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Keeping relationships in an "unfriending" world

Keeping relationships in an "unfriending" world

Keeping relationships in an "unfriending" world

7 November 2017

Are we retreating to relationships defined by those who are identically-minded rather than walking together with others celebrating our rich and sometimes uncomfortable diversity?

By John Stackhouse

Perhaps you can help me with this. I’m trying to decide whether to find a new mechanic for my car.

The problem with my current mechanic is not, I should say, mechanical. He seems to be able to figure out quickly what’s wrong with my car. He fixes it properly. And he charges a fair price. But what about this? I noticed a calendar on the wall of his shop the last time I was in, and I was shocked to see that it is from the Pepsi-Cola company.

Well, I used to drink Pepsi, sure. All of us make mistakes when we’re young. But I’ve drunk nothing but fine Coca-Cola products ever since I got married. When you’re an adult, you make adult choices. So should I cut this guy loose and find a more dependable mechanic? You've raised one eyebrow.

Okay, then, how about this other decision I have to make? The pastor of the church I’ve been attending seems like a good guy. His sermons are wise and funny in appropriate measure. His theology seems orthodox and sincere. He gave very good counsel to one of our kids in a difficult time. And his wife and children seem like pretty nice people, too.

But here’s the thing: He likes baseball. I mean, he’s a nut about it. I know better. Maybe once or twice a game, baseball offers an interesting few moments of actual sport. But to go crazy over it seems to me to be, in a word, crazy. So should I switch churches?

Perhaps you don’t yet see the force of these ethical and relational quandaries. Yet all over our society, people are “unfriending” and “blocking” and otherwise virtually killing off other people because, while they otherwise like and respect them, those people support a different political party, or hold different views about global climate change, or are on the wrong side of immigration policy, or are more/less tolerant of one or another LGBTQ+ issue than they ought to be.

Now, I’ve unfriended and blocked a few people myself, but only because they persisted in acting in unfriendly ways. Not because of their actual views. Yet we are retreating more and more into fellowships not just of the like-minded, but of the identically minded.

Wisdom tells us that real people in the real world come in varied forms, with variegated views. People do not, in other words, nicely align themselves on one side or the other of a Great Binary: Yes/No, Good/Bad, In/Out, Friend/Enemy.

I might think a little less of you if I find out that you drink Pepsi or love baseball. I might respect you enough to inquire as to why someone I like actually prefers those detestable things. I may not be convinced by your response. But our relationship can continue, can’t it?

I have friends who are quite brilliant biblical scholars whose writings I admire. But I have found out via Facebook posts that they hold what I think are truly regrettable political views, supporting politicians I find positively loathsome. My friends aren’t blind to those politicians’ shortcomings, but they feel that the best choice they can make in a difficult political situation is to support people I cannot. 

So what? So now I have to write them off, unfriend them, and no longer recommend their books? The Bible presents even its heroes as having serious flaws: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David, Solomon, Peter, Paul – even Mary. Only a few (Daniel comes to mind, and possibly Joseph, depending how you read his story) escape portraits that include, as Cromwell put it, warts and all. (Jesus, of course, is The Exception.)

I find great comfort in this, for I myself am warty indeed. But I also find a challenge here, too. It is unpleasant to find unpleasant opinions and traits in people one heretofore has found admirable and likeable.

And if the subject of disagreement is sufficiently painful, it is tempting to reduce the pain by shutting out the source of it: that person and his or her infuriating opinions. But that isn’t love.

The apostle Paul reminds us that “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

There is nothing sentimental about that view of love. Quite the contrary: it is realistic about the faults we invariably will find in the beloved, and tells us quite practically what to do about them.

So I suppose I’ll keep going to that church and to that garage. And I’ll keep us connected on Facebook as friends ...

John Stackhouse is Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in New Brunswick, Canada.

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