The internet troll is a fearsome creature. It is not unlike a werewolf in that it will go about its day as an ordinary human being, indistinguishable from the rest of us – but when it sits down at its computer or smartphone and enters the dark web of social media, it is transformed into a monster.
I come across these from time to time in the course of my job. No, I’m not a trollhunter – but occasionally I play gatekeeper on our social media accounts, scanning for trolls.
See, there are the monsters who enslave others, stripping them of their freedom and forcing them to work for little to no pay. There are beasts who prey on children and young women, selling their bodies in brothels or online.
And then, there are internet trolls: ordinary Australians, probably loving parents – but all too willing to condemn sex traffickers and paedophiles to be lynched, shot, hung, you name it.*
The perpetrators my colleagues work so hard to put behind bars have done things that you could quite legitimately describe as evil. On the one hand the comments made by these ordinary Aussies express a thirst for justice that I believe we all have.
It is right that the cruel should know that what they did was wrong and unacceptable.
And yet it turns my stomach a little to read these, because these calls for violence to be done to the violent go beyond justice and into the realms of vengeance. Vengeance does not sit well with me. Capital punishment, generally speaking, does not sit well with most contemporary Australians. After all, our heritage is a bunch of British criminals who were spared the death penalty.
Does it take their own suffering for the criminal to understand the suffering they have inflicted on their victims?
I was reading about Jonah the other day. A familiar story – God tells him to pronounce judgment on Nineveh, Jonah runs away, gets eaten by a whale (or a big fish or whatever) and spat out onto dry land.
What struck me was not that he disagreed with God’s verdict on the people of Nineveh, but that he wanted them to be punished. Jonah ran away from God’s call because he didn’t like God’s grace, compassion, slowness to anger, abundance of love.
Jonah was a troll!
Meanwhile, we enlightened folk lap up God’s grace, compassion, slowness to anger and abundant love. What we often don’t like is the “Old Testament God” – he’s violent and vengeful, we say.
God is the troll, we say.
Jonah was all about retribution and felt that God was unfair.
We reject retribution and feel that God is unfair.
On the one hand, we want evil punished (just desserts, anyone?) – but on the other we fear this and react against it.
I think what we really want is for that evil to simply not exist anymore. We want that to be easy and painless, but of course it isn’t something that happens with a click of the fingers.
There’s both a troll and a trollhater inside each of us. And that in itself is a manifestation of how wrong evil is, and how incapable we are of dealing with it.
We want justice but we cannot bear the cost of it. We cannot bear to be the troll.
So we lash out at other trolls. Or we sit by while evil continues to do its thing.
So we say God is a troll. Or we say God didn’t mean that when he rained fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Because we are caught between following an unfair God or following a more palatable God of our own imagining.
And the only way out seems to be to not follow God at all. In contemporary Australian society, that’s the choice many make.
Within the evangelical Church, we talk about Jesus and the Cross as the culmination and perfect balance of God’s Justice and Love. God is just and that’s why there is a price to be paid for sin. God is loving and that’s why he sent his only Son to pay that price on our behalf.
It’s a fairly neat formula, the fulcrum on which our faith balances. This is pretty much how we prove that God is not a troll.
It doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t wrestle with questions and doubts. Why does he allow awful things to happen? Is he punishing Awful Things with More Awful Things, or are More Awful Things simply the fruit of Awful Things? Can there be redemption and restoration without any retribution whatsoever?
In the end, one thing that does make sense to me is that God is always going to be a better judge of what’s fair and what’s not – even (or especially) when we don’t like it:
Yet the Israelites say, “The way of the Lord is not just.” Are my ways unjust, people of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?
To bring it back to trolls, while there are problems with the way we often choose to express outrage, the outrage we’ve all felt at one time or another points to a universal thirst for justice. A universal cry of anger, pain and often helplessness in the face of all that is wrong with humanity. A universal longing for a better world.
*To be fair, I should clarify that the troll comments that I refer to above generally come from randoms (ie. not supporters of our organisation) who happen to see posts that we’ve boosted on Facebook.