Facebook is a cesspool of conspiracy theories, straw-man arguments and schoolyard bullying. These arguments have a cumulative effect, with each successive interaction ratcheting up the outrage. Even those rare instances of well-intentioned and reasonable discussion eventually fall victim to misunderstanding and offense. In these cases, I often remember Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” In other words, people eventually start comparing others to Hitler. And just like that, we are off to the races of anger, insults and division.
Lest we get on our high horses about all those bad angry people out there, we need to recognize that outrage often comes from Christians. During his 15 minutes of fame, Joshua Feuerstein started the 2015 Starbucks Red Cup controversy. Soon people were saying that Christians were upset, though I saw only one person—Joshua Feuerstein—truly outraged. He posted a Facebook post saying, “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus.” He also tagged media in his post to attract attention. Without fail, the outrage cycle began.
Of course, Starbucks denied the accusation, assured worried Christians everywhere they were welcome to say Merry Christmas to their hearts’ content, and insisted that they did not hate Christmas.
Still, you’d think that someone had broken into churches and desecrated the altars if you look at some Facebook feeds. And of course, the news reports said everyone was outraged, but I think it was Feuerstein and a few friends. And that’s really all it was. So, no, Starbucks did not hate Jesus, but some folks sure seem to enjoy embarrassing his followers.
I hate it when people make Christians look foolish. This was a foolish fight on a nonsensical issue courtesy of a media happy to give platform to someone who loves to take that spotlight. And since some people love conspiracy theories, when outraged Christians who love the spotlight conspire with media outlets that love to make Christians look foolish, that hurts the gospel. It just wastes people’s time and distracts Christians from their mission. That’s what fake controversies and unwarranted anger do.
Outrage is all around, so we have to decide how to walk through this. We are living in a day, and this is indeed our moment, to live like Christ and gospel Christians in the midst of shouting, anger and hatred. And it’s going to get worse.
To be sure, there is a lot in this world that is outrage inducing. Illegal immigration, terrorism, sex trafficking and exploitation, systemic racism, child poverty, opioid addiction … the list goes on. These issues deserve a measure of outrage, don’t they? They certainly deserve our anger.
And this is part of the problem. What do we do when the anger becomes too much? When our righteous indignation at injustice morphs into something completely different? How do we know when righteous anger has made the turn into unbridled outrage? These questions do not have easy answers, but they deserve our consideration if we want to be faithful disciples of Christ.
It is crucial we grasp the what and why of our indignation if Christians are going to have victory over it in our own lives and are to engage effectively in this world. In this respect, we need to not only understand what causes outrage in this culture but how Christians have contributed to, if not led the way, in perpetuating it. The first cause of our outrage stems from the increasing polarization of American society, both in terms of religion and politics. Most scholars agree that America has undergone a significant cultural shift that began in the 1990s and has accelerated over the past 15 years. This shift, defined in part by the decline in a religious consensus around nominal Protestantism, has produced a far more fragmented culture with countless communities all vying for a seat at the cultural table.
In addition, rapid societal and demographic changes have led to increasing division and distrust among members of America’s major political parties. The second cause lies in the unprecedented advance of technology that has completely altered almost every facet of our daily lives in less than a generation. (Nobody had an iPhone on June 28, 2007, but the world was inalterably changed the next day. Now, no one—my daughters tell me, no one—can live without a smartphone.) While this technology is a massive blessing in many ways, it carries major challenges. For many of us, technology such as social media is the primary means by which we engage the world.
Christians need to move from contributing to the age of outrage to effectively engaging it with the gospel. I’m convinced that this is, indeed, one of the greatest challenges of our day. Now to be fair, our challenges are a lot less threatening than those faced in previous centuries—there are no stakes upon which we might be impaled. But the stakes are still high. They impact how and if we can engage this moment well for the cause of Christ and his Kingdom.
And while some Christians have clearly contributed to the problem, Christianity should not be defined by the crazy and caustic representatives we see on cable news. All over the world, the majority of Christians are already bringing their best in building the Kingdom of God. While we need to face head-on the areas where we need to grow, we must also reject the self-loathing all too common among American Christians.
And by the way, Starbucks employees were never told they could not say Merry Christmas. But that’s not their job anyway—that’s our job.
Adapted from Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst by Ed Stetzer. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, where he also serves as executive director of the Billy Graham Center. Stetzer has two earned doctorates and two master’s degrees, and has written or cowritten more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles. He is the director for Lausanne North America and is on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today and is the executive editor of The Gospel Project, a Bible study curriculum used by more than one million people each week.