What happened this week was inevitable.

Background photo taken from the Jefferson Memorial, October 2018

It’s been a week, hasn’t it?

I saw this quote this morning in America magazine (linked below, if you’re reading on social media). I can’t find the source, which makes me think it might be not 100% word for word, but the message is one we really need.

Since day one at Intentional Catholic, I have been begging my fellow Catholics to share and read with integrity. We have a Christian responsibility to make sure we fact check the things we share, the things we take in, the opinions and philosophies we embrace.

We have a Christian responsibility to think critically and compare what we take in and say and share to the teachings of our faith. To embrace the niggling discomfort when our consciences are tweaked. To acknowledge that that discomfort is meant to point out the ways in which our worldly view is out of whack with our faith.

We have a Christian responsibility to use that discomfort to reshape our world view more authentically with our faith, even if it means setting aside long-standing idols in the form of political ideologies. (I say this as someone who’s had to do that myself. I know it’s hard. To this day, I routinely have to keep questing in order to keep myself from swinging too far the opposite direction.)

To choose instead to chase down, embrace, and share conspiracy theories, distortions, and outright lies is a violation of the ninth commandment. It is a violation of every exhortation in the Bible about living with integrity.

When large numbers of Christians fail to fact check and instead enthusiastically embrace things devoid of integrity, the events of this week become inevitable. For months, God-fearing people have been expressing terror about socialism, about dictatorships, about the shredding of the Constitution. And then, on Wednesday, people with those same beliefs shredded the Constitution themselves, far worse than anything they fear from their political opponent. I even saw one Facebook commenter say that Trump should declare martial law so he doesn’t have to leave office. Apparently, dictatorship is fine as long as it’s “my” dictator.

What we saw this week was the inevitable end of the path we embark on each time we choose to share distortions and outright lies because we haven’t undertaken the time—or embraced the humility—to examine them and recognize them as such.

We are meant for more.

Honesty, Integrity, and Politics

Reflecting the other day on Pope Francis’ blistering critique of American politics got me pretty riled up. I keep thinking about the lack of honesty and integrity in the political process. We seem to have different standards for politics than we do in real life, and that’s just bizarre. Especially for Christians.

Judging by the way we conduct our politics, truth and integrity no longer matter. We can stretch the truth of any narrative so much, it’s no longer recognizable as truth–and as long as we think it will help us achieve our end goal, that’s A-OK.

I avoid the air waves as much as possible in the pre-election weeks, but you can’t escape it all. A political ad comes up, and I think, “What the actual heck? You have a family. You put your tiny kids on all your direct mail pieces to show what a great, upstanding, moral Christian you are. And then you say things like THAT? You take your opponent’s words out of context so you can change what they mean. You exaggerate their beliefs so profoundly that there’s more falsehood than truth in your statement! How in the world do you do this and then expect your kids to grow up valuing honesty and integrity and respect for others? What example are you giving them?”

How did we reach the point where we think it’s OK to pick and choose what facts to share so that we can pretend the more inconvenient truths don’t exist at all? (”La la la, I can’t hear you!” How childish. How unworthy of Christ.)

I think the problem is, we’ve allowed politics to get so extreme that people actually think the hyperbole is reality. They have stopped seeing the difference. Stopped recognizing that context matters. Stopped recognizing nuance. Why paint with a detail brush when we can use a fire hose?

Once we do that, it’s inevitable that we’ll start swallowing extreme narratives whole, without even bothering to think critically, without bothering to do a 30-second bias check on a place like mediabiasfactcheck.com. (I mean, it’s such a low bar. It takes no time at all.)

For instance, here are a couple sites that conservative Catholics like to share.

And lest you think I only bias-check the right, here’s a site that gets shared a lot by social justice Catholics:

The unintended consequence of all this is that no one trusts anyone to tell the truth anymore. Leaders (unless they’re MY political color), media (unless it’s MY media). People are picking and choosing their own facts, their own realities. Which gives them blanket permission to ignore and dismiss anything that would cause them to question said facts and realities. If you don’t like it, call it fake news.

(All those years we spent bemoaning relativism, and now the entire culture, including the right, has not only embraced it but is rabidly, passionately devoted to it!)

What’s become excruciatingly clear, in all this, is that religious teachings—like, oh, let’s say honesty & integrity–are not given just to slap us with strictures to chafe and annoy us. They are necessary for the functioning of society. If no one can trust anyone else to tell the truth, well, you’ve got a problem, folks. Your society is going to be a mess.

If we would just take a deep breath and turn back to honesty and integrity, and condemn hyperbole, America would be a much better place. We all know it. We all believe it. Why don’t we demand it? Why won’t we do what’s necessary to make it happen?

Taxes (as one example)

What this reminds me of, though it’s a separate issue, is tax shelters, offshore corporations, and tax loopholes. I’ve often heard, in relation to taxes, “As long as it’s legal I’m going to take advantage of it.” But we recognize that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s morally right (cough-cough-abortion). So using this argument as justification for doing whatever possible to hoard as much money as possible has never sat well with me.

About a taxicab

Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on Pexels.com

I spend most of my time here reflecting on things I’ve already discerned, words of wisdom shared by popes and bishops and saints. Sometimes I worry that I look like I think I have it all figured out (read that: holier than thou).

I don’t.

I’ve been in a bad frame of mind lately. Aware of it, pondering it, praying about it, but not seeing any improvement. Yesterday morning, I was driving across town when I saw a minivan owned by a taxi company. It had a Scripture reference plastered on the side. I didn’t even see what the Scripture was. I just had an immediate negative reaction.

I was sort of shocked by how strong it was. It should be a good thing for a person to witness to his/her faith publicly. This should spark warmth, joy, affirmation. Not negativity. What does it say about me, as a person of faith, that my first reaction to expressions of faith in business owners is such a negative one?

How terribly jaded I have become.

Not without reason.

There are an awful lot of people walking around wearing Christianity on their sleeve and saying terrible things, shredding the human dignity of others through memes and tweets and nasty social media comments, sharing clickbait headlines that don’t even reflect the article content accurately, let alone reality, from websites that demonstrate by their publication choices that they consider taking things out of context, twisting the truth, or deleting inconvenient facts as justifiable in pursuit of their agenda. (Agenda outranks Ten Commandments.) Christians who say “thoughts and prayers” after every natural disaster and mass shooting while turning a blind eye to the scientific consensus on climate change and insisting that “it’s mental health, not guns,” while simultaneously advocating cuts to mental health funding because cutting taxes is more important than taking care of the earth God gave us or being our brothers’ keeper.

That’s the sin I see in too many people who share my faith.

Now here’s mine.

It’s a sinful judgment to assume that one who puts Scripture verses on the side of his or her business car is also sharing inflammatory memes and tweets and making nasty social media comments and sharing clickbait and substituting “thoughts and prayers” for action.

But God forgive me, that’s where my mind goes.

I don’t like this about myself. I want my faith to be a source of joy, for me and for others. I want to assume the best of others, as I so often admonish others to do. (Doing religious writing really is a round-the-clock examination of conscience.)

I don’t want to feel reluctant to talk about praying for others–but I do, because too many people have been on the receiving end of “prayers” that are really judgments. “Prayers” that are holier-than-thou rather than expressions of solidarity.

I don’t want to be judgy of others (“Stop judging, that you may not be judged,” Mt. 7:1). I know the upheaval it took to pry my mind open and force me to recognize the things I see now. I should offer grace, not judgment.

I want Christianity to be all it was meant to be by Jesus, and I want to be able to talk about it without sounding holier-than-thou (read that: off-putting).

I have no idea how to fix any of this. In myself or in the larger world, either one.

I came face to face with my own brokenness yesterday, and it wasn’t pretty. I don’t have it figured out, and I won’t pretend I do. The one thing I know is that without such honest self-reflection, there is no moving forward.

Talking Straight

I can’t stand conflict. But there’s something I loathe even more: when people who are upset with each other talk past each other instead of to each other. I’ve been harping on this for years in politics, but recently it’s come home to me that it happens an awful lot in places much closer to home.

There’s a relationship in my family’s life that is riddled with this dysfunction: you see a problem, you ask for an answer, and there’s either a complete lack of response, or the entity on the other side of the line issues its “message points” instead of answering the question. Is it any wonder that a person who approaches communication in good faith and gets message points in return ends up feeling, well, enraged?

Unfortunately, it’s a common dysfunction. I’ve come to believe it is the source of tremendous unnecessary angst and lack of peace in the modern world. As I ponder this, weighed down by the frustration and bewilderment that comes from beating your head on a brick wall you can’t avoid, I realize something else: we live in a world defined by fear and lack of trust. People use their message points because they’re afraid if they address the questions on the other side of a conflict openly and honestly, it’ll come back to bite them. They’ll get sued, they’ll get in trouble with their superiors, or whatever.

My whole life, I’ve been conditioned to look at the big picture, and so for years, when I ponder questions like this, I’ve gone straight to its impact on issues of global or at least national import. But everything big starts small. If protectionist passive-aggressiveness is what we as individuals face in interacting with individuals or local entities (and how often are we the guilty party?), then of course the larger world looks this way, too. It’s like those mosaics made up of hundreds of tiny thumbnails. One individual incident doesn’t change the world—but all together, they form a global pattern.

“Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no,” Jesus says. His context is different, but it applies all the same: Just lay it out straight. Don’t dance around. Be authentic and communicate in good faith.

What if changing the world could really be that simple?

**(Note: I did not say “easy.” I said “simple.”)**

Truth and Social Media

Photo by Danielle Scott, via Flickr

I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Like everyone else, I love getting “likes,” and I love sharing and staying in touch with friends and professional contacts. It eases an introvert’s anxiety going into social situations if I already know something I can talk about with the people I’ll be seeing.

But the very thing that makes Facebook so great—how easy it is to share with others—also encourages us to share indiscriminately, without taking time to think through whether it’s inflammatory, whether it’s manipulating our emotions, and in fact, whether it’s reliable information at all.

Having been caught myself too many times by reacting instead of pausing to think–embarrassing for someone who strives to be fair-minded–I’ve become a huge skeptic of all inflammatory social media posts. I’ve spent the last several years fact-checking things on Facebook and trying desperately to get others to do the same–mostly without success.

There are plenty of non-religious reasons why we ought to be making sure what we share is actually true and not skewed:

-the ease with which outside powers manipulate us and endanger the trustworthiness of our elections;

-the way half-truths and distortions inflame anger, which leads us to abandon the middle ground–where compromise and fair progress are birthed–in pursuit of the extremes;

-the way families and friendships have been damaged by commitment to views formed by bad information;

-the shattering of lives in the wake of private mistakes becoming public humiliations.

But if we set aside all those reasons and focus solely on our faith, there’s another one:

We should fact check because honesty is in the Ten Commandments. It’s fundamental to right relationship with God.

Throughout Scripture, the righteous one is praised: the one who does not swear, the one whom everyone knows can be trusted to be truthful. One who speaks with integrity. Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no (a shot at the hyperbole that characterizes modern “communication”). The upright one is like a tree planted by a running stream. And so on.

Telling the truth is one of those basic rules of humanity we teach our kids. Dishonesty from our kids is one of the most relationship-damaging offenses, because it destroys trust.

And yet when it comes to social media, we forget all of this. We take every meme at its word, without even pausing to think, “Maybe I should double-check whether this is legit before I hit ‘share’.”

Or: “Does this even make sense?”

The misinformation, distortions, and misleading inflammatory things we share online may not be our own words, but they become our words when we speak them, and therefore it is our responsibility as Christians to make sure we do our due diligence before sharing. If a headline makes you angry, you’d better be on your guard, because it’s probably a sign that someone’s taking liberties with the truth in order to manipulate you.

Everybody wants lots of likes, you know, and too many don’t care if they bend the truth to the breaking point to get them.

It takes all of 30 seconds to type a search string into Google and see if something’s been flagged on one of the fact-checking sites. Also, we need to pay attention to the sites where we get information. We tend to trust any “news” site that agrees with us in their editorial slant, and we turn off the brain God gave us to think critically about what we take in. Some sites routinely shared by Christians ought to be boycotted altogether, because they’re among the worst offenders.

Honesty. It’s one of the foundations of our faith, let alone any successful society. If we want to stand before God with a clear conscience, we have got to check the accuracy of the things we choose to share.