Rules of Engagement: Social Media and the Gay Marriage Decision

Tish Harrison Warren

By all accounts, June 26, 2015, will go down in history books. We feel passionately. And we want to talk about it. But before we get to what we think and why, it may be helpful to take a step back and lay some ground rules about how to think about and talk about this historic moment.

1. Slow Down.

This is going to be a long conversation.

The information explosion online can make us feel that if we don’t express an immediate reaction to news, we’ll get left behind. We want to ride the wave of chatter before the next controversy de jour. We don’t want to be left out.

Supreme Court interns sprinting with the news on June 26, 2015.

But issues of sexuality, legality, church, and state are complex, emotional, and multifaceted. It is a good and needed exercise to mull. Pray and mull. We, as a church and a society, are not going to get this all figured out by next week.

So take your time. Sit with your thoughts and feelings and listen — listen to the church, to the Scriptures, to the news. Read good writing. And wait.  

I am not saying that you shouldn’t tweet or post or write about the Supreme Court Decision. I hope to be able to write about it soon. But we need to resist the pressure to share our reactions as soon as possible. Slow down. We, as a culture, have a short attention span. But this needs to be a long conversation.

2. Listen well.

There are major issues involved in this decision that can’t be summed up in one bible verse or a hashtag — this case touches on issues of civil liberty, religious freedom, competing definitions of love and family, divergent views of history, different assumptions about what it means to be human, complex intricacies of constitutional law and the relationship between religious practice and state interest. If you think it comes down to simply “Gay People: Yay! or Boo!” or the unalloyed agents of love and light against the agents of evil and darkness, you aren’t listening or thinking well enough.

3. Dialogue is important.

This is so basic that it is cliché. Nevertheless, it must be said. It’s important to listen to a broad range of voices, including those with whom you disagree. Listen to the very best, most compelling voices on the “other side” of this issue from where you sit. If you think that there are not rational and compelling voices on the other side, the problem is with you. Whatever our beliefs, our ideological opponents are not all crazy, hateful, stupid, or evil. If you are a Christian, the gospel does not allow us the too-easy binaries of white hats and black hats. Find the smartest, most thoughtful arguments out there, ones that challenge you. (In particular we need to be listening to gay and lesbian celibate believers, who, among everyone, best understand and embody both sides of our nation’s ideological divide. A great place to begin is the Spiritual Friendship Blog.)

We, of course, also need to have conversations about this decision outside of screens, in the fleshy, embodied world of your community, church, and friends. When I heard about the SCOTUS decision, I called one of my dearest, long-time friends who is gay and legally married (now in all 50 states) and said, “Okay, tell me every way this changes your life and what it means to you and to the gay community.” I also asked him questions about religious liberty and about the concerns of opponents of gay marriage. It was a great, expansive (read: long), and generous conversation. And we both walked away feeling loved and heard (I know because he told me) and having a better grasp of what was at stake in this decision.

If you don’t have any actual real-life friends with whom you disagree, maybe ask yourself why that may be.

4. “Dialogue” is not a code word for “convincing the person you’re talking to that they are wrong and you are right.”

I’ve been in “dialogue sessions” that were really “Let me explain to you how any rational person couldn’t possibly disagree with me” sessions. Look, I’m not saying that we are all going to be able to hold hands and sing "Cumbayá." We may still well disagree, but maybe we can disagree better.  

5. Interrogate the tradition in which you are rooted and speak out of it.

All of us are traditioned people, formed by a particular set of inherited beliefs and practices. However much of a free thinker you believe yourself to be, your thoughts and beliefs come from a limited and faulty tradition. Dialogue need not — and indeed cannot — happen from a supposed “neutral place.” We bring assumptions, presuppositions, history, and defining narratives into every argument. If you are using words like “love” or “justice,” do not assume that those words have universal meaning. Ideas of love, freedom, identity, and truth are profoundly shaped by culture and time. Question and unpack what you mean.

6. Take the high road.

(Also, don’t feed the trolls). Be uncompromisingly kind and clear in your posting, tweeting, writing, and words. And do not confuse disagreement with unkindness.

But if others respond directly to you in ways that are rude, dismissive, patronizing, or raging, let it go. Do not engage. In general, anything written IN ALL CAPS is inadmissible. Truth is rarely found in an online knife fight.

If someone deeply offends you, particularly if they are a friend you connect with offline, talk to them about it. Otherwise, shrug it off. In most every circumstance, don’t unfriend people. Because it’s juvenile. You can always still sit at my lunch table, but if you are unduly mean, thereafter we will mostly talk about that awesome pudding snack in your lunchbox.

7. Be humble about your personal feelings and experiences.

Feeling elated about the SCOTUS decision does not mean it was right. Feeling trepidation about it does not mean it was wrong. Feel free to share your feelings. Please do. They matter. But keep in mind that personal experiences and feelings don’t determine the ultimate reality of anything. To use a theological term, they are not authoritative.

8.  Understand this from a legal perspective.

Whether you agree or disagree with the Supreme Court, this was a legal decision — not primarily a theological or ideological one. As such the litigious and constitutional ramifications of this case are profound. This decision results, immediately, in a changed legal reality for LGBTQ people that has pragmatic effects on their lives, and this decision has profound (and likely deleterious) implications for the future existence of religious universities, schools, hospitals, adoption agencies, non-profits, and churches. If one does not understand the legal and systemic issues of this case, one cannot rightly engage with this historical moment. So if you are only reading pastors and activists, add some legal analysis to your reading. Some places to begin are the extensive work of Robin Fretweel Wilson, Douglas Laycock, and John Inazu.

9. Don’t assume that you know what people believe or why.

There can be a temptation when news hits to think that we all must run to our computers (or pulpits or platforms) and wave our ideological flags. If people do not, we can find them suspect. Do not feed that beast. 

10. Practice silence.

Listen to the apostle James here: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” If there was ever a verse that is countercultural this week, it is this one. But indeed, let us write it on our hearts and practice it.

Take your journal, find a quiet spot in a church or a park or the corner of your house away from screens, and sit for an hour or two. Journal or read Psalms or sing or pray, but also just sit and listen and be silent. Practice silence like basketball players do passing drills. It is a habit that must be developed and honed.

When you speak, speak from a deep well of silence.  When it feels like the whole culture is in a shouting match, be the kid who, in the middle of the family argument, sneaks off to the backyard and swings on the swings.

11. Be the change you want to see in the internet.

For better or worse, social media and online news are chief ways we communicate in our culture. If you feel like the conversation online is vapid, pedantic, raging, or unkind, don’t (necessarily) abandon it altogether or avoid talking about religion or politics. Lead by articulating what you think and who you are in ways that are rigorous and thoughtful. Embrace both conviction and civility. When you find things online (or in print) that help the conversation forward, share them. And when you find arguments you disagree with but that make you think, let the person who wrote them know that you appreciate their thoughts.

This is a medium that we can use for good. May we do so however we can.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two young daughters.

12 comments

Benign perspective. Overly loquacious attempt to abstain from providing meaningful commentary on the merits of the recent decision. Perhaps your readers are more emotionally sound and spiritually intelligent than you give them credit. I think they can handle hearing what you really think.

Sep 14, 2015 9:43PM by E.S.

How nice to find a contemplative perspective on a potentially divisive topic! I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said, including the encouragement to listen well to opinions that are different from your own for perspective and understanding. I've seen internet comments turn into a knife fight, as you put it. I usually choose to sit those out, as it seems people are only looking for a platform to proclaim or defend their positions. If only more people subscribed to this approach, the world would be a different, more loving place. This is lovely advice. I will remember this and pass it on. Thank you!

Jul 27, 2015 7:31AM by Leslea

Thank you for sharing this! It really brought about a different perspective and very useful suggestions on how to approach disagreement. I have certainly learned to listen well, be silent, and open my mind.

Jul 15, 2015 2:24PM by Camille McCall

Thank you for this thoughtful, measured, and irenic article. Your notion of "disagreeing better" should be a regulative principle for all who truly want to love and serve well, but remain drawn to a deep well of conviction fed by biblical theology.

Jul 6, 2015 11:33AM by Michael

Thank you for this brilliant and thoughtful article. Excellent!

Jul 1, 2015 3:51PM by Trevor Lloyd

Tish, Great, Great, Article, I need to read more and practice more from the Apostle James. Thank you for your input and helping me have a greater understanding! You are an excellent word smith!! I just wish more people would follow you in not feeding the trolls! Thank you again! Terri

Jul 1, 2015 2:46PM by Terri Garrett

Ah (the sound of mental and psychological relief with a pastoral touch)...thanks so much!!

Jul 1, 2015 9:58AM by Phil B-D

Wise counsel. My respect for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship has gone sky high.

I attended a Baptist church near UT. This was the (in)famous church where the ordination of a gay deacon triggered a "ministerial melt down". Among attendees in the then vibrant and diverse student ministry:
A young man who completed seminary ed at Southwest Baptist seminary in Ft Worth. He later stopped trying to pretend he wasnt gay. He is today not a pastor but in a civil partnership/gay marriage near Seattle.
A young woman whom I envisioned as becoming the next Beth Moore or Elisabeth Elliot. She had been truly "on fire" for Christ and had several summers working at Kanakuk Kamps in Branson. She today is a lesbian and likely married.
Last of all, a young man who confided to a select group of young men that he had in the past struggled with same sex attraction. He married a young woman from our fellowship. I beieve at the time of their divorce he had 3 kids. But he too finally came out as gay. When one spouse in a marriage finally becomes honest with him or herself about sexuality, it's a good thing. When folks attempt to conform and act hetero it can only lead to bad results: surrepticious sneaking around, double life etc.

Jul 1, 2015 12:11AM by Brad

Tish, thank you for this. It was the article i was hoping for without even knowing it. I've read so many writings of one kind or another about this issue and now I wish I had read yours first. Much love from Idaho to you and your sweet family.

Jun 30, 2015 11:01PM by Faye Craven

Thanks for posting this. Especially thanks for being mindful of those of us who are believers who deal with same-sex attractions and who, therefore, have found themselves called to celibacy. Though I haven't felt the same stings, many of my friends who deal with this have come out of the past several days feeling quite wounded. I appreciate any encouragement by you or anyone else to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

Jun 30, 2015 1:17PM by Anonymous

Thanks for these thoughts. Very helpful! I especially like the words: "...speak from a deep well of silence." Very wise.

May I add to number 8? "Read the opinions drafted by the Supreme Court judges." It's available in a handy PDF format.

Blessings,
Troy

Jun 30, 2015 12:55PM by Troy Cady

A voice of calm. Thank you for this encouragement.

Jun 30, 2015 11:52AM by Lynne

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