No matter how many times I promise myself that I will not look into the comments section on religious articles, I always end up meandering down to those nether-regions for a look, though it is more like a journey.
In my Google News aggregation of articles, I have specific sections for religion, theology and, more specifically, Christianity. Often, articles from smaller papers across the country come up and are mostly opinions, and I tend not to read those. But when the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post or our local The Island Packet has a topic in religion, I often bite and seek others' perspectives on faith. These articles are often well thought-out, but like all things Internet, the final word goes to the conversation below the article -- and that is where things get messy. Interesting? Maybe. Explosive? Often.
I've noticed certain strands of arguments being played out in culture are mirrored in the comments and they tend to take the same form on every article though combined in different ways depending on the commentators.
One person types, "We're praying for all the people in the hurricane." A second person responds, "Don't bother praying. There is no God." Another person posts some Scripture, maybe John 3:16, then an argument breaks out about the Crusades and how Christ's followers haven't been loving enough.
Then it gets interesting -- this is the gold that I look for, even as my stomach churns at many frustrating jabs back and forth -- as people start telling their personal stories. These stories are the identities behind the anonymity and the reader sees why people believe or do not adhere to a faith. Hurts from the past surface, abuses of religious folks on the powerless in childhood are told, frustration and anger with institutions bleed to the surface in what is hopefully a cathartic experience for those who have harbored stories of injustices.
The arguments continue, but between the heated posts, those with positive experiences explain why they believe. Often personal experiences of God's presence or his overwhelming love are shared. Stories of broken people being brought into a good faith community and being restored to wholeness through peace, love, mercy and the overflow of hope -- these folks find fulfillment in God's arms and contrast to the darkness that others tell. The joy is apparent, but it is clear that those who tell these faith stories wonder about other faith communities that would allow harm.
Both types of stories build a narrative that show how while some are healed in faith communities, others have found continued hurt and pain. The question from both sides is "Why?" If God exists, then why do we still hurt? Why do we hurt each other? Is this God's fault? Is this our own making? Who's going to fix this mess? Who is going to fix me?
Whether online or face-to-face, people seek justice. There is a basic human desire to bring about a balanced scale, despite the forces that let evil into the world. The Egyptians called this sense of good "ma'at", and the Pharaohs, like all, were expected to live holy lives without lies and deceit.
One reason I love reading the Old Testament in the Bible is that the Israelites wrote down their experiences with God, warts and all. Other cultures struck out the bad stuff, especially failures of leaders. One story that fascinates me is of Moses, a murderer redeemed, who never entered the Promised Land because he had moments of doubt in God's power.
Their stories show the imperfections of people and how easily even the best hearts can become corrupt -- bringing hurt on those around them. They knew a few things about religion and desired to be perfect like God, but messed up big time -- and still wrote it down.
Perhaps the reason I keep reading the chaotic comments is that I see the back and forth of my own faith in those words. My conversations with God often mirror the questions I see, because there are mysteries that remain mysteries, and people continue to act badly.
As people of faith, we can continue to fight evil in ourselves, in the church, other institutions and in the world, to live out Isaiah's call to "Learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed ..." (Isaiah 1:17), living holy, good lives so that all people see Jesus Christ for who he is without any filters, just glowing with God's eternal love.
Daniel Griswold is the director of youth at St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church. Read his blog at www.danielgriswold.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter @dannonhill.