As a blogger, it’s often baffling to see a post you wrote go viral. In my experience, it’s rarely the post you thought was your best or the one you wanted to go viral; it’s some other post—one you thought was okay, but that you hadn’t intended to be the post that would represent you to the world.
Since I began writing this blog a year and a half ago, I’ve had that experience exactly twice. The first time was when my home state of North Carolina was considering Amendment One to ban same-sex marriages, and I broke my usual silence on politics to encourage both sides to see one another’s humanity. The second time was two days ago, when I wrote about how something as simple as poor tipping can impact the reputation of Christians.
The response to that last post has been really interesting, so before we move on (and I do think it’s time to move on), I want to say just a few words of follow-up.
(Oh, please. As if I ever say “just a few words.”)
For years, the issue of Christians’ poor reputation with restaurant servers has bothered me. I’ve worked in two restaurants myself, and I’ve talked to servers across the country, and over and over, I’ve heard the same message: servers don’t like working on Sundays because the “church crowd” has a terrible reputation for being more demanding and less generous than other diners.
Why do Christians have this reputation? I don’t know, but it’s true. As I explain in TORN:
I don’t know why the Sunday morning churchgoers who ate at my restaurant were such poor tippers. There could be many reasons. People having drinks with friends on Friday or Saturday night were often the best tippers, and I’m sure alcohol played some part in loosening up their wallets. Statistics show that Christians as a group are actually incredibly generous with their money. But my restaurant co-workers weren’t looking at statistics. They were looking at the people sitting in front of them, people who had no idea they were representing God in that moment, for better or worse. Experiences like these shape how Christianity is viewed by our culture far more than we realize. And if our reputation can be damaged by poor tipping, how much more can it be hurt by the perception that we are actively hostile to an entire group of people!
As a Christian blogger and activist, this is a big part of how I see my role: working to start conversations with my fellow Christians about how we as a body of believers can do better. Tipping is a little thing, but it has a big impact, and we need to be aware of our room for improvement.
But as any good writer or speaker knows, your message is much more powerful if you have a “hook” to hang it on—a story, joke, illustration, or anecdote to grab your audience’s interest and help them remember the point you want to make. Here on the blog, I’ve used Battleship, Dr. Horrible, The Lion King, webcomics, and fairy tales as hooks. My book is full of them, too, with chapter titles like “South Park Christians” and surprising statistics along with illustrations from movies, comedy routines, and my own real life. Without a good hook, theology can be kinda boring. My goal is to make it interesting and compelling.
So when, two days ago, an image from reddit went viral, depicting an anonymous pastor’s poorly chosen words on a restaurant receipt, I knew I had found a great hook for what I wanted to say about our call to be generous.
I wrote a post that began with the viral image, though I blurred the signature to protect the identity of the pastor. I explained what the image’s poster had said about its context, and then moved from that into why I think an image like that would go viral (our bad reputation) and what I think we Christians can do to improve our reputation and better live out the gospel.
The post resonated with a lot of people. Traffic to my blog skyrocketed. A lot of you shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Other blogs picked up my commentary and shared it with their readers. Then the Huffington Post asked for permission to run a modified version of it in their Religion section, where it has now been shared over 1,000 times, “liked” nearly 6,000 times, and picked up 885 comments and counting.
But then things took a darker turn. Before my commentary even went up on HuffPost, the original (unblurred) viral image from reddit managed to get back to the pastor. The pastor and the server were both identified in the media, the server was fired, the pastor was humiliated, and the whole situation became a kind of national soap opera for the day. (Just to be clear, none of this had anything to do with my post. I don’t have that much power. The image was already viral before I wrote the first thing about it.)
The vast majority of you understood that I was using the news story as a hook to encourage all of us to look inside ourselves and strive to do better. But on my friends’ Facebook pages and even on the blog, I started to notice comments shifting from, “This is a reminder to all of us,” which was the goal, to, “Let’s all say a bunch of terrible things about that pastor,” which was not. Once the pastor had been publicly identified, she became a focal point for a lot of people’s judgmental attitudes, and that bothered me.
Yes, she made a mistake. But I feel like this is a “let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone” kind of moment. Are we really going to sit in judgment of this woman and claim that we always represent our faith well? Shouldn’t this, instead, be a reminder to all of us that the world is always watching?
At this point, the whole story makes me uncomfortable. As an anonymous image, reminding us all to do better, it functioned well. But when it becomes an excuse for us to find someone to look down on and feel superior to, we’ve missed the point. And, to be honest, maybe that was true even when it was anonymous.
I think it’s time to move on. But first, I do want to respond to a couple of comments people made to me—not about the story, but about my commentary on it.
“Articles like this are anti-Christian propaganda.”
Um, no. I’m a Christian, and the vast majority of my readers are Christians. It’s true that when stories like this happen, people come out of the woodwork to say that this is just another example of how horrible Christianity is. But my point is the exact opposite: I’m saying that Christianity is a truly wonderful thing, and that when we Christians fail to live up to our own standards, we give people in the world a reason to discount our faith. We need to be aware of it, because we need to do better. If we Christians don’t hold ourselves accountable, then who will?
“Wait… are you suggesting that Christians should still behave badly but just not make it obvious that they’re Christians?”
Oh, goodness no. No, no, no.
I got this question from a couple of people because of a tongue-in-cheek line I put near the end of my tipping post, where I joked that if you’re not going to tip well, you shouldn’t let anyone know that you’re a Christian. Some people apparently thought I meant that seriously, as if I’d actually be okay with Christians treating people poorly and just not telling them that they’re Christians.
Of course not. Christians should tip well and treat people well because it’s the right thing to do. The point I was making was that when Christians don’t treat people well, it reflects not only on us but on our faith. But obviously, the answer isn’t to hide our identities as Christians; it’s to do a better job of living out the love of Jesus!
All of this has started some interesting conversations about tipping, and I’d actually like to continue that conversation at some point on this blog. But if and when we do, I’d like it to be a separate conversation. Let’s move on from focusing on that one incident and focus instead on how each of us can do a better job of representing Jesus in the world.
That is, after all, what we Christians are called to do.