Rage Flu

When Billy Graham’s death made it onto social media, I sifted through a variety of passionate responses — not all of them pleasant. While some praised the evangelist’s incredible legacy of preaching the gospel, others criticized his comments on Jews having too much control in the media, as well as his stance on gay marriage. Beyond the praise and criticism, strands of outright hatred loaded with vulgarity celebrated the death of a man who, despite controversy, was responsible for more good than a million judgmental social media junkies put together.

I was not surprised that a public figure such as Graham stirred up controversy or said things people didn’t like — that’s par for the course for anyone who commands a substantial platform. What struck me most was the lack of grace, by both believers and nonbelievers.

For example, when someone on a Christian Twitter thread noted that Graham publicly apologized for his anti-Semitic comments, a critic replied, “That’s fine. He still made them.” Certainly it is important for us hold leaders accountable for what they say and do, especially those who represent themselves as Christian (Luther also had anti-Semitic issues). However, what if Jesus looked on us and pointed out a particular sin? And when we said, “But I asked for forgiveness,” Jesus replied, “That’s fine, but you still did it”?

Have we entered a world where repentance and forgiveness are fiction? The irony is clear: Those who preach grace don’t receive it, and those who refuse to give it are the ones who think everyone should have it, which is why they push back in the first place.

This isn’t just a Billy Graham issue; he’s just the most recent illustration. We have political leaders with Twitter feeds filled with this kind of thing. I don’t mean we should avoid holding leadership accountable. I am not suggesting the perspectives of those who have serious issues with Graham don’t matter. But I am concerned that our media milieu is stripping us of the gospel of grace.

Columnist Susanna Schrobsdorff notes, “Anger is particularly contagious on social media. Researchers at Beihang University in Beijing mapped four basic emotions in more than 70 million posts and found that anger is more influential than other emotions … it spreads faster and more broadly.”[1] Researchers also found violence and violent speech meet the criteria for disease: “Like a virus, violence makes more of itself. Rage begets more rage. And it spreads because we humans are wired to follow our peers.”[2] It’s contagious. Our society is becoming infected with “rage flu.”

Jesus says, “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary” (Matt. 5:22–25). He also states, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. …” (Matt. 5:44–45).

A few clarifications here. Anger isn’t bad; it is powerful and can be a righteous force for change. Secondly, I do not speak from a position of someone on the margins and do not want to minimize the voices of those who do. What I do see is our “rage flu” takes hold of everyone in ways that eject the core teachings of Jesus we celebrate — but have great difficulty in practicing. I mean, look at this passage: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; or the Lord will see and be displeased and turn His anger away from him” (Prov. 24:17–18). Really? Not even a little bit?

Our rage escalates from facts and data to a “sacred conflict” — a digital jihad where the goal is no longer co-existence, peace, advocacy or even respectful disagreement. It’s the decimation, mockery and demise of our opponent. Google already has a tendency of being graceless — online sins remain forever no matter how much you repent. We don’t need to contribute to this with unnuanced statements of rage that create an echo chamber of anger.

This matters because media ecologists notice that we are moving away from having “online” interactions to an “onlife”[3] experience, where the social practices and identities we have in virtual space bleed over into physical space. Is rage the way the world is now? What might people do when so much of their interactions are laced with anger? Is lashing out violently a reflection of “onlife” social norms?

As followers of Jesus we should be foremost in seeking accountability through thoughtful critical judgment, without ejecting the rudiments of the gospel.  


[1] Schrobsdorff, S., "The Rage Flu: Why All This Anger Is Contageous and Making Us Sick," Time, June 29, 2017, http://time.com/4838673/anger-and-partisanship-as-a-virus/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Floridi, L. The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

April 12, 2018 / Perspective