New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer prize winner, recently editorialized about the trend for Muslim combatants in the Middle East to wear ski masks, even in civil wars against one another.1 The article descriptor summarizes Friedman’s position: “[D]ark coverings that camouflage motives and allegiance have become the uniform of the day in the world of disorder.” Apart from the intentional anonymity (by which the wearers shield themselves not only from “the gaze of their parents, friends, and neighbors” but from all eyewitnesses), Friedman sees additional implications in the practice.
Putting on a mask is also a way to gain power and enhance masculinity. People in black masks are always more frightening—not only physically, but because their sheer anonymity suggests that they answer to no one and no laws. In our society, it’s usually only burglars, rapists or Ku Klux Klansmen who wear masks—either to terrorize others or make it easier to break the law. The mask literally says: “I don’t play by the rules. Be afraid, be very afraid.”
… Wars against masked men and gangs—whose true identities, agendas, rules and aspirations are never clear—will be the norm.
Friedman quotes Yaron Ezrahi to the effect that “Just as this new violence doesn’t have a front, it doesn’t have a face. It doesn’t have boundaries.” Friedman concludes his assessment in stark terms:
That is why these masks announce one more thing: These young men do not report to anyone above them. They have no ranks. No leader can ever be sure of their allegiance. Every masked man is a general.
Where does this mask principle, the principle of anonymity to conduct war, enter into Christian thinking? Answer: In the realm of the Internet, where self-appointed keepers of the flame cultivate a carefully maintained anonymity to attack other Christians. The parallels (and there are many) are truly mind-numbing: the men with ski masks and rifles in Gaza are brothers to the Christians who build and maintain website fronts to conduct illicit, disorderly warfare against other Christians. And the dynamics at work share nearly identical contours, except the Christians indulge in character assassination rather than literal assassination.
Let’s pick this apart piece by piece: where has Chalcedon stood in regard to anonymity, and what are the Biblical ramifications of the practice?
To my knowledge, over the forty-two years of Chalcedon’s existence, only two articles were published under pseudonyms. The first was in Chalcedon’s ninth year, in the first Journal of Christian Reconstruction, when a geologist working toward his doctoral dissertation provided his name as an anagram of his actual name for his submitted article (which was, in fact, simply a reprint of an article previously published by the Institute for Creation Research).2 The author didn’t want to jeopardize his career, his years of laborious study, by an open association with creationists until he had received his doctorate on the merits. R. J. Rushdoony evidently permitted the retention of the anagram, although the identity is now public knowledge. Significantly, the article attacked nobody. There’s not an atom of character assassination in it.
The second and last time a pseudonym was used was a quarter century later, and the author’s name was clearly identified as a pseudonym in the article, that there was no one actually named Alex Hammer (although his picture was published!). The author’s article didn’t attack anybody: in fact, it was one of the best articles in the issue in which it appeared, being very constructive and irenic. So, that is the extent of Chalcedon’s obviously innocuous and exceedingly rare involvement with anonymity among its writers and scholars (averaging once every twenty-one years). Neither instance occurred on my watch as a Chalcedon board member, so my hands are doubly clean when I move on to the next issue.
The Theological Problem
The theological problem with creating anonymous websites that appear to act as meta-ministries sitting in judgment on other ministries arises out of a key passage in the Sermon on the Mount.
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matt. 5:34–37)
What does this passage have to do with the issue before us? Let’s unpack it a bit more carefully and tease out its implications.
The reason that people would swear after making an assertion is simple: to attach additional weight, credibility, emphasis, authority, and power to what they are saying. Their unadorned, naked word is seen as inadequate: it must be embellished to cut through to others so they are compelled to accept it. Such swearing is an attempt to annex divine force to human words, to appropriate His authority in the service of a human utterance. It is, pure and simple, a power play, with language itself on the chopping block.
This mindset gets airplay among young kids. We adults remember it from our own childhoods. If another child made a claim we rejected, he’d reinforce the credibility of his statement by some such puerile formula as “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” These self-maledictory oaths are intended to throw additional force and power behind the original statement that was found difficult to believe.
Our Lord seeks to abridge two culturally damaging implications of all such swearing intended to reinforce a person’s yes and no so they become a super-yes or a super-no imprinted with a divine imprimatur. First, Jesus intends that our yes actually means yes, and that our no actually means no. Our assertions should be without guile. Further, we need our yes to be expressed as a simple yes, without any attempts to slather on extra social or cultural force to our words by procedural means. A simple yes or no, with men and women acting on their own recognizance under Christ, is what the Lord orders. All attempts to accumulate for our communications and utterances added breadth and power and impact by procedural means—in short, to compound and amplify beyond our simple yes or no—is evil. It’s that simple.
Why is it evil? It’s evil because such illicit amplification of authority ultimately destroys all authority, because it continually ups the ante on what it takes to be believed in our culture. Just as we become desensitized to casualty statistics during a war when they become too high, we become numb to the impact of language when we bend it to serve human agendas. One key way we bend language is to seek out means to amplify our authority and gain illicit credibility for our statements and positions. This is what is condemned in the Sermon on the Mount: credibility inflation cheapens and debauches everyone’s credibility. Note that the Bible does not support the idea that the end justifies the means: evil means makes the end evil, no matter how well-intentioned the end might be. This too is simple—for which reason these simple ethical guidelines are continually neglected, if not openly attacked, even by putative Christians.
The construction of a website intended to create the impression of having an independent, above-the-fray, objective oversight of other ministries, when in fact it cloaks the activity of other parties who seek to create the impression of outside endorsement of their positions, constitutes a violation of the Lord’s command. I’m aware that we’re speaking of Christians doing precisely these things. They hurt, and do not help, their cause (if legitimate) when they conduct themselves in this way. In fact, their cause loses legitimacy to the extent they indulge in such spurious conduct.
For what do we see in common with Thomas L. Friedman’s indictment of the masked men of Gaza when it comes to such websites? “Every masked man is a general.” Accountable to no one, but making all accountable to him, sorting all ecclesiastical reality through the mask of that anonymous meta-ministry. Such Internet-based vehicles can be bent to become new ways of swearing by the Lord’s footstool or temple or the hair of your own head. Anonymity creates the impression of multiple witnesses when in fact there may be only one, living multiple virtual lives on the Internet. If such a one were to truly let his yes be yes and his no be no, he’d have to come clean and drop his anonymity. Since this would reveal the deception of having amplified the effect of his words by speaking through multiple false personalities (such as those who blog to themselves to create the impression of web traffic on their sites), the likelihood is that fear of exposure will forestall such contrition.
Chalcedon desires such people to repent of their anonymity and restore discourse to its Biblically defined norms, but our expectation is that the darkness hates the light because light exposes the works of darkness. Anonymous website fabrication to multiply and amplify the authority of a lone partisan into the apparently weighty opinion of an objective group will persist, primarily because it is effective. Lots of unbiblical conduct, after all, is highly effective. Only a well-informed Christian will turn his back on such ministries. But since the average Christian can’t refrain from shutting down the continuing evil of personal gossip, we’re a long way off from turning off the spigot to such anonymous websites.
Let’s make it simple. If a website that criticizes other Christians and/or their ministries is anonymous, it isn’t acting as a Christian website. It is already in violation of the Sermon on the Mount (and I haven’t even gotten to such Scriptures as “lie not one to another” in this analysis). Anonymity means no accountability,3 except to itself. The spirit of such websites is manifest on their face. These sites present a false face. They create something akin to the “confusion of faces” lamented by Daniel in Daniel 9:7. Turn off their water until they reveal themselves in the blinding light of truth. If they won’t take off the ski mask, turn away from them and have nothing more to do with them. Such websites are really Ski Mask Ministries. Until they repent of their rebellion against Christ on this count, there’s no reason to sort through the merit (if any) of their arguments. They’ve already played fast and loose with language by illicit amplification of their impact.
They have sworn by the name of their various dot-com URLs that they’re reliable guides. The ditch they’ll guide you into can’t be but a few steps away. They’ve already deviated from the “highway of holiness” (Isa. 35:8). They obviously risk being exposed (and a few have already backpedaled when ensnared by the words of their own lips). But they destroy and debauch all Christian discourse when they conduct their affairs behind the ski mask of an anonymous website. Christ will not hold such people guiltless. There is no excuse for it. None. Such people have been clever as serpents, but not gentle as doves, for they’ve turned their back on Christ’s most potent ethical instruction concerning the matter. Pray they see the light and remove their ski masks.4
Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. (Luke 12:3)
Such anonymous websites are part of Friedman’s “world of disorder.” Such a website reflects a work of darkness, no matter what the prose content is, because it violates the Sermon on the Mount. It is an illicit amplification of authority by way of the ski mask. If the people behind such websites ever had a legitimate case to make, they’ve crippled it almost beyond repair with unrighteousness in contending for the truth. If that is indeed the case, it makes their conduct doubly grievous. They’d be better off if they had no legitimate case, rather than having had one, to throw it away like they have.
Stand strong against all such violations of the Sermon on the Mount. Learn to identify the modern forms of “swearing by the Temple,” of falsely enhancing the power of our words by departing from the simplicity of yes and no. Be wise to the tricks possible on the Internet, and recognize that Christians are not above indulging in them.
In understanding, be men. Reject the childishness of “cross my heart and hope to die,” no matter what modern form it takes in today’s ever-mutating blogosphere.
1. Thomas L. Friedman, “How do you fight a war where both sides wear masks?” appearing in the Houston Chronicle Wednesday, June 20, 2007, B9.
2. Gary North, ed., The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. 1, No. 1, Summer 1974 “Symposium on Creation,” 28.
3. Note that for me to be considered as a Chalcedon board member, it was necessary to establish that I was accountable to a local orthodox church, notwithstanding my long association with Chalcedon. As an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, I was able to meet this requirement. But an anonymous entity is beyond Biblical sanction.
4. Of course, they may have something to hide, something sufficient to motivate continued anonymity under (in all likelihood) false pretenses. But this is precisely the point at issue. Jesus did everything in the open, not in a corner.