The Internet can be a cruel place. Now that we have means to be interconnected more than ever, the formation of communities is made uh, easier?, but also has the means for divisiveness and harm become easier as well. We see this for example in the sexual harassment that women celebrities are now facing, having photos stolen from their phones (for an excellent discussion on this issue, I would recommend fellow MennoNerd Ryan Robinson’s piece: Rape Culture In Celebrity Photo Theft). I observe the harassment that Women of Color educators/activists face everyday; trolls creating multiple accounts to make racist diatribes and violent threats against persons like Mikki Kendall, Sydette, Trudy, Suey Park, and others. I don’t think I can claim to have encountered a microcosm of what these brave women deal with every day, but when trolls get into my timeline, they usually leave with their feelings hurt because I do them the kindness of confrontation through sarcasm.
Of course there’s a time and place for everything, as the author of Ecclesiastes contends. My good friend Tyler Tully has a good reflection on expanding public theology to cover online behavior. As a Liberation theologian, I understand that all theological statements that are made have political ramifications. The practical is always the theoretical, the abstract really isn’t that far from the concrete. The thing is about a lot of people’s notions of civility or what it means to be “grace-filled” online in the Christian blogosphere is that, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig suggests, it is “squishy”: Bruenig: “Anyway, one of the chief defects of demands for civility is that they rarely elaborate as to what they mean by civility.” Not only this, but the rules for civility keep changing, and one right after another, they just keep getting added. We hear from one side, well, yes, I know I needed to be called out, but you could have been a little bit nicer, and then the same civilized party admits later, I needed to be called out to persons who give them similar feedback, but its nicer because their interlocutor may look like them. The civilized party postures as if they believe that all ideas are equal, but in reality their practice reveals something quite different.
What is the norming norm for defining what kindness is? As a Liberationist, I find the Exodus story as the primary paradigm by which Scripture is interpreted. I also like the idea of God’s kindness demonstrated in the narrative. YHWH’s kindness is sort of unruly, and is mentioned a lot throughout the Hebrew Bible. Why NeoMarcionites would want to discard of the First Testament is beyond me! 😉 What is clear however starting with the first chapter of Exodus, YHWH’s kindness is defined first and foremost by observing the cruel treatment of the oppressed Israelites, and then responding to their cries. YHWH the God of Liberation hears the oppressed’s concerns; as a relational God, YHWH first spoke the Word/Wisdom at creation, and now God listens. God’s kindness and compassion are not restricted to ever-fluctuating rules of civility that give those with privilege the advantage. Rather God’s lovingkindness for all persons shines through in God demonstrating God’s preferential option for the poor. It is in the bodies and experiences of the oppressed that have the greatest knowledge of what human wickedness looks and feels like. Conversely, YHWH’s power and glory are made known greatest through those who are labelled as weak in society to shame “the strong,” the powerful, those who falsely view themselves as having the future in their hands, operating in God’s place.
Kindness, in the biblical metanarratives of liberation and reconciliation, is inextricably linked to communal justice, freedom for the prisoner and the enslaved, dignity for the impoverished. According to the story, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill baby boys once they were born. The midwives who feared YHWH showed the infant boys kindness and spared their lives. When Pharaoh asked why infant boys were living, the midwives satirize the essentialist logic of the Egyptians, “declaring” Hebrew women to be stronger (therefore, more capable of reproducing more children, thus the population growth). The Hebrew midwives played with the fears of the oppressor. And in turn for their acts of mercy, Exodus 1:20 says that YHWH was kind to the heroic midwives.
The midwives provide a glimpse of YHWH’s own compassion. YHWH sees, observes, hears the misery of Abraham’s children, and makes it God’s mission to “rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:7). If kindness involves listening to the voices of the silenced first in the Exodus, the same principle should be applied to our public ethics of civility online. It is also important to note that the Hebrew midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 2, and YHWH– all three recognize their positions of power. Their truthful analysis in each case meant a recognition of difference in power, between the lowly and their earthly superiors. The Exodus brand of Kindness requires, #1, listening, and then #2, a joining in the solidarity with those in bondage with a viewpoint that starts from the bottom-up, and neither the top or “the middle way.”
For Christians, Jesus is the Exodus God Incarnate, and embodied an untamed kindness and solidarity with the least of these. The civility party I mentioned previously wants to bracket Jesus as a feminist or civilizing European socialite above his Jewish community. If a public theologian online seeks to be one who wishes to practice lovingkindness and follow the Golden Rule, then the more faithful view point is the kindness we learn of in Exodus. The marginated do not need other persons, even allies who seek to throw stones; rather, they need accomplices who will join them in the valleys to speak to the mountains, and make them move.