Three days after announcing that his adult son had ended his protracted battle with mental illness by taking his own life, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church returned to social media to share other deeply troubling news.
"Grieving is hard. Grieving as public figures, harder. Grieving while haters celebrate your pain, hardest," the Lake Forest pastor wrote on his Facebook page.
Matthew Warren, the 27-year-old son of Warren and his wife, Kay, died April 5 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
"In spite of America's best doctors, meds, counselors and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided," Warren shared in an email to church members. "Tonight, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life."
After the incident, Warren connected with his church family by posting on his Facebook page, including the message he posted on April 8 acknowledging the hateful comments. Warren's post caught the attention of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who addressed the issue on her April 9 show saying the development was "shocking, it's disgusting, and it's hard to understand." At one point she called the people behind the comments "haters."
"I'm not going to give a voice to the haters because, I mean, boy oh boy, these are people who are really in a dark place," she said, adding that many of the comments appeared to take issue with Warren's stand opposing same-sex marriage.
Warren is not alone in becoming a target during times of tragedy. Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Church in La Mesa, hinted at his own exposure to such tactics on an April 6 post on his Facebook page. In the extended post Garlow acknowledged Warren's tragedy and then asked the public to pray for Skyline, which has been besieged by a string of tragedies among its staff. Garlow's wife, Carol, who has undergone cancer treatments for nearly six years, died April 21 after entering hospice care a few days earlier.
In his transparent and heartfelt note posted before her death, Garlow praised God for all of the wonderful ministry at Skyline but then added, "Our staff has taken some strong hits," he continued. "I have hesitated posting this info as some of the 'secularists' have great delight in the hurt of people of biblical values (as witnessed by their viscous blogging attacks regarding my wife). And, I realize, some information is best kept unspoken.
Two sides of social media
Scott Daniels, dean of theology at Azusa Pacific University and senior pastor of First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, said he believes the advent of social media has blurred the lines of civil discourse.
"On one hand it's good; everyone has a voice coming to the table, but often times those voices are not very civil and are often times pretty harsh and pretty mean-spirited and pretty radicalized. I think those voices have been there before. I'm not sure they've had the kind of outlet they have now through various forms of social media.
"(Previously) civil discourse took place usually among people who had certain positions or roles within society. Common people had a voice, but often times through representatives who could come to the table with a level of civil discourse."
He added that in many ways, social media has been a blessing for prominent pastors such as Warren and Garlow, giving them national and global exposure.
But as their influence expands, so does the opportunity for critics.
"People go online and find things that you have written or said that they disagree with, and because of social media they are able to say things, and often times pretty hurtful things, without substantiation and without accountability," Daniels said. "That's just the nature of social media.
"They're both friends, and I hurt for them with what's going on, but it is additionally sad that they have to deal with these other things in the midst of dealing with their own grief and loss."
Daniels said another element that could be in play is the shrillness often brought on by talk radio and 24-hour news programming.
"In order to get attention we continue to ramp up the nature of our language, and I feel like that's getting reflected in this kind of discourse, too," he said.
"That happens on both sides. I think in the church we probably have to confess some of the times when we have used rhetoric that has demonized or villainized people that we disagree with as well. We have to train our people not to do that, and we have to confess our sin when we do that."
Pastors, he said, can help reign in some of the vitriol by educating believers on the importance of controlling the tongue.
"All of us are trying to catch up with the implications of social media and are trying to say, 'Listen, we've got to use these things in ways that reflect the nature of Christ and reflect the kind of people we want to be back.'"
Although Daniels said he believes all people deserve to be addressed with respect, he said it's especially troublesome when critics expand their wrath beyond public figures by taking aim at family members, a practice that once was considered taboo.
"It's a really significant ethical boundary that gets crossed when they start taking on people's families, taking on the people who are around them.
"When people celebrate in the sadness and the sickness and the brokenness of others, there is something really, really wrong with us when that becomes part of who we are."