The Faustian bargain of a cyber connected world

SOSc / Web/Tech

Our hyper-networked world has given us super-human powers. Sometimes this has been beneficial. But of late, there is a dangerous side to being able to communicate quickly and without the need to reflect.

At least two dozen people have been killed in mob lynchings in India since the start of the year, their deaths fueled by rumors that spread on WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service. In Brazil, messages on WhatsApp falsely claimed a government-mandated yellow-fever vaccine was dangerous, leading people to avoid it. And as Mexico was heading into its presidential election this month, experts there called WhatsApp the ugly underbelly of the country’s news environment, a place where politically misleading stories, memes and messages can spread unchecked.

On WhatsApp, with 1.5 billion users, information can go viral in minutes as individuals forward messages along to their friends or groups, without any way to determine its origin.

via On WhatsApp, fake news is fast — and can be fatal – The Washington Post

I was one of the people who believed that more communication between people could only be to the betterment of all. I was wrong.

I don’t believe we can put this particular power, this djinn, back in the bottle again. So we’re going to have to pay close attention to how we use it. A thoughtless joke can destroy a life. A pointed online rumor can tear apart a community. Sometimes these sorts of things are happening by mistake, but they are also being done on purpose by people who just want to see the destruction that they can create by doing it.

I’m not sure what the right answer is, but we might start by being intentional about our need for self-control (the Christian virtue of temperance) and humility. Our words, launched into the ether, have the power to kill. Words have always had that power, but today, when they can be spread at the speed of the network, the damage a word uttered in a hateful way is magnified far beyond what we have previously experienced.

I’ve read that the greek word “diablos” from which we get the english word “diabolical” originally meant someone who divided the community by telling lies (a calumniator). I think that’s a word use we need to keep in mind from now on.

End the Family Separation Policy Immediately.

Current Affairs

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Trump administration’s new policy of separating children from their asylum-seeking parents is morally wrong, not in keeping with the teachings of Christianity or other world religions, and should stop.

Jesus, reiterating the witness of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, calls on us to treat others as we would want to be treated. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor. Christians are called, with many others, to welcome the stranger in our midst. Jesus tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel (18:4-6), that whoever welcomes a child, welcomes him. And whoever causes harm to such a one is in grave moral danger.

I join my voice with other faith and community leaders around this state and this country in calling for the current family separation policy to end immediately and for children to be reunited with their parents as their lawful application for asylum proceeds.

XIII Bishop of Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island

Anne Lyon Knisely Canon – may she rest in peace and rise in glory.


On Monday morning my extended family gathered to say goodbye to my Aunt Anne. She was a mother, a sister, a clergy spouse, a friend and so much more. I was planning on being the preacher and the celebrant at the memorial service, but the weather in Baltimore on Sunday night caused my flight to be canceled and meant that I was not able to be with the rest of my family. Thank you so much to the Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Gatza at Emmanuel Church in Bel Air Maryland for filling in on such short notice. I hear it was a lovely and fitting service.

This was the brief meditation that I had planned to share:

This weekend we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Trinity. One of my friends jokingly suggested that rather than preachers trying to imagine a new way to explain what it ultimately an unfathomable doctrine, it would be better for all if we just put Rublev’s famous Icon of the Trinity on the pulpit and just stared at it for twenty minutes in silence.

If you’re a preacher faced with preaching about the Holy Trinity, that’s a funny, not funny sort of joke.

It’s a powerful image (pun intended) because Icons by their nature attempt to communicate and invoke ideas about God and the divine without using words. Words can be powerful tools but ofttimes in church they fail us because they simply can not express the ineffable truths of God. I suppose that’s why hymns are so important in our liturgy – when prose cannot take us to the Truth, we add music and poetry. I don’t suppose they get us all the way to the divine reality, but they can help move us closer.

An Icon, which is usually described as being written rather than being painted, has its own lexicon and vocabulary that tries to lift us even higher than the music, poetry and movement of liturgy which we know so well. An Icon uses certain colors to mark the presence of the divine. It uses a reverse perspective with the focus point being behind the viewer rather than in front to show us that that heaven and the realm of God is greater and more capacious than our human one. And it uses geometry to help us understand how God’s realm and ours are connected.

I’m not sure that twenty minutes in the presence of a true Icon is enough for us to fully unlock its meaning.

My Aunt Anne, and the life of love that she led, was one of the truest Icons of God’s love that I have ever experienced. She had the gift of hospitality and warmth that could gather people together and create circles of love and community no matter the circumstance. I knew her best as a small child when I was able to visit with her and Uncle Joe – and what I remember is what it felt like to be in a place, a home, that had that quality of light, laughter and love. I remember the radical acceptance of myself and others. If was going to try to write an Icon of a Christian, I would probably start with Anne.

Today we are gathering to remember her life, and to stand together as witnesses to God’s promises to us in the words of Our Lord Jesus. Perhaps you’ve made the connection that early theologians made about Icons and Jesus… Jesus of course is much more, but in some small ways we can understand the person of Jesus and the events of his life as a sort of written and embodied Icon of the reality of God. And because as the Councils of the Church have declared, we believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, Jesus is also an icon of our humanity. That why we can claim that because Jesus rose from the dead, we shall too. Because Jesus’ life was transformed and not ended so too shall ours be as well. Because Jesus’ demonstrated the cosmos shaking power of God’s Love and because he has called us his friends – preaching to us even when we were dead – we too shall live.

It is impossible for me to fully understand or even begin to fully imagine how life and love are woven together. But we have seen images of it in the lives of the people we have encountered along our Christian journey. We have experienced a taste of God’s transforming, liberating and life-giving love because they have loved us. They are icons. Anne was one of my icons. Some of you are as well. By God’s grace perhaps each of us here can be for others – preaching God’s love with our lives.

God’s love is this. That though we die, yet shall we live. And we shall see each other again. With our own eyes shall we see our redeemer and each other. Because God’s love has been victorious over our ancient enemy, God’s love has taken away the sting of death and it is no more.

Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

If Jesus comes back now, what should we expect?


Cara Rockhill, a priest here in Rhode Island (and a member of my staff) just posted a wonderful piece on her blog that’s an extended reflection on the easy to foresee violence that has erupted in the Holy Land. Her piece centers on what it would mean for all us right now if Jesus were to return to the Earth – a thing greatly to be desired, and my regular fervent prayer…

If Jesus comes back, your life is going to be remarkably different. Jesus would not be cheering this death and destruction. Jesus would not cheer any death or destruction! Jesus would be wondering how we let things get this bad. Jesus would ask us all, and hold us to account, for the way we treated one another that resulted in this violence.

Jesus would hold us to account for valuing ourselves and our lives more than those of Palestinians.

Jesus would hold us to account for using innocent lives as political pawns.

Jesus would hold us to account for using innocent lives as a way of manipulating God.

Because, really, I’m sure God has a pretty good idea of when God plans on coming back. If God wanted it to be now, there wouldn’t need to be the blood of Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, covering the Holy Land.

via Be Careful What You Wish For… – Cara Rockhill – Christianity in the 21st Century is Complicated

Please follow the link and read the whole piece. It’s worth your time.

The problem of Facebook is only a small part of a much larger issue

Current Affairs / Web/Tech

The Original Sin of the Internet is that it pays its bills by selling our attention to the highest bidder. We’ve been focusing on Facebook at the moment, but as Ethan Zuckerman points out in an essay on the site, Facebook is a symptom, not the problem.

I’ve referred to this bargain, in which people get content and services for free in exchange for having persuasive messages psychographically targeted to them, as the “original sin” of the internet. It’s a dangerous and socially corrosive business model that puts internet users under constant surveillance and continually pulls our attention from the tasks we want to do online toward the people paying to hijack our attention. It’s a terrible model that survives only because we haven’t found another way to reliably support most internet content and services—including getting individuals to pay for the things they claim to value.

We become aware of how uncomfortable this model is when Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica develop personality profiles of us so they can tailor persuasive messages to our specific personal quirks, but that’s exactly what any competent advertiser is doing, every day, on nearly every site online. If that makes you feel uncomfortable: Good, it should. But the problem is way bigger than Facebook. This is a known bug not just with social networks, but with the contemporary, ad-supported web as a whole.

via Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica Scandal Is Part of a Bigger Problem – The Atlantic

He makes the point that the real response to the recognition of this larger problem is the need we all have to find a business model that makes it easy to support responsible writing.

Mr. Pulitzer’s business model of supporting local newspapers has led us to the Internet we now have. Perhaps we need to go back further into our history to look at other models that have been used to support broad communications platforms.

Digital conversion: Church of England rolls out cashless donations

Current Affairs

Well, it’s been obvious that this has been coming. We have congregations here in the Diocese of Rhode Island that already offer this option. It’s been warmly received here particularly at festival events with many visitors attending like a Solemn Evensong or Christmas Eve.

Churchgoers will no longer have to fumble in their pockets and purses for loose change or notes as the Church of England introduces contactless payment terminals in more than 16,000 churches, cathedrals and other religious sites.

Contactless payments have been on trial in 40 Anglican churches since last summer, and from Tuesday they will be extended to all dioceses with the aim of making donations easier and faster. Congregations will also be able to donate via text message.

The C of E takes about £580m a year in donations, although most are from standing orders and fees rather than cash given in church. It began looking at cashless payment due to the declining numbers of people carrying cash.

via Digital conversion: Church of England rolls out cashless donations | World news | The Guardian

I’m impressed that the national church stewardship office in England took ownership and set this up for all the churches. I don’t know if that’s something we can do in the Episcopal Church, but I’ll be asking around to see if it’s something we can consider soon.

Join Bishop Knisely and other Episcopalians at the Providence March For Our Lives Rally

Current Affairs

Clergy and young people from the Diocese of Rhode Island are joining others from New England in traveling to the event this weekend in Washington DC.

Others, including Bishop Knisely, will be attending the simultaneous event held in Providence on Saturday (March 24th) at 1:00 PM.

logoIf you are interested in walking to the event together, a number of Episcopalians from across the state, both lay and clergy, are planning on meeting at the Cathedral Church of St. John on North Main Street at 12:30 PM.

If you are attending the Providence event, you can register here:

If you are attending, you are invited wear orange or red, and some clergy will be wearing their cassocks.

Stephen Hawking – a life that pointed to something beyond.

Current Affairs / Science

I woke up to the news this morning that Prof. Hawking had died. It’s hard to express the deep admiration people had for his work and the way he surmounted challenges in a way that few others have managed.

There will be plenty of articles written about his scientific legacy. But I found this quote at the end of an article by Robert Barr to be the most evocative:

Lucy Hawking said her father had an exasperating “inability to accept that there is anything he cannot do.”

“I accept that there are some things I can’t do,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. “But they are mostly things I don’t particularly want to do anyway.”

Then, grinning widely, he added, “I seem to manage to do anything that I really want.”

via Stephen Hawking, best-known physicist of his time, has died

I think the most impressive quality he possessed was the way he was willing to revisit his thinking and change his mind when the facts or the logic demanded he do so.

People need heroes. We are a better people because he worked and lived a hero’s life.

Together we must act to end this senseless carnage of our children in their school classrooms.

Current Affairs

“Forgive us, Lord, when our leaders fail to take action to protect the most vulnerable from the dangers of gun violence,” Hollerith says. “Forgive us, Lord, for the times when we lack the courage and political will to work together. Open our eyes and our hearts to work across our divisions to end the plague of gun violence.”

via Church leaders express grief, call for action after Florida high school mass shooting – Episcopal News Service

Please follow the link above to learn more about how the 70-plus strong coalition of Episcopal bishops across the country is joining to respond to this latest act of violence against young people.

At some point, we will have to agree that this has to end. Until that day comes, join me in praying that God will change the hearts of our elected leadership.