Where is the best place to visit to become convinced of humanity’s sinfulness?

One’s answer would likely be determined by factors such as personal experience or definition of sin.

For example, Walter Rauschenbusch, offering a social perspective, defined sin as selfishness. I think of Rauschenbusch’s definition often when I am driving or shopping.

While driving, I regularly see people weave in and out of traffic, creating numerous opportunities for a wreck as they cut off other cars to get to their destination sooner.

I also notice drivers who make vehicles behind them wait as they seek to change lanes rather than take an extra minute or two of their own time to take an alternate route.

While shopping, I can usually count on having to move to avoid being run into by a cart pushed by someone who is either oblivious to my presence or believes that it is my job to move out of their way so that they can complete their shopping more quickly.

These are small manifestations of sin as selfishness, which are actions proclaiming, “I am the center of the universe” and ignoring the effects of one’s behavior on others.

Paul Tillich defined sinfulness as estrangement from God, others and oneself. Using Tillich’s formulation, I would suggest that one of the places in which sin as estrangement is most clearly manifest is in the comment forums on websites.

Whether the site is religious or secular, some of the most vitriolic and vulgar statements I have ever read appeared in these largely anonymous posts.

Here we observe people estranged from their neighbors, both literally and metaphorically, as they sit alone at their computer exchanging words that divide and demean.

There is rarely a sense of solidarity in these forums – other than, perhaps, commentators who agree on an issue “teaming up” to wage verbal warfare on their opponents.

In these places, words of estrangement are the rule rather than the exception.

These forums also reveal people who are estranged from themselves, as their online profile provides anonymity to say things they would never voice in other contexts.

Their online persona takes on a life of its own, becoming estranged from the person whom they are in the company of others.

Anytime I have found myself becoming overly optimistic or moving toward a “Pollyannaish” perspective on the human condition, a brief visit to the comments section of almost any website has provided ample evidence to confirm the biblical witness about humanity’s sinfulness.

Individuals are responsible for the quality and content of their communication in whatever form it is expressed, a reality expressed in several biblical texts.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,” the writer of Ephesians urged individual Christians, “but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

Citing Proverbs 15:28 – “the heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil” – Blake McKinney recently noted the human tendency to be “‘gushers’ instead of ‘weighers'” and urged readers to consider their words with care.

These verses and numerous others – Proverbs 15:1-2; Proverbs 18:20-21; Ecclesiastes 5:2; Matthew 12:36; Matthew 15:11; James 3:9-10, to name only a few – highlight the responsibility of individuals to filter their speech.

These texts don’t preclude critique, but they demand that one’s words – whether praise or censure – be assessed and filtered to remove evil, unwholesome content.

Self-restraint is one side of this issue, yet one must question the reason why people are given a platform through which to voice such vitriolic commentary.

Why do organizations – whether secular or religious – continue to allow people to create profiles that hide their identity and to post comments that far too often are most accurately described as unwholesome talk and gushes of evil?

In defense of the practice, responses might note an intention to engage readers and encourage discussion of issues.

I assume the logic of “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” and “Don’t let one bad apple spoil the bunch” might also be cited.

While there are legitimate elements in these and other defenses of online comment forums, what should be done when there are only a few good apples in the whole bunch? And what would you suggest doing when the baby is sitting in filthy bathwater?

While the ultimate responsibility for words and deeds resides with the individual, organizations bear responsibility for what appears when they provide space for comments from users.

When that opportunity results in the amount of unwholesome talk I have seen on nearly every comment forum I’ve visited, one begins to wonder why they remain active?

Would it not be better to remove these platforms than to continue to allow them to be abused by far too many who gush evil?

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

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