3 Wise Rules For Social Media From Martin Luther

3 Wise Rules For Social Media From Martin Luther

Believe it or not, there’s much we can learn from a sixteenth-century monk about how to navigate twenty-first-century social media.
Pamela Nielsen
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Martin Luther—do you mean the German monk who sparked the Protestant Reformation with a blow of his hammer in 1517? The guy who called out the pope and mocked the institutions and leaders of his day? The prolific writer of theology with the penchant for, shall we say, colorful language when he was less than pleased about something?

Yup. That guy. Believe it or not, I think there’s much we can learn from a sixteenth-century monk about how to navigate twenty-first-century social media.

This past year I have more than once thought it’s time to move on. The multitude of posts filled with vitriol, hate, self-righteous judgement, fake news, and the incessant ranting and emoting from every corner have worn me out as they have taken over my newsfeed. Add to that the growing number of sponsored posts and advertisements, and I more often than not find myself scrolling endlessly, nearly frantically, looking for something positive.

And if I’m honest, too many times to recount, I’ve been guilty of all that I loathe on social media.

  • I’ve self-righteously scolded someone with a different opinion and hoped my words would sting with embarrassment.
  • I’ve foolishly shared information that was completely false and perpetuated lies.
  • I’ve looked at someone’s photos and judged him or her to be a bad parent, spouse, dresser, or housekeeper and smugly thought better of myself.
  • I’ve disregarded those whose pain and suffering are on full display and secretly dismissed them as weak or pathetic.
  • I’ve found myself jealous over what others have so joyfully displayed: possessions, property, popularity, or personal profundity.
  • I’ve callously ignored or attacked the posts of friends I know have different views than my own.

Full disclosure: I’m a Lutheran, and I can’t help but look at this whole social media mess and ask, “What would Luther say?” I think there’s much he’d have to offer, but here are a few pearls that would certainly grace his list of rules for social media.

1. Put the Best Construction on Everything

We’re not talking instructions for Lutheran Legos or erector sets. This is a phrase Lutherans from early-on are taught, meaning whatever you encounter from other people, look for and assume the very best possible reason or explanation that puts them or their action in the best light.

Someone posts something that seems hurtful or unkind? Pause and ask yourself what might be behind those hurtful words. Could the poster be having a bad day? How might your own feelings be coloring your reaction to a friend’s post? Assume the best. Doing so will free you from worry, anger, vengeful thinking, and more.

2. Call a Thing What It Is

This is another Luther-ism and refers to evil in plain sight. It means often swimming upstream against a culture that has embraced something very bad. It means defending what is good even when you are drowned out by a steady stream of posts by people and media to the contrary.

Abortion would be high on that list of modern embraces of evil. Euthanasia would be in close pursuit, along with the efforts to deter religious freedom. There are more.

Luther could see so clearly and speak so firmly about evil because he was deeply familiar with what is absolutely true and good: God’s Word. Upon being asked to recant what he had taught and preached, Luther made a bold declaration before the Holy Roman Emperor in 1517: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scripture or by clear reason, (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

Guided by God’s word, listen to your conscience and call out evil online and defend those who suffer under it.

3. Speak Well of Your Neighbor

In Luther’s Small Catechism, he explains the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor”: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him or hurt his reputation but defend him, speak well of him and explain everything in the kindest way.”

Can you imagine if everyone suddenly adopted this as his social media mantra?

Maybe you’d like to join me in swimming upstream to bring change to social media. Here are few things to try.

  • Make a point to rejoice in others’ news—go beyond a “like” and comment on their beautiful family, their courage in the face of trial, their hard-won accomplishments.
  • Pray for your friends when they post their sorrows, sicknesses, and sticky situations. Don’t just tell them you’ll pray, post your brief prayer for them right in the comment section or in a private message.
  • Offer words of encouragement and links for helpful information, and connect them with others who have similar struggles.
  • Ask the friend who thinks differently to help you understand his line of reason. Look for common ground and invite him to consider your thinking even as you consider his.
  • Call out evil when it rears its head: lies, slander, oppression, and hate. Delete those people and organizations who persist in evildoing or speaking.
  • Pick up the phone, or better yet, drive over to visit the friend whose posts make clear she is struggling in some way. Bring some pastries or a meal.
  • Fill your posts with what is true, good, and beautiful, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Spend less time “socializing” onscreen and more time being fully with the people God has placed in your midst.

Luther was a crusty, beer-bellied, German monk from a backwater town God used to change the world. He was keenly aware of the power of the spoken and written word to influence and shape individuals and society.

He translated the Latin Bible into German so everyone could read it. He wrote hymns and liturgy to help people sing and share what they confessed. He compiled a little book explaining the six chief parts of Scripture in simple language so parents could teach their children about God. He saw suffering and worked to bring relief to the poor and downtrodden of his day. He tirelessly taught and preached wherever he went.

In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there’s lots of speculation and research, thinking and conversing about Luther and his many contributions to the world, not only in theology but in education, economics, social welfare, political thought, and more. I think if Luther were around today he would see the blessing of social media in how it allows people to connect across the span of their lives, and with others across the world. He’d see its use and power in sharing important news and gathering like-minded people around a common interest, thought, or cause. I can only imagine his profile picture and description. Let’s just say he had a face for radio and call it a day!

Here’s a great place to learn more on all things Luther and the Reformation.

Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen is the associate executive director of communications for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

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