(Proverbs 9:7-10, 10:11-12; James 3:16-18; Thomas 3)
A thirteen year old gir, in Naperville IL, Trisha Prabhu, ran into a news story that strikes her right in the heart. In Florida, an 11-year-old girl, two years younger than Trisha, had taken her own life after being bullied and bullied and bullied online.
This hit home for Trisha. Cyberbullying, she knew, is a big problem. More than half of young people in the U.S. have been harassed online, according to one study.
We are living in a new era. The internet age has multiplied and multiplied the ways we can connect with each other. So much good has come of this, and will continue to come of this. But this also has created a new playground for the demons of humans of human nature. One part of this dark side of the Internet, is that it can give a bully that many more ways of getting at their victim and making them feel like there’s no escape. That is what happened to this girl in Florida, and it got to be too much, and for whatever reason she felt like there was no escape. I pray that her soul is at peace.
Trisha, in Illinois, felt connected with this girl’s tragedy – and her grief and outrage grew into a determination to change things. We’re talking about a very smart and enterprising person here. She studied the issue and founs that the problem is not just that the internet gives a bully more ways of getting at their victim, but that it makes it easier for anyone else to jump in on that bullying behavior. It’s easier to be anonymous online. And it’s easier to feel like the person who’s suffering is anonymous. So it’s easier for any of us, not just the sociopaths, to have the trollish side of us come out and get that thrill of being mean and ganging up, without getting hit with the reality of the suffering that we’re causing to a living breathing precious child of God.
So Trisha set out to short circuit this virtual block to our empathy. She did this – like you do when you’re a wiz kid – by writing a program that uses a language recognition algorithm to catch potentially hateful messages and send a pop-up that says, basically, “Hold on, the message you’re about to send looks like it may be hurtful to others. Do you really want to send it?”
The research – because of course she did research to back this up – shows that this kind of empathy check works. 93% of this time, people decide to back down from being troll and a bully.
Whether it works because it makes people think that someone else is paying attention to the terrible thing they’re thinking of doing, or that it gets their conscience to chime, this kinds intervention calls on the better angels of our nature to sweep in and carry us over an impulse to be nasty. It works, and that’s a source of hope. The program is called ReThink. A lot school districts are using it or looking into using it.\ — That’s story number one of Hope in the Face of Hate in the Internet Age. Story number two is about a writer named Lindy West. She often writes for a publication called Jezebel, which is a feminist publication. It may not be surprising then, unfortunately, to learn that Jezebel’s online presence is the target for all kinds of abuse and nastiness. Lindy West, in particular, got to be just hounded by trolls – which is what you call someone who skulks around online being abusive and nasty.
The general wisdom is “Don’t feed the trolls.” Just ignore them, don’t argue with them even when they’re provoking and baiting and being infuriating. Now, this is ancient wisdom. Check out our reading from the book of Proverbs in the Bible: “Whoever corrects a mocking person wins abuse. Whoever rebukes the wicked gets hurt. A mocking person who is rebuked will only hate you.” That’s biblical language for “Don’t feed the trolls.” The Proverbs go on to say that “The wise, when rebuked, will love you. Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still. Teach the just and they will gain in learning. Reverence for the One Beyond Name is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
Now, the question is, does the world just divide up into wicked people and wise people? Are you one or the other? In other words, can a troll be redeemed? Can a troll learn humility or even reverence, which is the beginning of wisdom? As Christians, we have to say, “Yes.” A troll can be redeemed. The world does not divide up into the wicked, the irredeemably wicked, and the wise, the righteous and the holier than thou. Because there is a trollish tendency in all of us, and there are environments that can feed that trollishness. But there are also, by the Grace of God, the better angels of our nature. Our faith is that those better angels win the day, because the truth of the matter is that we are each and all beloved children of the living God. This is true regardless of how much we deny it. Our faith in a resurrected Christ, who passed and rose up from the worst that people can do to each other, means that this truth wins. Trollishness may abide through the night, but in the morning the truth dawns and sets us free.
Alright, I’m getting carried away here … back to the story about Lindy West. She didn’t feed the trolls when they went after her every time she published something online. But then things got really bad. I won’t get into the details, but someone got really personal with her in a way that was just beyond the pale, very hurtful and scary.
What she did then was take the risk of writing honestly about it all. She published a column about the pain that this person had caused her, and about her anger and her resilience.
Then something surprising happened. The troll out into the light of day. She received an email from this guy. An apology.
“I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you …I think my anger from you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself… I can’t apologize enough … It finally hit me: there’s a living, breathing human being who’s reading this [expletive]. I’m attacking someone who never attacked me.”
She called him up. And in their conversation he really started to reflect about why he could be so hateful towards women. The picture Lindy got was of someone deeply frustrated by life, someone struggling with a sense of meaninglessness. Despite that, he still had a spark of humanity that can be kindled.
This story I got from the radio program This American Life. And the story about Trisha Prabhu I learned because she spoke at the UCC National Youth gathering this summer.
These are stories of hope, of hope that truth can win in the face of hate. They are also stories, I think, that speak to how important it is to have healthy communities of faith, such as this one, in our culture. We gather together time and time again to call on the better angels of our nature. We gather to better know ourselves and to know the God of grace that knows us and loves us for who we are. That means we can be honest about our trollish tendencies, we don’t have to force them down, but we can bring them into the light of day … and through connection, through community, we can bridge over them and return again and again to the truth we are each and all beloved children of the living God who calls us to the boldness and the courage of lives of hope and love.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered September 4, 2016, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Image: “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” by Anne E.G. Nydam, www.nydamprints.com. Used with permission.