Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
If you have ever wandered into a comment section on the internet you know about internet Trolls. Their existence is both troubling and profoundly entertaining. Reality TV has nothing on the drama trolls can stir up nor the blazing hot fires they love to fan. When I started making content on TikTok, I wasn’t shocked in the least when the first troll arrived. What has shocked me is how much trolls have taught me about Jesus.
In my experience, there are two kinds of trolls. There are the ones who want to watch the internet burn and even they don’t believe a single thing they are typing. The other kind of troll believes every word of the hatred, insult, and condescension they hurl in the comment section of a video.
When the second kind of troll is also a fellow Christian, it takes every last drop of my self-control to not make a screaming mad video about the status of Christian love today. The sheer number of ways my siblings in Christ have called me fat is repulsive. I have had to block the word “Timothy” in all comment sections due to the unfathomable amount of people who think telling me to read 1 Timothy 2:12 is enough to undo years of seminary and inspire me to renounce my ordination. Internet trolls are one thing, knowing that they sit in worship with you on Sunday is something that takes time to process.
During my process, the way I have dealt with trolls has evolved. I started by blocking all accounts that left hateful comments. Then I learned some platforms don’t delete their comments for everyone and other people can still see the hostile words. Easy enough to first delete the comment and then click block. It broke my heart every time I went to block an account and it was clear the person on the other end of the internet was a child. They were simply parroting the hate they learned from adults, from their Pastors. After that realization, I changed my tactic to deleting comments and only blocking if they were repeatedly mean or overly vicious.
How I handle trolls is the practical side of processing the reality of Christian “love.” The theological side has been a lot harder to untangle. The first knot came undone when I was preparing a sermon about the questions Jesus was asked in Luke 20. As I mapped out the conversations from scripture it began to look a lot like a comment section on the internet. As I read on it seemed to me that Jesus was relying heavily on self-control to remain calm in front of the crowd. A crowd that looked similar enough but was filled with devout followers, curious undecided folks, and fervent haters. Jesus had trolls too!
If Jesus had trolls in his crowd, we have trolls in ours. Trolls don’t only exist on the internet, they sit in our pews too. I know someone’s name just popped into your head but I’m sorry to tell you the trolls aren’t the ones that come first to mind. They are children, leaders, active attenders, and reliable volunteers. They are the ones we will pour ourselves into and celebrate their progress only to have them betray us in the end. Grim… I know, but Jesus had the same crowd!
It feels superfluous to say “Do what Jesus did,” but it was a relief for me to realize I didn’t have to invent a process for dealing with trolls, I could follow what Jesus does. I could ask questions of those who questioned me. I could save my energy for more productive discussions. I could create spaces where the teachings were just for my followers’ ears. I could challenge the powerful and comfort the hurting with the same words. I could enter into a conversation, realize the troll is never going to engage intellectually, and go back and completely delete the discussion, or as I call it now “wiping the dirt off my comment section.” Jesus’ ministry is a masterclass in dealing with trolls.
Hopefully, we don’t have a troll like Judas in our crowd but it is possible. When we proclaim a gospel that radically reshapes love we will encounter trolls. Thankfully we have Jesus as an example of how that radical love deals with trolls and how to teach a motley crowd.