Postcards from the Edge of Civility: Is Facebook Faithful?

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Opening Words:

Community Means Strength, Starhawk

We are all longing to go home to some place
we have never been—a place half-remembered and half-envisioned
we can only catch glimpses of from time to time.
Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands
will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power.
Community means strength
that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing.
A circle of friends.
Someplace where we can be free.


I joined Facebook many years ago, for two reasons. I can tell you, since he knows it already, that I joined to keep tabs on our son Alex when he was much younger.    Kids now are rarely on Facebook, they’ve all moved on to Instagram and Snapchat, but at the time Facebook was the hot thing, and Tim and I wanted to be apprised of what was up with Alex, and also to make sure he was safe.  My second reason was because a colleague spoke of it as a new tool for pastoral care – a way a minister was more likely to learn someone was home with the flu and could send them a brief message of care, or a birthday congratulations, or condolences on the loss of a relative with ease and immediacy.

For a while that’s all Facebook was to me.  Then its capacity for rallying people and giving a voice to the unheard became clear, and it took on new significance as a force for change and for justice.  Then it began to be clear that it was also a means for heightening debate into arguments and even breaches of relationship.  Unfriending became a point of principle.  And I began to hear about bullying, shaming, campaigns to undermine and destroy young adults especially, carried on by other teens and college students.  It also became clear that people who weren’t on board with the bullying didn’t know how to counter it.  Either they were cowed, or they simply counted their lack of participation as criticism or resistance, in ways that didn’t always come across as intended.  In an interview on NPR, one girl who had been brutally persecuted on Facebook said “In the end, it wasn’t the attacks that were the worst.  It was the silence of my friends.”

In fact, those media that are meant to connect us with each other, have an ironic limitation, at least so far, which is that they also can bring out – if not the worst in us, at least the lesser in us.  You don’t need me to tell you this – news stories, studies and research about it confirm what many of us have maybe experienced: that people can address each other via screens (texts, Twitter, Facebook) with a lack of care or respect they never would display in person.

I first realized I needed to preach a sermon about this last spring.  Back then, as many of you know, a lot of powerful Facebook and email posts and threads sprang up, first about some decisions that had been made at the UUA, then about some maladroit ways our then-president Peter Morales had responded to concern and criticism of the decisions.  Unitarian Universalists, ministers and laity alike, who were unhappy either about the decisions or about Peter’s response to criticism expressed themselves loud and clear on Facebook.  Some of them found ways to be both strong and thoughtful in conveying their opinions and feelings.  Many did not.  More joined in the acrimony on all sides of the issues.  At the end of it all, a number of good Unitarian Universalists who had given some or all of their lives to this faith had been eviscerated, scorned, smeared, condemned, and driven out of their work, and many of our people were hurt in ways that will take a long time to heal from, if ever.

The whole situation was complicated with deep roots and backstory.  I know some of the history.  I know I don’t know all of it, maybe not even most of it.  What I do know is that watching our people treat each other and UUA leadership with such extreme contempt was beyond disheartening, it was excruciating, because people were being attacked, torn up, hated, with such absolute self-righteousness by their fellow Unitarian Universalists.  It seemed we had become, as some UU’s described it, a circular firing squad.

Now it’s not news that we can be self-righteous.  We Unitarian Universalists really do believe we have something to learn from other people, other faiths – our pluralism is authentic and it runs deep.  And yet – and thank goodness religion is so often called upon to reconcile the irreconcilable because here we go again – and yet, we are so sure we are right, and so often condemnatory of others.  I use the word ‘we’ advisedly here, because I do it too.  I get up on my high horse and look down on those with whom I disagree again and again – and part of my work as a person of faith always starts with myself, getting myself off my high horse, back onto the ground, to look more humbly at all that I don’t know and don’t understand and haven’t experienced, to engage more carefully with another and try to understand them, to explore how together we might build a bridge between us.  I try to remember the words of African American activist and minister Malcom X who learned and changed a lot over the course of his life.  He said: “Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t think as you think.  There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

And indeed, whenever I manage to live up to that lesson, it’s always so clear that understanding and relationships mostly don’t get built, or healed, on email threads and Facebook posts.  The ways that really happens are in person.

You may be familiar with the work of 20th c. philosopher and writer, Martin Buber.  He was the one who came up with the rubric of I-Thou or Ich und Du, as it is in the German title of Buber’s 1923 book on the subject. He suggests that we have two categories of relationship: I-It and I-Thou.  I-It is a relationship of subject to object, even between two people.  We see the person as fundamentally ‘other’ – so much so that the I person can’t see beyond the objectification of the other person to their humanity, their ‘thou’-ness.

I-Thou is a relationship of subject to subject, wherein we live with a sense of connection – a connection that potentially has no bounds.  Though he was an existentialist, Buber held that engaging in I-Thou relationship not only grows our humanity, it also grows humanity into closer relation with the sacred, with God howsoever we understand God, – maybe it’s better to say – with an eternal Thou.

As Buber pointed out, all relationships are two-fold.  All relationships contain elements of I-It and I-Thou both.  When you look admiringly at your beloved’s body, even the elements that are attractive because they are dear to you, you are leaning towards the side which is defined by one’s experience of something: I-It.  When you see a stranger and something in them calls to you as a person, rather than a stranger, or an object for pity or avoidance, you are leaning towards the side which is defined by one’s relationship to something, I-Thou.

Too many of our norms and engagement are predicated on I-It.  We forget each other’s thou-ness – and we are conditioned to forget it, in ways that make us unkind, uncaring, disrespectful, to each other.  And the distance a screen and a keyboard give us, further that I-It tendency, making us less present to each other, less human to each other, less humane to each other. To me this is about being revealed to ourselves, and the ways that, if Unitarian Universalists are not careful, electronic communication and social media easily tip us right over the edge of civility into drama, thoughtlessness, even contempt that tear at the very fabric of relationship that is at the heart of community, that is at the heart of the beloved community that is church.

I want to be clear about why this matters so much.  This is not about etiquette.  It’s not about politeness or fragility.  It’s not even about the importance of our ability to count on humane, respectful treatment from and towards each other, essential though that is.

In my first candidating sermon with you, last April, I spoke about the human yearning for connection, and the quirks that make such connection so challenging for us, the quirks that we must overcome to be in relationship, the possibilities and beauty of communion between people, between souls. That kind of connection requires vulnerability that we don’t all own even to ourselves, let alone each other.

Since then, a friend and colleague from New England said this of his high-powered UU church:  “People don’t come to First Parish if they are feeling broken or in pain.”  People don’t come to First Parish if they are feeling broken or in pain.  You and I, we know that can’t be true.  People are in pain, struggling with brokenness, all the time.  But we also know what he’s talking about, the New England stoicism and pride and independence that says we don’t let others know when we are suffering, that our hurt or brokenness are weakness, cause for shame – and of course, for concealment.

But of course hurt and brokenness are human, not weakness, and people need faith, community, most when we are broken or in pain, as we all are sooner or later.  And our churches need to be places we can come when we’re broken and when we’re whole, when we’re strong and when we’re weak, when we need to give and when we need to receive.  That’s kind of the whole point of church.

So to be a people that turn on each other, that attack and destroy each other – this is the worst we could do.  It undermines our church.  It undermines our faith.  And it betrays our faith – it belies our claim to respect inherent worth and dignity.  This is not just about principle, it’s about how we live our faith.  If we attack each other, if we are not careful with each other, we eat away at the strength and potential of our church.  If we hold each other, if we are respectful with each other – which isn’t to say we should always agree but there are ways to be forthright and still respectful and careful when we disagree – then we build this church up, and we build up our ability to be a center for care and faith and justice in powerful ways.

I examine my electronic communications at least as carefully as my sermons, and I commit to being present, in person, when there is a interpersonal conflict to process or a dispute to resolve, because I want the process or resolution to be meaningful – and successful.  But that’s just me, and I’m preaching this topic this morning because ultimately, the issue is one all Unitarian Universalists need to own, because it is part of what it takes to stay strong for each other and our first principle, to keep this a church people can trust themselves to, to be at our core united because there is imperative work for us, and we won’t get to it if we tear each other, and the fabric of our community, apart.  Frustrated, tired, anxious, overwhelmed as we feel in these times that target so much that we believe in, so much we depend upon, so much that is literally foundational to our faith and our living, we have to be stronger, more patient, more careful, kinder, better.  We are like that old Des’ree song that was so popular in the mid-90’s – it was especially popular among the young seminarian set I was part of at the time.   You Gotta Be.  You remember that song?  “You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser.  You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger.  You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together.  All I know, all I know, love will save the day.”

That song is all about growing in strength and wisdom and love, growing in response to the growing need.  We all have to do that, work on patience, stamina, care, equilibrium, learning, understanding, growing all the time.  I’m not always successful, but I can’t stop trying.  None of us can.  The federal government has started targeting Sanctuary Cities.  Boston has been targeted. Our turn will come, maybe soon.  Our friends, our neighbors, our parishioners, our schoolmates, our co-workers are at risk, because we are undocumented, because we are Black or Latino or Asian or Jewish or Lesbian or Trans or Muslim.  Our very planet is at risk.  We are deep into this time that tries our souls.  Things may get worse before they get better.  Surely we have learned by now that they may get worse before they get better.  Which means we have to be strong, not just as individuals, more importantly as a beloved community strongly woven together, in order to make the difference we can and should make in this city, in this state, in this world, in this time. We can be tough and kind.  We can be patient and bold.  We can be careful and strong.  And the way we are careful and strong, looks like this, shared, hand in hand.

May we be strong together.  May we be strong.  Together.  May we be unbreakable, unshakeable, careful, loving, people of faith.  With the power of our faith, our commitment, our communities, may we make the difference we dream of making.  Amen.

Closing words

Adapted from Lyn Cox, A Web of Holy Relationships

May we be reminded that we are not alone in history,
May we be ignited with the courage of the living tradition.
May we remember that we are not alone in entering the future,
May we be grounded with patience and perseverance.
May we remember that we are not alone in our times of grief and pain,
May we be comforted with spirit, manifest in human hands and voices.
May we be united in joy and wonder,
May we be inspired to honor and extend the beauty we find in this world

In diverse and harmonious rhythms

Of peace, love, and justice.

May our hearts be open to each other and our neighbors,

May our souls be open to the deepening of faith.

May our hands be joined in the work ahead.  Go in peace.