Online outrage can accomplish good things.

In December 2013, Justine Sacco, communications director for InterActiveCorp, posted a message on Twitter: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She was immediately mobbed online by people justly excoriating her for her racist comment.

In a unique twist, Sacco was on an international flight while the outrage swelled. During her flight, the hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet was created, with people calling for her termination. Shortly after landing, Sacco was fired and issued a public apology. Social media outrage issued a stiff and effective rebuke to racism.

However, outrage can also create an offense greater than the original infraction.

In response to Sacco, people expressed a desire for her to get AIDS, to be raped, and even to be murdered. Where does this disproportionate outrage come from? New York Times contributor Teddy Wayne writes, “By throwing 140-character stones from our Google Glass houses, we preserve our belief (or delusion) that we are morally superior to those who have offended us.”1 That’s the problem with outrage isn’t it? It is quick to condemn others but slow to interrogate ourselves. We see the spec in another’s eye while missing the telephone pole protruding from our own.

While internet outrage can accomplish good, very often it’s less than constructive. Unrestrained outrage spreads like wildfire online, and before we know it we’re easily drawn into a self-righteous hot take, like the multitudes who wrongly condemned Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann of racism. Outrage is also less likely to promote peace. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “When we dehumanize and demonize our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them.”4 We’ve seen both police officers and protestors so dehumanize others they justify violence.

If we don’t have a principled approach to making peace, we will settle for dehumanizing gossip, slander, and even violence. How can we live out the humanizing vision of the Kingdom? Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:10). What does it look like to be peacemakers in an age of outrage?

When Being Right Trumps Relationship

To broker peace we must have a grasp of our default setting in relationships. One setting is to regard being right over the relationship. This person values their own perspective more than they value the person with an opposing or different perspective.

Say someone in your church posts something online you find offensive. You’re so disturbed by it, you can’t get it out of your head; it’s all you can think about for the next five minutes. You fire back a snarky response in front of everyone. He’s clearly in the wrong, and it’s up to you to correct him. His response is inadequate; he clearly doesn’t get it.

You are like a coiled spring. Mulling over his comment, you begin to break down his position in your mind. You angrily fire off another response, then jump off social media. The next time you see him at church things are awkward. You can only think about how wrong he was. While you have to deal with the tension, at least you let him know where you stand.

This person regards being right over the relationship, which justifies their mistreatment of others. They think, “What matters is the truth!” But isn’t it also true Jesus taught that everyone who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment (Matt 5:22)? And didn’t St. Paul teach us to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, and be gentle” (Titus 3:2)? Just because we believe our perspective is right, doesn’t give us the right to speak in haughty, demeaning, or hateful ways, even if others are wrong. Instead, we are called to “speak with perfect courtesy to all” (Titus 3:2). The word for “perfect” means meek or gentle. Is your speech marked by gentility towards those who oppose you? Are you cultivating the meekness required to move towards peace?

When Relationship Trumps the Person

Another default setting toward people is to regard the relationship over the person.

Say you have a friend who is a known gossip. You’ve heard her tear down others repeatedly. Eventually word gets back to you that she has been gossiping about some of your financial decisions. You decide to confront her about this destructive pattern. When you sit down together, instead of being honest about the pattern you see in her life, you glaze over her character flaw, simply telling her that she hurt your feelings.

She responds by getting defensive, saying it wasn’t really gossip and that she didn’t mean anything by it. Afraid of how she might respond if you point out other instances of gossip, you decide to back off. You walk away glad the relationship is intact but disappointed she didn’t own her offense. You wonder if she might gossip about you again.

If we esteem the social benefits of a friendship more than we value the friend themselves, we will refrain from telling them the truth. Instead, we will choose to empathize or turn a blind eye to the real issue. When we regard the relationship over the person we settle for cheap peace. This flimsy resolution leaves our friend trapped in gossip and the door open for others to get hurt. We compromise the kingdom of Christ for the kingdom of comfort.

Moving Toward Peace

How does a peacemaker respond in these situations? The peacemaker’s setting is not turned toward the relationship or being right; it is dialed into what God thinks of them. It is no mistake that “the sons of God” are peacemakers. Under the inbreaking sun of our heavenly Father’s approval, we are freed to walk into a conflict ready to learn or correct. When we enjoy God’s unwavering acceptance, we need not secure the acceptance of others or gain their applause for being right. Instead, our goal is shalom—to step into God’s healing, forgiving, reconciling light together. This requires, not papering over differences, but mending confessed wrongs.

What does all of this look like practically?

Include God.

Include God in your conflict at the outset by taking an offense to him. Tell the Lord how you feel and where you struggle. Be honest with him. For example, “Lord, the comment that person made really irks me. I can’t believe they would say that! Should I even respond? Amen.”

Examine Yourself.

As you pray, take up the posture of many of the psalms, “Search me, O God” (Psalm 77:6; 139:23). Draw a circle around yourself and ask God to reveal any sin inside the circle. Repent and receive his forgiveness and then enjoy God’s grace. [page157image27823680] 

Consider Overlooking.

Evaluate the offense to determine whether it’s a matter to overlook or to confront. Christians are repeatedly called to overlook offenses, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8; Proverbs 10:12; 19:11). The word “cover” means to conceal from sight. Love compels us to forgive the offense and refuse uncover it again. We forgive as we have been forgiven. How much? A multitude! Lord knows he’s covered many of my unconscious sins! If we are called to overlook an offense, we can be at peace with others without going any further.

Pursue Peace.

If after sincere prayer we discern the need to reconcile, we should go humbly to the offending person.

  • Pray together first. Ask the God of peace to bring about Christ-magnifying reconciliation. If the person refuses to pray with you, or you can’t pray with them, you aren’t ready for reconciliation.
  • Begin by sharing your own failures or sins, owning them entirely and not shifting the blame. Peace grows in the soil of meekness. Ask for forgiveness.
  • Then express how you have been hurt. Listen to what the other person has to say. Don’t interrupt. Look for opportunities to empathize, validate, and forgive, not to be right or avoid further hurt. Remember the sun of the Father’s approval.

A peacemaker’s ultimate goal is neither to be right nor to be liked but to move towards Christ in forgiveness and truth so all can flourish. Imagine what the world would be like with more people like that! We would hide in our digital glass houses less and live open-hearted in actual Christ-centered community more. Bitter outrage would be curbed as God’s daughters and sons spread peace on earth.

Editor's Note: This post has been adapted from Our Good Crisis by Johnathan K. Dodson. Copyright (c) 2020 by Johnathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.