4 Rules For Internet Survival

I was on a work retreat but my Twitter feed was blowing up. In the space of a few hours strangers I’d never met implied I was bigoted, stupid, and definitely not Hispanic enough. And there, buried in my feed, was a producer contacting me to try to get me on a cable news show.

Earlier that morning my essay with the hot button topics of Donald Trump, being Hispanic, and being an evangelical pastor thrown together. The Facebook comment section for the piece was alternatively beautiful and brutal. Apparently my essay either made people use words like “beautiful” and “moving” or seethe with anger at its ignorance. Some in my own tribe of evangelical Christians thanked me or said my “argument” was full of holes.

The whole thing felt something like an out-of-body experience for me because the week leading up to this I was prepping for a work retreat, and most of the exposure came during marathon meetings in the mountains. I hadn’t planned to write a national essay–just a personal one. But it had been seen by an editor, and was adapted for a wider audience. I had no idea exactly when it would go live. So on the retreat I just stared at my phone occasionally, in between meetings, bewildered.

Like all things do in our age the craziness lasted just a couple days and then was gone. My phone stopped buzzing and alerted trailed off. But a few months later I do think I learned some things along the way. I learned some things about myself and about our world. And I especially learned some things about how to survive online in the 21st century.

One note of qualification: It honestly doesn’t matter whether you read the article I’m referring to here. And if you read it and strongly disagree that’s even better. And by no means is this a whole biblical paradigm for Christian engagement with the political process (that has been done better and elsewhere). This is what I learned.

1) We Are Too Often Opinions In Search of Facts

I noticed a funny phenomenon online where people were discussing my essay: I don’t think all or even most of them had read it.

But I do this and do it regularly. Often I’m not reading news articles online to hear the latest facts and ponder them and consider what they mean for my thinking. Nope. I have a strong opinion formed already about immigration and tax rates and healthcare. I bet you do too.

There’s a Proverb that we must cling to here: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17 ESV). Too often I’ve already made up my mind before I hear the evidence. I’ve been convinced before the trial has begun. I am a firmly formed opinion in search of facts.

Look, I’m not saying we should constantly be re-evaluating every single belief we hold. There are some things that are simply clear (like the innate value of unborn life and horror of abortion). But there are other things that are not as clear (such as the best ways to prevent unplanned pregnancies in our current society). I’m simply saying that if we lose the ability to hear, to consider, to explore the opposite argument, then we lose the way of wisdom. Just recently I had an opinion formed about a certain aspect of border enforcement, only to find it changing after I talked to a CBP officer. The same thing has happened when I’ve talked to people with undocumented family members. I need to hear these things.

2) We Use and React to the Sensational, When We Need the Weeds

I have a confession: I used Donald Trump as clickbait.

When I wrote my article I was angry. I’d just read recent report detailing how, a certain point, news organizations realized that running Donald Trump stuff got clicks and eyeballs. So they ran more. It got more clicks and eyeballs. So they ran more.

And let’s not fool ourselves: while Mr. Trump’s merits on a variety of levels may be debatable he is nothing if not a gifted salesman. He knows how it works. Say something shocking. Get coverage. Repeat until the White House is upgraded to gold veneer. And as a citizen I’m frustrated at this saying “I wish the media would cover big ideas and real policy solutions, I wish they’d be a little more “substantive and policy-oriented” for once.”

Except in the weeks before I wrote the article I got more and more and more obsessed with Donald Trump. I read news headlines about him, read opposition editorials, on and on. At the same time I was processing a whole lot of emotions about my Hispanic heritage. Eventually I was ready to write what was, essentially, an essay about my ethnicity, only tangentially related to Trump. Except I wanted a few people to read it. And without even thinking about it I put Trump in the title (provocatively too). I opened and closed it with Trump. Was it about Trump? Sort of. But it was mainly about my identity. And at the same time I read precious few “substantive and policy-oriented” things. My surface-level understanding how immigration works did not stop me from forming strong opinions about Mr. Trump’s immigration policies.

I’ve heard many pundits wonder aloud, “How can we stop Donald Trump or whatever this new cycle of political clickbait is?” The answer is that we can’t. We are Donald Trump. We are the endless cycle of clicks and eyeballs that powers his campaign. And we, the people, need to think long and hard about whether we want it to work like this.

Proverbs points us down a better way: “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 18:15). Real, substantive knowledge takes time. It takes more than the odd news article or two. It requires spending time in the weeds, so to speak. This isn’t a quick fix, this is a long journey and over and over Proverbs encourages us to observe carefully the world around us, learn well, and then apply wisdom.

3) We Aren’t on Speaking Terms as Democrats and Republicans, But People Still Are

I’ve heard decried over and over how no one can reach across the aisle any more, how Democrats and Republicans (or Progressives and Conservatives) are so far from each other that there’s no common ground anymore.

But there is common ground: It’s called your supermarket. People reach across the aisle there all the time. Stay with me. In our neighborhoods and schools and offices and parks Democrats and Republicans talk and interact politely. We cheer next to them at hometown baseball games. We may not be on speaking terms as democrats and republicans but we are still people underneath the party label.

The simple biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) has some complex implications on our political process (ex: “How do you use votes to love neighbors in poverty?”). But it also has some very very simple implications for the people around us (ex: “How can you help the family struggle to make ends meet at your son’s school?”). Should you love others around you enough to try to winsomely convince them of good political solutions? I believe so. But if this isn’t accompanied by real love for real people of the opposite political persuasion it’s nothing more than a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13).

And let me plead for one thing here friends: Love your neighbors with your ears and your speech. One of the best gifts you can give to a neighbor you disagree with is to listen to them, to ask questions, to figure out how they got there. You don’t have to agree, but I think we should listen well. And then when you open your mouth love well according to Ephesians 4:29 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Let me assure you that strong words have a place in our political process. But even those should build up, fit the occasion and give grace. How much more then should the other 99% of words we speak do the same?

4) We Don’t Live Here Anymore, But We Should

I’m a millennial (I think) and we have grown up living large portions of our lives through the screens in front of us. But real life i still going around us.

The day I returned from our retreat a man I have grown up respecting greatly came up to me at church and said he’d read the article. He’s Hispanic. He’s worked a hard job for a long time with more patience and perseverance than most. As soon as I realized he was bringing up what I’d written, I panicked. Suddenly the idea that my words about being Hispanic were out there, being read by real people like this, became intensely personal. I realized I could, with a blog post, lose his friendship forever. But instead, he shook my hand and said simply, “Thank you.” And his eyes said he meant it.

When I got back to the office the next day a voicemail from the cable news producer (left 3 days earlier) was still there waiting for me in my work voicemail. It sounded so brisk, official, efficient. It sounded like this producer was used to leaving voicemails like this in between shouting out details for that night’s broadcast to the rest of the office staff in the newsroom. I will admit, it made me want to call back. Except that the moment had passed, I didn’t matter anymore.

Instead, I was left in my office with pictures of the family I love the most, a big window view of the city I love most, and just beyond my door, the seats where the 200 people I love the most sit every Sunday. These people, this place, they still matter. So I went to work.

We can live our lives online, living and dying by the next zinger comment or news article. We sit in our houses but not one is at home, we’re just alive in the stream of digital content around us. But in our neighborhoods and churches and schools real people are rejoicing and hurting and living and dying. We should live where they are. We do. And it means that the words we speak should be careful, clear, and inseparable from real people and real places.

Ricky Alcantar

I'm the Lead Pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, TX. I love my wife Jenn, my two boys, and my city. Sometimes I write. Other times I just think about writing and listen to a lot of podcasts instead.