by Kevin M. Dowd, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology, Anna Maria College, Paxton, MA
In the age of social media, the Parable of the Good Samaritan has yet more relevance. The Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication released its document Toward Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media on May 28th of this year, wisely interpreting the parable for the digital world in a manner especially significant to those of us involved in catechesis and faith formation. Resulting from a dialogue among “experts, teachers, young professionals and leaders, lay persons, clergy, and religious,” the document intends not to provide a list of guidelines, but rather an invitation to join the reflection as individuals and communities in order “to take a creative and constructive approach that can foster a culture of neighborliness” (TFP 5).
The Dangerous Road to Jericho
The document begins by recognizing that social media is more than just a tool for its millions of users; instead, “we are living in an ecosystem shaped at its core by the experience of social sharing” (TFP 10). In other words, “we turn to social media for a sense of belonging and affirmation, transforming it into a vital space where the communication of core values and beliefs takes place” (TFP 10). This digital world is part of our real-world experience, “a significant part of young people’s identity and way of life,” (TFP 1), and, in the words of Pope Francis, “indistinguishable from the sphere of everyday life” (TFP 3). This ecosystem, or space, or world is our digital road to Jericho.
As the character in Jesus’ story was beaten and robbed along the road (Luke 10:25-37), so too the landscape of social media is full of perils.
It may be helpful to stop reading for a moment and to engage in reflection together: write down or discuss with a group what dangers you perceive in this cyber environment.
I imagine you were able to come up with a sobering list. The Vatican did as well. Along the road, some of the pitfalls the document identifies are:
- the digital divide in which some people have access, and many others are left “marginalized stranded on the roadside” (TFP 12);
- social media not always bringing us together but deepening divisions among us;
- social media companies treating people as commodities;
- difficulty verifying the accuracy of information;
- information overload and the resulting echo chambers as AI technology presents us with “a forced exposure to partial information, which corroborates our own ideas” (TFP 14);
- the problem of these “individualistic ‘spaces’” often preventing us from “really meeting the ‘other’ who is different” (TFP 15-16);
- interactions lacking personal communication cues that exist in physical spaces, “where our actions are influenced by verbal and non-verbal feedback from others” (TFP 16);
- a landscape that “at times encourag[es] extreme behaviors” and provides a “fertile field for violence, abuse, and misinformation” (TFP 16).
To summarize, the Vatican worries that “social media is becoming a path leading many towards indifference, polarization, and extremism” where “individuals do not treat each other as human beings” (TFP 19). I imagine many of your lists were similar and may have included other worries as well, such as cyber-bullying, addiction to social media, loss of interpersonal communication skills and attention span, and rising rates of depression. The road to Jericho can be a dangerous place!
The Good Samaritan: Encountering the Beaten Man
Far from pronouncing an anathema against all social media and the digital world, however, the Vatican takes a much more realistic approach, encouraging us to take the perspective of the man beaten and left for dead. We are asked to overcome indifference and identify those who are being harmed and how it is happening. “Retreating into the isolation of one’s own interests cannot be the way to restore hope. Rather, the way forward is the cultivation of a ‘culture of encounter,’ which promotes friendship and peace among different people” (TFP 19).
Let’s stop again to reflect. Where have we been indifferent to the harm being done to others in the digital world? Perhaps we felt overwhelmed and found it easier to look the other way or to cross the road and continue our own journey uninterrupted. Have we ignored these problems, or have we tried to address them in various ways, including in and through our catechesis?
Welcome Back Again!
In the cyber world, it is easy to be attracted to vitriol and to celebrate clapbacks and dehumanizing language. It is easy to forget the humanity of those who are anonymous behind screen names and handles. We are all tempted toward tribalism. In fact, “being ‘Christian’ is not enough. It is possible to find many profiles or accounts on social media that proclaim religious content but do not engage in relational dynamics in a faithful way. Hostile interactions and violent, degrading words, especially in the context of sharing Christian content, cry out from the screen and are a contradiction to the Gospel itself” (TFP 50). Jesus calls us to something different, to solidarity, to becoming Good Samaritans. This is only possible if we “empty ourselves” and make “a voluntary effort to reach out to each other” (TFP 21). In this way, we “begin … to act as neighbors, rejecting the logic of exclusion and rebuilding a logic of community” (TFP 22). We should not passively accept a toxic digital environment, but instead actively promote a healthier cyber-world. Solidarity, after all, is not mere recognition or compassion, but a commitment—sometimes even a costly one—to stand together with hope for a better future.
Turn to a conversation partner once again, or take some notes around these questions: “How can we help heal a toxic digital environment? How can we promote hospitality and opportunities for healing and reconciliation?” (TFP 56). What can I contribute? How can I teach this to others? What would it take to be a Good Samaritan online?
Transforming a Toxic Digital Environment
Being the Good Samaritan involves overcoming indifference towards those who are being harmed, and standing in solidarity with them, so they know they are not alone, so they know that God cares and loves them. But that is not enough. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said of the parable that there was still work to be done even after the rescue of the beaten man. He reminded us that once the Good Samaritan had done the work of charity, the work of justice had to begin: the people should have organized a Jericho Road Improvement Association! On our cyber road to Jericho, the same is true. We may be Good Samaritans, but we are not Lone Rangers! After all, we act as the Body of Christ, who alone is the true Good Samaritan. We act as a Church, and as various communities within the Church, such as families, schools, parishes, colleges, and other ministries. As leaders in the Church and in those communities, we have a special obligation, then, to call forth and coordinate the gifts of others in this good work of transforming a polluted environment into a safe and healthy one.
At the heart of this transformation will be a commitment to encounter one another online as human persons, each created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ. This will not be mere contact, which we already have, but intentional movement toward relationships. “Indeed, by orienting digital connections towards encountering real persons, forming real relationships and building real community, we are actually nourishing our relationship with God” (TFP 24).
Take a moment for prayerful reflection and discernment once again. Here are some questions the Vatican suggests as we think together: “How can we co-create healthier online experiences where people can engage in conversations and overcome disagreements with a spirit of mutual listening? How can we empower communities to find ways to overcome divisions and promote dialogue and respect in social media platforms? How can we restore the online environment to the place that it can and should be: a place of sharing, collaborating, and belonging based on mutual trust?” (TFP 23).
The Sustaining Virtue of Hope
This vision of the fruitful possibility of the online world remains a hope. Hope is not optimism, but a trust in God and God’s grace working through us even (and especially) when optimism is absent. Hope is Christ Jesus on the cross, in apparent failure, against all odds, continuing to trust in his Father. As we face the difficult challenge of working to transform the digital environment, we do so with this hope, rooted deeply in faith, and acted on not because success seems possible or even likely, but because love compels us. The Vatican, thus, invites us to treat this good work prayerfully and with a contemplative, prophetic, and discerning spirit (see TFP 34-41). “The Christian style should be reflective, not reactive, on social media” (TFP 75). We are invited to cooperate with the Spirit in forming community, online and in physical spaces, recognizing that “the work of healing and reconciliation is often the first step to be taken along the way” (TFP 51). This will be a global challenge, and it will require that we work together “Not so much as ‘individual influencers,’ but as ‘weavers of communion’: pooling our talents and skills, sharing knowledge and contributions” (TFP 76).
Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29); moreover, it was a story related to that most important question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). The hero of the story was “the one who showed mercy” and we are told to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
As we near the end of this reflection, let’s once again write down some ideas, or discuss in a group, what our best hopes are for the digital world we want to create. If we were to “do likewise” by showing mercy and treating everyone online as a neighbor, what would it look like? How would our online experiences be different if we intentionally became Good Samaritans? How would our experience as a Church be different if we came together to improve this digital environment? How do we bring others along, especially those we teach and whose faith we are helping to form?
A Truly Catholic Online Presence
We may not have all the answers, but I’m sure you listed some ideas. Let’ s compare them to what the Vatican envisions. First off, we are reminded of what the vision does NOT include. “For example, when groups that present themselves as ‘Catholic’ use their social media presence to foster division, they are not behaving like a Christian community should” (TFP 55). Instead, we are called to promote unity and community, respect for the dignity of every person behind the screen, and a spirit of dialogue rooted in compassionate listening and caring. Thus, “Instead of capitalizing on conflicts and adversarial clickbait, hostile attitudes should become opportunities for conversion, an opportunity to witness encounter, dialogue, and reconciliation around seemingly divisive matters” (TFP 55). We could help recover the best of the online world, where loneliness is overcome, where truth and trust are present, and where we have opportunities to step outside ourselves in response to the needs of others. “To be neighborly on social media means being present to the stories of others, especially those who are suffering. In other words, advocating for better digital environments does not mean taking the focus off the concrete problems experienced by many people—for example, hunger, poverty, forced migration, war, disease, and loneliness. It means, instead, advocating for an integral vision of human life that, today, includes the digital realm. In fact, social media can be one way to draw more attention to these realities and build solidarity among those near and far” (TFP 43). After all, “Social action mobilized through social media has had a greater impact and is often more effective in transforming the world than a superficial debate regarding ideas” (TFP 56). Instead of “digital tribalism,” we form “communities of care” (TFP 55, 57). Ideally, these communities overflow into the physical world, so that healthier online environments lead to healthier in-person relationships as well, and vice-versa (TFP 47). After all, “One cannot share a meal through a screen” (TFP 61).
Influencers and Evangelization
Social media may also be a wonderful tool for spreading the Good News of salvation. In this regard, the Vatican envisions missionary disciples filled with mercy, goodness, truth, beauty, and joy. “Our social media presence usually focuses on spreading information. Along these lines, presenting ideas, teachings, thoughts, spiritual reflections, and the like on social media needs to be faithful to the Christian tradition. But that is not enough. In addition to our ability to reach others with interesting religious content, we Christians should be known for our ability to listen, to discern before acting, to treat all people with respect, to respond with a question rather than a judgment, to remain silent rather than trigger a controversy and to be ‘quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger’ (Jas 1:19)… every Christian must be careful not to proselytize, but give witness” (TFP 77). Ultimately, this means “Telling others about the reason for our hope and doing it with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15)” (TFP 80).
The Vatican envisions a social media environment in which Christians are not simply communicating as a “strategy,” as if marketing the faith, but instead are the Real Presence of Christ in the virtual world, embodying his “style of sharing,” which involves “closeness, compassion, and tenderness” (TFP 64). Thus, “whatever we share in our posts, comments, and likes, in spoken or written words, in film or animated images, should align with the style that we learn from Christ who transmitted his message not only in speech but in the whole manner of his life, revealing that communication, at its most profound level, is the giving of self in love” (TFP 65). This, I imagine, matches our best hopes for the digital world as well. When we are attacked, remember that “some of the most powerful ‘Christian influencers’ have been martyrs” (TFP 77). (Of course, we don’t seek out martyrdom, and if we are hurt online, we may, like the character in the story, need some time to heal at the inn. Disengaging from the digital world is often a sign of wisdom not weakness). When we are tempted to react defensively and with hostility, we should remember that “every Christian is called to sacrifice” (TFP 78). When we are questioned, we have an opportunity to give witness—simply to tell a story instead of engaging in vitriolic debate. “This way we shift the attention from defense to the active promotion of a positive message and the cultivation of solidarity, as Jesus did with the story of the Good Samaritan. Instead of arguing with the expert in the law about whom we should consider our neighbor and whom we can ignore or even hate, Jesus simply told a story” (TFP 70).
Continuing the Reflection in our Catechesis
Does the Vatican’s vision capture your own thoughts and your group discussion? I am sure there is so much more to be said as we reflect together on this central parable of Jesus as it applies to our context, including our social media environment. We’ll gain even more wisdom as we invite our young people into this same reflection and learn from their insights. And so, moving forward, how do you plan to bring these ideas into your catechesis? In what ways will you engage your students in this reflection to apply the parable to their world, which includes their digital habitat? How will you share the fruits of that reflection? There are many people beaten and left for dead in the virtual world. Eternal life depends on loving God and loving our neighbors, including our digital neighbors—even those we don’t really know or like, and who aren’t in our “tribe.” That’s what the Good Samaritan did. He showed mercy. In the digital world as much as in the physical world, Jesus tells us to go and do likewise.
 Spelling and punctuation have been adjusted throughout this essay to the standard American form of English. In this case, for example, neighbourliness has been changed to neighborliness.
Photo Credit: Escapejaja, Adobe Stock