It’s not easy to follow James’ command to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” in a world that rewards those quick to broadcast, slow to think, and quick to express the anger of the echo chamber.
The atmosphere of social media and the tribal instincts of a polarized culture conspire to drive us toward expressing ourselves online. I see the impulse take shape through a five-step process:
- Something momentous has happened, usually of a tragic nature.
- We feel we must broadcast our sympathies, our concerns, and our immediate reaction, lest we be seen as aloof, out of touch, or complicit with the blameworthy.
- We believe we have the power to glean important lessons that will help us learn something from the event.
- Since most of these lessons fit (conveniently) within our overall framework of interpretation, we reinforce the tribal lines and worldly categories we’ve constructed.
- As commentary increases and arguments rise, we use the tragedy as a weapon in the ongoing battles in which we’re already invested.
Here is an example of how this has worked out in the past.
- The Catholic Church is embroiled in scandal due to a number of priests who have found to be sexually abusing children.
- Christians from other traditions express shock and horror at the revelations and demand justice for the victims.
- Many of these commentators begin to draw important lessons from the tragedy. There’s danger in ecclesiastical hierarchy! These actions must be related to Catholicism’s requirement of celibacy! This is what happens when you’re part of a patriarchal organization!
- Protestants then rely on these lessons in order to reinforce concerns they already have about Catholicism. Catholics are compromised because of the papacy and their unbiblical top-down leadership! The emphasis on celibacy is strange and dangerous! Women should be priests, too!
- Over time, as debates rage on social media, Protestants use the child-abuse scandals as a weapon against Catholicism—ammunition for a battle in which they’re already invested.
I’ve seen this five-step process play out over the course of months and years. But what shocks me today is that for many tragedies, all five steps take place the same day. The news barely breaks, and we already have a number of hot takes on social media that use the event to reinforce a narrative.
- Ravi Zacharias is what happens when leaders don’t belong to a church and aren’t held accountable! (As if more church involvement would have been an obstacle to a wolf preying on women all around the world.)
- The horror of these police officers being killed in broad daylight is a direct result of “woke” Christians who say Black Lives Matter! (As if concerns about racial injustice or the desire for police reform necessitates violence against law enforcement officers.)
- The Atlanta mass killer is proof that the conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention is discipling young people toward violence against women! (As if a conservative church more likely to actually engage in church discipline toward wayward Christians is responsible for the actions of a depraved member.)
In a society given over to shallowness and superficiality, we do not feel the weight of this rush to judgment, and we feel no qualms about marshaling the latest tragedy as ammo in our ongoing debates about what is wrong about the world and how to fix it. We are blinded to our self-righteousness, sense of superiority, and spirit of judgment by a drive we consider to be good and true: the desire for justice. And so we slot the latest news into whatever our preferred “unified theory of everything” might be: racism, “wokeness,” “the patriarchy,” “leftism,” etc. We may be quick to speak, and slow to listen, and quick to anger—the opposite of the biblical admonition—but surely our disregard of James’ command is excused by our sincerity, right? Aren’t these hot takes justifiable because of the strong sense of justice we possess?
No. James did not qualify his words when he told Christians to refrain from hasty speech. And James’ words of warning here do not contradict justice. They are its foundation. We are more likely to treat others unjustly when we jump to rash conclusions. We are more likely to bypass true justice, mercy, and humility when we overlook slander in service of a good cause. We are more likely to harden our hearts toward true compassion when we rush to our phones to vent our frustrations rather than to turn to God and to each other to express our grief.
Christians today show signs of being just as helplessly and hopelessly polarized as America’s political tribes. In such a season of rancor and outrage, it’s difficult to reject Twitter cheap shots and manipulative sound bites. It may be harder than ever to extend to other Christians—brothers and sisters with whom you may have serious differences—grace.
James’ instruction shouldn’t shut us up, but it should at least slow us down. Heeding his words would press pause on our commentary so that we have time to look for the best in our online opponents and not tar them with the worst possible motives. Only then do we walk the road of grace and truth. Only then do we have a chance at actually persuading someone to a different point of view. Only then will the embers of our commitment to one another burn hotter than the flames of the latest online flare-up. Quick to listen, slow to speak. Let’s make sure tragedies stir up those ancient embers, not fan the new flames.