I have an uncle by marriage who, along with his partner, spreads love and hilarity wherever they go. Despite the hard stuff they face in their lives, they are committed to being a force for goodness and comedic relief in the world. I doubt they know just how much of a positive impact they have on all of us around them. Whenever they’re around, you cannot help but feel a little lighter, a little more joyful. So it was a surprise the other day when my uncle posted a political rant on Facebook. This was out of character. Until then I had never seen him post anything mean or hateful. He said later that it was an experiment. He wondered what it would be like to post his immediate, emotional reaction to the news like so many of his friends do. He posted about a politician in an attempt to shame her. The results of his little experiment were clear. He didn’t feel any better after he did it. And while the chances of that politician actually seeing his post were slim to none, he didn’t want to be that guy who wrote the awful thing about her. The whole thing just made him feel worse.
My self-reflective uncle might be a bit of an exception to what seems to be the norm these days, at least according to a brilliant opinion piece by Scott Simon on Weekend Edition. “We live in times of instant mass outrage,” he said. “Someone does something, says something or is seen doing something and they can be demonized with a click.” We’re all tempted. Simon offered the following cautionary tale from a recent baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals.
A little boy fumbled while trying to catch a foul ball. A man who sat behind the kid picked up the ball and gave it to the woman next to him, all of which was caught on video. It went viral, of course. Tweets and other social media outlets began “a barrage about the man who filched a foul ball from a little boy.” One person retweeted the video and said: “When going to a baseball game, DON’T be this guy.” The Cubs team sent a staffer down to the seats to give the boy a signed ball, and the boy smiled wide, holding up two baseballs.
What the team discovered later from people nearby was that the man in question caught not one but four balls during the game. He gave three of them to children, including one to the boy in the video. He also gave one to his wife; it was their anniversary. The Cubs issued a statement about reacting so quickly to an unverified video, noting that it had made a national villain out of an innocent man. The man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said this through the team’s press: “Many foul balls came our way that day and were happily shared among the children in our area. No one left disappointed. I am not ‘that guy’ that social media made me out to be.” The mother of the boy commented too, adding that her son had one of the best days of his life. Scott Simon admitted that he had almost retweeted that 12-second video himself, “no doubt with some caustic comment. I think I would have,” he added, “if the man had been a Yankees fan. I wonder how many people who passed along that video to condemn a man with a click will now pass along the true story of his kindness? How many of us today would rather be outraged than informed?”1
That’s a great question. Has outrage gotten out of hand these days? Anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s certainly on the rise. Maybe it’s due to a perfect storm of our divisions, and the opportunity to judge and shame others from a safe distance behind social media. Or maybe it’s part of human nature, now just a click away and destructive. Either way, if outrage is on the rise, is there a helpful way for us to think about it based on our religious tradition? Well, I’m glad you asked that question. The exchange we have today between King David and the prophet Nathan is a story of outrage done right. And when outrage is done well, it turns out that it can move us closer to healing than to harm.
News had gotten around about David’s transgressions, even without Twitter. Bathsheeba was expecting his child. So he had her husband Uriah killed in battle in order to solve that problem, adding murder on top of adultery. Today we pick up the story as the prophet Nathan visits David. He lays it on pretty thick, as prophets do, with a story about a poor guy who loved his one lamb like a daughter. And then a mean, rich guy with a lot of sheep took that guy’s one beloved lamb for his own feast. David quickly condemns the rich guy in the story, until Nathan points out that David is that guy.
What happens next is what’s amazing to me in this story. David essentially says to Nathan, “You’re right. I am that guy. I have sinned against the LORD.” He admits the truth. His honesty is swift and sincere. What a powerful witness about sin and confession and truth- telling. The wise use of outrage by a prophet can lead to such things. Proper outrage can help us tell the truth before God and one another. Our scriptures show us that it can be used effectively when we get off course from God’s desires for justice and goodness.
Nathan and David were members of a community of faith, bound together by a covenant. This reminds us that righteousness and sin always live side by side. Nathan’s role was not to condemn David or destroy him, but to bring him back on track, back into community after his transgression. There is a subtle and important point here about the proper use of outrage. Biblical scholar Larry Rasmussan points out that this story reminds us that our job is not assume that we are the righteous ones free to condemn or destroy others. Our job as religious types is to be honest about our own participation in the conditions that create brokenness, so that we can get back on the divine track.
Nathan used his outrage well to call out David’s sin, and David was forgiven and restored. I should note that he was not freed from the consequences of his sin. Tragedies would strike his household as the story unfolds. There are always consequences to sin. But the real hope in this story is that no matter the sin, it doesn’t have the last word.
Fast forward to Jesus, who called out his fair share of sins, mostly things like greed, self- righteousness, and hard-heartedness. I imagine this included a fair amount of outrage. But he never did it to condemn or shame people, only to restore them. From the money lenders he raged against in the temple to the very people who crucified them, his judgment over human failings was never the last word. The real end game was always mercy, forgiveness, and abundant life.
So now we come full circle and wonder what an old story about a king and a prophet has to do with that foul ball, the kid, and the guy sitting behind him. The video went viral while the internet raged about that guy, who, it turns out, was falsely accused of filching a ball from a little boy. We can all get sucked into that kind of shaming and vilifying with just a click or an unkind word about someone. Maybe it’s true that we would rather be outraged than informed. But that’s not the proper use of outrage. An old prophet shows us how it should be done. Outrage is powerful. Misplaced outrage can do real harm. But sacred outrage can call out real sin and brokenness so that such things can be healed, so that people can be restored. In this strange time of instant mass outrage, maybe an old prophet can show us how it’s done.
1 Scott Simon, Weekend Edition, July 28, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/07/28/633199563/ opinion-when-a-video-isnt-the-whole-story