By the Rev. Daniel Cho, minister of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Ont.
In April 2018, Canada was shaken when Alek Minassian drove a rented van down a busy stretch of sidewalk in a very populated area of Toronto, striking 26 people and killing 10, including my friend’s niece. Most of the victims were women. Minassian was part of a radical Internet subculture of men united in their hatred towards women. This group—who call themselves “incels”—justify their hatred in having experienced sexual rejection from women. In some cases, like the van attack, this online hate manifests as violence in the physical world.
Cyberspace has no geographic boundaries and so, for better or worse, many find community on the Internet. That lack of geographic boundaries makes it easier for those with hateful beliefs—like incels—to carve out a space for themselves isolated from anyone who would challenge their thinking. The Internet culture that results in such spaces has made hate, bigotry and malicious beliefs against the “other” more normalized. Where once we may have had to confront our own private prejudices against others (based on race, status, gender, sexual identity, religion, creed, etc.) because those around us felt differently, today that soul work is gone. All one has to do is search online to find a community that shares one’s prejudices. When the connection is made with likeminded folks who validate such bigotries then guilt, shame and encountering difference have less power to prevent us from acting hatefully.
A year ago, I had the privilege as Moderator of the 2018 General Assembly of being invited to provide testimony about online hate at the hearings of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights . Through these House Committee hearings, members of Parliament are jointly working to create needed legislation specifically addressing online hate activity, something Canada currently doesn’t have. This would bring important clarity regarding what constitutes hateful activity, incitement and speech online (as distinct from free speech) and provide guidance for enforcement. Essentially, online hate is being called out legally in the same way it needs to be named in every other social arena and context.
As Christians, our core values include care, love, acceptance and respect for our neighbours. We also believe in the transformative power of God through Christ who revealed God’s love to the world and that no one is beyond the reach of this love. Perhaps this can serve as our reason to not lose hope for those who choose hate. Martin Luther King, Jr’s words are a good reminder:
Building community can be very challenging for the church, but we are called to foster an authentic culture of inclusivity not simply for social or political agreeableness, but to pull each person into relationship. We might not always see eye to eye, but nonetheless, we learn to commune together, protect and love each other as imperfect people.
To build inclusive community, we must honestly confront whatever hate, superiority, self-righteousness and bigotry may be lurking within our own hearts, and truly welcome the other. This is hard spiritual work and requires us to be ever vigilant and serious in our walk with Christ. We all are God’s beloved people called to live and practice in the way of love.
Examine me, O God, and know my mind;
test me, and discover my thoughts.
Find out if there is any evil in me
and guide me in the everlasting way.
—Psalm 139:23–24 (Good News Translation)