Narratives in Search of Facts: Covington Catholic and Internet Mobs

We have seen the mob, and the mob is us.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).

There is an old description of journalism that makes some sense: facts in search of a narrative. Stories don’t write themselves, in other words; they must be carefully constructed, researched, understood, and then told in a resolute and aesthetic way. This is part of why much of the greatest journalism of years past (think of Wolfe, Talese, Hersh, Cramer, and the greats) is clearly crafted over time, carefully sifted, written at the level of a novel or outstanding biography.

Today, I fear that American culture is encouraging anti-journalism. Surprisingly, we are all journalists today, though most of us have not taken a single solitary minute to train as one. In our social media platforms, we all too often proffer narratives in search of facts. In other words, we have pre-baked our public commentary. Though we supposedly dwell in the age of high tolerance and good feelings, we stand ready to tolerate only those who agree with us, and we send good feelings only to those who support us.

In such a climate, the natural messiness of human existence—the confusion, disorder, chaos, paradox, mystery, beauty, weirdness, wonder, and hope mixed into so much of our lives—is lost. Though the age of stereotyping is seemingly behind us, we seem now more than ever to see people in abstract terms. Just outside an escalating conflict, we hover, ready to storm in and intensify the fray beyond sensibility, beyond reason, beyond fairness. Let us be honest with ourselves, all of us: we are not quick to hear, but slow to hear. We are not slow to speak, but quick to speak. We are not slow to anger, but quick to anger.

Human nature has not changed in hewing to this awful pattern. What has happened, though, is that digital communication has allowed human nature to vent itself with far greater speed than ever before. Grown adults with very complex jobs and busy families to love are instead logged on to their accounts around the clock. If an issue arises, if facts suddenly enter our content stream that fit our prefabricated narratives, we pounce. Why? It seems we feel tremendous pressure, six-megatons-on-your-neck pressure, to comment first and speak loudest. Why? Well, let’s be honest: pride causes us to rush in. Fear of being left out causes us to rush in. Desire to be liked causes us to rush in. For these and other reasons, we watch all of thirty seconds of a video, or read a few words on Twitter (but not the article the words introduce), and we fire up the flamethrower, its setting perennially on what Carl Trueman once called Total Righteous Destruction.

This has happened twice in the last week. First, the American President was said to be on the very brink of impeachment, a claim rejected—strikingly—by the public official investigating the President’s dealings with Russia; second, a teenager (Nick Sandmann) shared some kind of strange standoff with a Native American man in Washington, D. C. The teenager drew immediate scorn, censure, and what can only be characterized as hatred. He, a fact, fit the narrative perfectly. He was a racist; he was preening; he was the very worst of America in slight, teenageish form, a sort of Conservative Swamp Creature from the Catholic Underworld. Because modern America has aided and abetted our stereotyping, our intolerance, our raw and unbridled hatred, we are adept in handling these kind of creatures. We know what to do with them. Our fingers twitching with righteous rage, we join the mob, condemning him, making him the living symbol of evil America, and then sit back as the Likes pile up and the Hearts multiply, basking in the flowing wave of social media adulation that washes over us. We who have just attacked a teenager—a teenager—who cannot defend himself in our presence feel tremendous pride at our courage.

What a shameful moment this is. What repentance is needed—not from the people out there, but from us. What pride and fear of man and love of human praise we carry in our heart. I do not speak only of secularists and talking-head personalities; I speak of us, of Christian leaders, of pastors, of those who teach and preach on James 1. We may have quietly deleted our ferocious tweet, our breathless Instagram denunciation, but the stench lingers. We have wronged a boy—a boy. We have helped create a climate that could lead to his death. We have not listened, not waited, not exercised patience, not allowed the strangeness and unpredictability of human existence to factor in. No, we have joined in the fray against a child.

We have seen the mob, and the mob is us.

I do not pretend to know all that transpired in the interaction between Sandmann and Nathan Phillips. Further, America as a society has real matters to sort out. But we must not miss this moment: even if Sandmann had said unvirtuous things, and had been disrespectful in a direct way to Phillips, do we want now to adjudicate all wrongdoing through thirty-second clips on the Internet? If we have a bad interaction with a cashier at Target, do we want our sentence to be determined by a Twitter mob? If you and your spouse get a bit heated and a bit unkind in your speech to one another, do you want nameless, faceless people to sort you out online? If you get a little frustrated with your child, and speak a bit strongly to them at the grocery store, would you like a jury of your peers to sentence you to Instagram penance? Is that what you want for yourself? Because you—like me—are a sinner. Sadly, tragically, you’re going to stumble, and you’re going to speak ungraciously. Let’s sharpen the point, and use stern biblical phraseology, not milky therapeutic cliches: at some point this week, you’re going to do something evil. When you do, how do you want that handled?

Friends, we need to see that we may well be preaching a gospel of grace but promoting an ethic of works-righteousness. Yes, we must call sins what they are: sins. Yet we must also recognize that the biblical doctrine of the imago dei will not allow us to demonize people for their skin color. It will not allow us to stereotype whole groups of people based on their ethnicity. The biblical doctrine of salvation, further, will not let us see any person as beyond the reach of God. The biblical doctrine of the church, what’s more, will remind us that we have been called into accountability before brothers and sisters. These and other scriptural teachings foreclose the kind of rage-driven, quick-to-speak, quick-to-judge mentality that now sums up the social-media hive mind. We are not merely trafficking in “less than ideal” ways of conduct. We are being tempted to be scorchingly ungodly, unkind, and unloving.

Let me say a closing word to pastors, especially young pastors. There will be times when a public-square issue is worth engaging. But you are not fundamentally in politics; you have not chosen a political career. You chose, by the divine call, to enter the ministry. The pastorate is not grounded in quick writing ability or clever phraseology or Internet skills. The pastorate is grounded in character, holy character fired by the gospel of Christ. Now more than ever, with our culture on fire, your people need you to model discretion, sound judgment, wisdom, patience, teachableness, humility, gracious speech (read 1 Timothy 3:1-7 afresh). It’s funny, because wisdom literature seems muted in our day in our pulpits, and yet we need biblical wisdom more than ever. For what little it’s worth, I would encourage you to think of yourself less as an activist and more as a shepherd of souls. Will this likely mean you speak less about your political convictions than you might otherwise? Yes, I’m guessing it will. I am all for sound words in appropriate times, but I think in general you might help your people in a serious way by choosing discretion and carefulness over fast-twitch speaking and writing.

None of us has clean hands on these counts. We all err in many ways. We must all not merely delete posts without saying a word, but offer repentance to God and man on a daily basis. We are not the one who can set things right. We are not the one whom God has appointed to judge the supposed evildoers of social media or any setting. We are specks of dust. Jesus Christ is the only righteous man. Jesus Christ is the savior of the world.

And do not be confused: Jesus Christ will return to judge the earth. In light of that reality, we must speak differently, love abundantly, and preach continually, offering the hope of transformation to unkind, ungracious, anger-driven creatures just like us.