By Billy Bass – Horizon News Editor
I get so tired of reading online comments in Mennonite Church publications. Homophobic or hateful comments, name-calling and generally unproductive contributions seem to be the norm these days.
My biggest complaint: These comments do nothing to advance the cause of the church in a helpful way.
Hannah Heinzekehr, Executive Director of “The Mennonite,” is no stranger to this growing digital-age problem. This summer she even put “The Mennonite” on a 30-Day Comment Sabbatical., deleting the field for comments on its articles. Among many possible outcomes, Heinzekehr wanted to address a big problem. Nobody wanted to write for The Mennonite.
“Over the course of the last month alone, as I’ve approached individuals and asked them to write for “The Mennonite,” I’ve been turned down five times by people of all ideological bends,” writes Heinzekehr, in her article about this issue. “[They] feel fearful about putting their opinions out there on our site because of the inevitable comment debates that will ensue.”
“The Mennonite” is certainly not the only magazine to address this issue. Publications with national prominence such as the New York Times have made mention of it, and many writers take the same stance on removing negative comments.
Jamilah Lemieux, the senior editor at Ebony magazine wrote an opinion piece for the Times about comment sections. Her advice? “Burn them down.”
Others see the removal of comments sections as a violation of free speech and a way to quiet the loudest voices. That’s a concern shared by Heinzekehr.
“We don’t want this comment sabbatical be seen as a way to shut down hard conversations or avoid conflict,” she wrote. “Conflict can be generative, and hard conversations are often some of the richest.”
Unlike general-interest or news publications, I believe community-specific publications such as The Mennonite and relative publication Mennonite World Review, comments sections serve a crucial purpose; the communication and dialogue of issues within the context of the church body. But we have to use those comments responsibly.
At the end of this sabbatical period, The Mennonite met critics and proponents of comment removal in the middle of this issue in two ways:
- Comments are now moderated.
- Comments are only shown if you choose them to be via opt-in toggles.
I applaud The Mennonite for their tact and care in dealing with this very relevant issue. While making dialogue accessible is important, there is much danger in digital church publications. They allow the world access to have input into the decisions of the church. Since the church is the bride of Christ, it is our duty to prevent uncleanliness among it. Whether it be un-Christ-like words from someone outside of the church or from someone who is in the church yet of the world, we can protect our interactions and the image of the Christian church in a way such as The Mennonite has. I wish that other Christian publications would see it that same way.
We have been fortunate to not have similar issues with comments in the Hesston College Horizon readership. I think this indicates that, as a student body, we take our issues to in-person discussion, where we can take a scholarly and civil approach to church issues at the dining hall table.
Hesston College Horizon moderates its comments section as well, and encourages helpful discussion with a focus on understanding. We welcome your comments on this issue below.