Whenever I go to a city, I know there are areas I can safely visit, and dangerous ones I should stay out of. We all know this is part of the reality of visiting or living in any city.
The internet — a world wide city — also has its bad neighborhoods as well as safe ones. The internet is the purveyor of knowledge, serving as the world’s library, making information accessible to all of us. What could be better and more beneficial to humanity?
On the other hand, there is no other place that serves as a more effective purveyor of hatred. Religion is supposed to be against people hating each other, and religious communities have indeed benefited from the internet. Yet is it not also true that the Internet serves as an alternative reality, where religion’s moral voice is silenced, and where many young people are seduced into joining a variety of hate groups?
Our society is only beginning to recognize how effective hate groups are at using the internet to recruit disciples to their causes. We saw this phenomenon in regard to the recruitment of ISIS fanatics from our nation and all over the world. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis. also use it to fill their ranks. Their websites spew hatred and lies, slander, bullying and intimidation with horrific falsehoods about various religions and ethnic, racial and gender groups.
What is difficult for many of us to comprehend — particularly those of us who did not grow up with the internet — is that these websites create an online persona for people. They help disaffected young people who are searching for an identity that will define them and where they can feel they belong to a community. The technology now is used to facilitate that kind of on-line community. Nefarious characters can reach into the heart and soul of a vulnerable and disillusioned young person and turn that individual into a terrorist or neo-Nazi. The websites and chat rooms where people gather and talk enable young people to find a home on-line more appealing than the one in which they live.
Religious institutions on a national and local level are dealing with these issues. It is not easy nor are they always successful. Some are training clergy who specialize in outreach on the internet to young people. We definitely need more of these internet religious leaders to help young people confront on-line bullying and threatening language.
Is there a moral vacuum on the internet?
It is the one alternative reality where the rules of human conduct that represent a moral society seem not to apply?
Why do our young people escape to the on-line world and feel that they can become someone else?
Where is God to be found in that kind of reality?
Where we can say that sin applies to both the on- and off-line worlds?
Some corporations even participate in the selling of hatred. Journalists recently investigated Facebook. They posed as groups looking to purchase advertising space to display virulently obscene hate material. The journalists found Facebook used mathematical algorithms — without any human supervision — to approve the purchase of advertising space for hate groups and their literature. As long as the groups could demonstrate how their material connected to other larger groups, Facebook technology took their money and advertised the hatred to the world. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has promised the company will address the problem.
In Exodus 32, the Bible speaks of the golden calf, an idol the Israelites worshiped until Moses returned from Mount Sinai. The ancient Israelites were bereft of leadership and faith in God while encamped in the desert, so they abandoned their new-found religion, embraced idolatry and ultimately paid a price with their lives once Moses returned.
Is the internet the equivalent of the modern day golden calf? Is it what we will now worship as the ancient Israelites worshiped the idol? Is it the deity for the next millennium?
I sincerely hope not.
Not a day goes by that I do not use the internet for study and sermons and for communicating with my congregation, my family and friends. I am admittedly dependent on it as are so many others. I read the Bible, the Talmud and many other sacred texts now available on-line.
Yet, when the Sabbath comes, I release myself from the internet and emails until Saturday night when the Sabbath ends.
We need a break from it and we need to speak with our children and grandchildren, to remind them of these two points.
▪ On-line reality should not be a substitute for real living.
▪ There are some neighborhoods on-line they do not want to visit.
Their lives may depend upon it.