This article was first published in the State of the Faith Newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox every Monday evening.
When news broke earlier this month that a hostage situation was underway at a synagogue in Texas, I found myself praying not just for a peaceful resolution, but for a peaceful conversation about it in line.
Too often, religion-related violence is compounded by mean tweets or misleading Facebook posts. Social media users end up fighting each other instead of uniting to comfort victims or discuss possible solutions.
But during this hostage crisis, people’s best angels seemed to prevail. I saw many more tweets expressing support for the Jewish community or the Muslim community (of which the attacker is a member) or both than tweets that attacked old wounds or encouraged interfaith strife.
For me, the thoughtful and kind tweets were a huge relief. For Reverend Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, it was validation of a claim he’s been making for a long time: that the internet can be used to build bridges between members of different faiths.
“I saw Jews and Muslims standing up for each other positively and supporting each other,” he told me last week.
Through a new online course called #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online that he helped develop, Reverend Raushenbush is trying to make positive online interactions the norm rather than the exception. The course aims to help those interested in interfaith relations learn how to use the power of the internet for good.
On Friday, I spoke with Reverend Raushenbush, who is Senior Advisor for Public Affairs and Innovation for Interfaith Youth Core, about this lofty goal and how #Interfaith is going about achieving it. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey Dallas: I love the internet, but I’m well aware that a lot of people hate it or at least get really nervous about sites like Twitter. Do you face resistance or skepticism when talking about the value of interfaith work online?
Reverend Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: Due to the ephemeral nature of the internet, it is difficult for some people to imagine lasting relationships online.
It’s not hard to imagine how bad things can get. We hear a lot about how misinformation shared online can destroy communities and the hatred and bigotry people experience.
We talk less about the opportunities created by technology. It may be clear that possibilities exist, but it is not at all clear how to maximize them.
Some of the questions explored in #Interfaith are: what goes into creating a bridge-building moment? Are there any case studies on how to do this well? How do you form online communities that can last? How do you reach people you don’t know but want to learn from? What are some safe and productive ways to disrupt hate when you see someone being attacked because of their faith?
And perhaps the most important question is how do you practice personal spiritual care online? It’s something most people don’t learn, which helps explain why some people suffer from depression and anxiety because of the internet.
KD: How did you build the course? Who did you turn to for help?
ACB: It was a dream for me for 20 years to do something like this. I’ve been talking about the importance of this for years. And this dream was really encouraged by the IFYC team. They said, “Yeah. We should get into this kind of work because the Internet is the new public square.
So, with a leadership expert named Janett Cordoves and our senior program manager, Noah Silverman, we got together and decided we needed to speak to a panel of experts. We really tried to have people with different perspectives, including people working on bridge building and people working specifically with technology. We spent about four months researching.
We also spoke with six or eight students about their experiences participating in interfaith conversations online. We wanted to know what they were afraid of and what they felt they didn’t know how to do.
We really didn’t have a master plan to guide us, so it was great to spend a lot of time on research.
KD: Can you give me an overview of the types of skills the course emphasizes?
ACB: Each module contains case studies and then a toolkit of what you can learn from those case studies. So, one of the case studies for building bridges is Mohammed AL Samawi who used Facebook to ask questions about different faiths and then engaged the answers slowly over time.
His experience shows the importance of checking your intention and being aware of yourself. You must know your intention when you are in an interaction in order to guard against the disinhibition effect of the Internet.
Because we’re generally less inhibited online, it’s easier to make mistakes. If you are aware of this, you will breathe or pause before committing and remember your intentions.
KD: So it sounds like you’re equipping people with best practices or coping mechanisms.
ACB: Our goal is not to say “It’s true. It’s wrong.” It’s about giving people the opportunity and space to think about what kind of person or leader they want to be online, and then offering tools that could help them be that anybody.
Digital natives may think, “Oh, I know everything about the internet. I was brought up on it. But they may not realize that the internet has its own desires. It pushes you towards conflict and also pulls you into bubbles of like-minded people. You should know that you are not connecting in a completely neutral zone.
If people don’t realize this and start playing fast and loose, they can make some very big mistakes. And super bad mistakes on the internet can go global in minutes and impact not just you, but entire communities.
I don’t want to scare people off, but it’s important to be prepared.
KD: Who is your target audience for the new course?
ACB: We were doing this for people aged 18-25, but we’ve already found that it can work for other groups of people. Some religious denominations are considering using it as a continuing education offering for clergy, and churches considering creating study groups around it.
We do not use jargon in the modules. They are simple but not simplistic. It’s not meant to be a bunch of impenetrable theories; it’s really meant to be a how-to guide.
Note: If you want to know more about the course or to register, see the #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online landing page on religionandpubliclife.org.
Fresh off the press
Term of the week: Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh is a person, not a term, but I think he fits well in this section of the newsletter, which is devoted to better understanding important religious concepts and events.
Before his death earlier this month, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the most influential living Buddhist monks. Through teaching, writing, and activism, he has helped people around the world understand his faith and championed religiously motivated nonviolent movements.
Thich Nhat Hanh, who is originally from Vietnam and spent much of his life in France, played a notable role in American politics in the 1960s. He called on the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War and Reverend King subsequently nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, as reported by the New York Times in his obituary.
“I know no one more worthy than this kind monk from Vietnam,” Reverend King wrote at the Nobel Institute in Norway, according to The Times. “His ideas for peace, if implemented, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
In 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh lost the ability to speak after suffering a brain hemorrhage. But he continued to connect with his students and supporters in other ways until his death this month at the age of 95.
What I read…
The horrific attack on a Texas synagogue earlier this month has inspired religious leaders from various traditions to rethink their approach to interfaith relations, according to the Washington Post. People of faith who work to build bridges between faith traditions cannot stop working once the first connections are made, these leaders say. They must continue until all harmful beliefs in their communities are exposed and addressed.
Many Americans have spent the pandemic rethinking their routines, including how often they attend services and which church they attend. It is therefore not surprising that many places of worship both lose old members and gain new ones. “The pandemic has accelerated the comings and goings of people,” Christianity Today reported last week.
Have you heard of (or seen) the movie “Rain Man”? My colleague Christian Sagers recently wrote a thoughtful piece about Kim Peek, the neurologically atypical man who inspired the film.
First Liberty Institute, the law firm representing 35 service members seeking a religious exemption from the Navy’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, amended its legal complaint to push for religious protections for all Navy members. with faith-based concerns about vaccines. In other words, the case turned into a class action.
If you ever doubt the power of religious leaders, consult this story about the former Indianapolis Colts chaplain. After hearing the chaplain deliver a message about David and Goliath, then-coach Tony Dungy reportedly changed his entire game plan – a move that could have cost the team the Super Bowl.
Earlier this month, I wrote about a Supreme Court battle involving the Christian flag. Last week I made a tweet thread summarize the oral arguments.