Libya have recently gone to extraordinary measures to choke off telecommunications and internet traffic with the outside world. One protester in Egypt explicitly credited Facebook with the revolutionary change that has swept that country. A number of news articles and scholarly works are springing up to comment on "the power of social media to foment change" and the like. This shouldn't come as a surprise to Christians; the Word tells us that those who practice evil prefer to do so in the dark, fearing exposure of their deeds (John 3:19-20). There are many in the world who are now waking up to this simple truth, and its results are seen by both the worldly and the spiritual peoples of the Earth.
The power of communication to change the world isn't new. The Gospel (literally "good message") was given with instructions by Christ to be preached to every living creature (Mark 16:15), and the results have been obvious for two millennia. Historians--believers and non-believers alike--have noted the tremendous effect of the Bible's publication on world history. Both the Gutenberg Bible (published in the 1450s) and the King James Bible (1604-1611) are believed to shape human history to this day, to the extent that non-religious universities and museums worldwide seek to obtain copies. The power of the Word is such that the mere printing of it has left an indelible mark on world history.
As a result, the Great Commission (again, Mark 16:15) is closer to being fulfilled than ever before. Anyone with a smartphone, laptop, or similar wireless computing device can read the Bible online (and store multiple translations of it locally), make notes, and send them to acquaintances around the world. We can record sermons for friends to listen to on music players (or phones), and of course the Bible itself is readily available in every audio format that exists.
While these advances certainly make life more convenient, they also add certain complications to our day-to-day existence. Christians are charged with living their lives as examples to others (I Tim. 4:12), and people's conduct is under more scrutiny today than it has ever been before. We live in what civil libertarians and science fiction writers alike call a "surveillance society."
This means that a person's deeds--both good and evil--can be exposed by something as simple as a cell phone picture or an uploaded video clip. Everyone from high school students (and teachers!) to members of Congress have had their sinful behavior exposed for the entire Internet--and, therefore, the world--to see. This is one reason why Christians are charged with laying aside hypocrisy (I Pet. 2:1) and being "a peculiar people" (verse 9); what the world sees of God's people is as important as what those Christians say when they are teaching the Gospel. And when your behavior might very easily become documented on a website that is hosted on the other side of the planet, the scriptures' warnings become that much more urgent than they were even in the recent past.
Reining in hypocritical deeds is one thing that Christians should always strive to do, but another temptation has become much more prevalent with the Communication Age that we should also guard against: anger. If you work in the corporate world, you've no doubt had to sit through "training" after some co-worker was disciplined or fired for writing inflammatory emails. School students today are similarly subjected to lectures about "cyber-bullying" and the evils of viciously-worded messages. A number of real-world crimes have been traced to people who simply didn't pay attention to how they wrote something before it was sent or posted online. On the other hand, some people enjoy deliberately provoking others to wrath through the supposed safety of online discussion.
Sociologists and psychologists have commented on this relatively new phenomenon, and at least one internet humorist described it succinctly as the "Greater Internet Jerk Theory;" the idea that people will act aggressively and provocatively online, even if they wouldn't act that way when talking to someone face-to-face. While the means of stirring people to anger is new, the scriptures' warnings against it are not. We are directed to live peaceably with all men (Rom. 12:18), to season our speech with salt (Col. 4:6), and to know how to answer angry words softly in order to diffuse anger (Prov. 15:1). The destructive potential of anger is well-documented in the scriptures and Christians are charged with doing their best to put it down (Col. 3:8 is especially relevant in the present day).
As we go about our daily lives, we should keep in mind that the tools which we use to communicate with are powerful. Like other tools, they can be both used and misused. It is incumbent upon Christians to seek the Lord's guidance when we use them, as with everything else in life.