Can you heal interfaith tensions with tweets and Facebook posts?

A new course on interfaith leadership will help participants rethink how they behave online

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

When news broke earlier this month that a hostage situation was under way in a Texas synagogue, I found myself praying not just for a peaceful resolution but also for a peaceful conversation about it online.

Too often, faith-related violence is made worse by mean tweets or misleading Facebook posts. Social media users end up fighting with each other instead of joining together to offer comfort to victims or discuss possible solutions.

But during that hostage crisis, people’s better angels seemed to win out. I saw many more tweets expressing support for the Jewish community or the Muslim community (of which the attacker is a member) or both than tweets that picked at old wounds or encouraged inter-religious conflict.

For me, the thoughtful, kind tweets were a huge relief. For the Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, they were validation of a claim that he’s been making for a long time: that the internet can be used to build bridges between members of different faiths.

“I saw Jews and Muslims coming out for each other in a positive way and having each others’ backs,” he told me last week.

Through a new online course called #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online that he helped develop, the Rev. Raushenbush is trying to ensure that positive online interactions become the norm rather than the exception. The course aims to help people who are interested in interfaith relations learn how to use the power of the internet for good.

On Friday, I spoke with the Rev. Raushenbush, who serves as senior adviser for public affairs and innovation for Interfaith Youth Core, about this lofty goal and how #Interfaith goes about achieving it. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey Dallas: I love the internet but I’m well aware that plenty of people hate it or at least get very nervous about sites like Twitter. Do you face pushback or skepticism when you talk about the value of doing interfaith work online?

The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: Because of the fleeting nature of the internet, it’s hard for some people to imagine enduring relationships happening online.

What’s not hard for anyone to imagine is how terribly wrong things can go. We hear a lot about how disinformation shared online can destroy communities and about the hate and bigotry people are experiencing.

We don’t talk nearly as much about the opportunities created by technology. It may be clear that possibilities are there, but it’s not at all clear how to maximize them.

Some of the questions explored in #Interfaith are: What goes into creating a bridge-building moment? Are there case studies on how to do that well? How do you form online communities that can last? How do you reach out to people you don’t know but want to learn from? What are safe and productive ways to disrupt hate when you see someone being attacked because of their faith?

And perhaps the most important question is how do you practice spiritual self-care online? That’s something most people are not taught, which helps explain why we have people experiencing depression and anxiety because of the internet.

KD: How did you build the course? Who did you turn to for help?

PBR: It was a 20-year dream of mine to do something like this. I’ve been talking about how important this is for years. And that dream was really encouraged by the team at IFYC. They said, “Yeah. We should move into this kind of work because the internet is the new public square.”

So I along with a leadership expert named Janett Cordoves and our lead curriculum person, Noah Silverman, got together and decided we needed to speak with a group of experts. We really tried to get people with different perspectives, including people working on bridge-building and people working specifically with technology. We spent about four months just researching.

We also talked with six or eight students about their experiences taking part in interfaith conversations online. We wanted to know what they were fearful of and what they felt like they didn’t know how to do.

We really didn’t have a blueprint to guide us, so it was great to spend a lot of time on research.

KD: Can you give me a preview of what types of skills the course emphasizes?

PBR: Every module has case studies and then a toolkit of what you can learn from those case studies. So one of the case studies for bridge-building is Mohammed AL Samawi who has used Facebook to ask questions about different faiths and then engaged the responses slowly over time.

His experience shows the value of checking your intention and being self-aware. You have to know your intent when you’re in an interaction in order to guard against the internet’s disinhibition effect.

Because we’re typically less inhibited online, it’s easier to make mistakes. If you’re aware of that, you’ll take a breath or pause before you engage and you’ll remember your intentions.

KD: So it sounds like you’re equipping people with best practices or coping mechanisms.

PBR: Our goal isn’t to say “This is right. This is wrong.” It’s to give people the opportunity and space to think about what kind of person or leader they want to be online and then offer some tools that could help them be that person.

Digital natives may think, “Oh I know all about the internet. I was raised on it.” But they may not realize that the internet has its own desires. It’s pushing you towards conflict and also pulling you into bubbles of people who think just like you do. You have to know that you’re not logging in to a completely neutral zone.

If people don’t realize that and start playing fast and loose, they can make super bad mistakes. And super bad mistakes on the internet can go global within minutes and have repercussions not just for you but for whole communities.

I don’t want to scare people, but it’s important to be prepared.

KD: Who is your target audience for the new course?

PBR: We were making it for people ages 18 to 25, but we’ve already found that it can work for other groups of people. There are religious denominations talking about using this as a continuing education offering for clergy and churches considering building study groups around it.

We don’t use jargon in the modules. They’re simple but not simplistic. It’s not meant to be a bunch of impenetrable theories; it’s really meant to be practical guidance.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about the course or enrolling yourself, check out the #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online landing page on religionandpubliclife.org.


Fresh off the press


Term of the week: Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh is a person, not a term, but I think he fits well in this section of the newsletter, which is dedicated to increasing understanding of important religious concepts and events.

Before his death earlier this month, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the most influential living Buddhist monks. Through teaching, writing and activism, he helped people around the world understand his faith and championed religiously motivated nonviolent movements.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who is originally from Vietnam and spent much of his life in France, played a notable role in U.S. politics in the 1960s. He called on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War and the Rev. King later nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, as The New York Times reported in its obituary.

“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy than this gentle monk from Vietnam,” the Rev. King wrote to the Nobel Institute in Norway, according to the Times. “His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”

In 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh lost the ability to speak after suffering a brain hemorrhage. But he continued to connect with his students and supporters in other ways until his death this month at age 95.


What I’m reading ...

The horrific attack on a Texas synagogue earlier this month has inspired faith leaders from a variety of traditions to rethink their approach to interfaith relations, according to The Washington Post. People of faith who are engaged with building bridges between religious traditions can’t stop working once initial connections are made, these leaders say. They must keep going until all the harmful beliefs in their communities are called out and addressed.

Many Americans have spent the pandemic rethinking their routines, including how often they go to worship services and what church they attend. It’s no surprise, then, that many houses of worship are both losing old members and gaining new ones. “The pandemic has accelerated people’s comings and goings,” Christianity Today reported last week.

Have you heard of (or seen) the movie “Rain Man”? My colleague Christian Sagers recently wrote a thoughtful piece on Kim Peek, the neurologically atypical man who helped inspire the movie.


Odds and ends

First Liberty Institute, the law firm representing 35 service members seeking a religious exemption from the Navy’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, has amended its legal complaint to push for religious protections for all members of the Navy with faith-based concerns about vaccines. In other words, the case has transformed into a class-action suit.

If you ever find yourself doubting the power of religious leaders, check out this story about the former chaplain for the Indianapolis Colts. After hearing the chaplain deliver a message on David and Goliath, then-coach Tony Dungy reportedly changed his whole game plan — a move that might have cost the team the Super Bowl.

Earlier this month, I wrote about a Supreme Court battle involving the Christian flag. Last week, I did a tweet thread summarizing oral arguments.