Emma Jenkins has nearly 32,000 followers on her YouTube channel. She, like most folks with a YouTube channel, talks about what she likes. And that, it turns out, includes Jesus.
CinnamonToastKen has nearly 3 million followers on his YouTube channel. He, also, talks about what he likes. And that, its turns out, includes making fun of Emma Jenkins.
In a YouTube video titled “Crazy Girl Is Obsessed With Jesus”—a video seen by nearly three times as many people as Jenkins has fans—spends more than 11 minutes picking apart everything about 19-year-old Emma: her optimism, her laugh, her eyebrows, her facial expressions, her notepads and especially her faith.
“Don’t be scared of Jesus,” Ken tells Layla, his very young daughter, who appears in the video. “Be scared of this girl, but don’t be scared of Jesus.”
The video’s gotten more than 100,000 views and 7,700 likes thus far. But not everyone has been so prone to put a thumbs up on the thing. In a tweet picked up by Relevant, Pastor Jarrid Wilson categorized Ken’s video as cyberbullying and suggested that YouTube should really take the thing down. And on Wilson’s podcast (again quoted by Relevant), Wilson responded to the controversy.
I am human and words are powerful. You either have the power to speak life or speak death over someone. To receive those words that I’m not pretty, and that I’m not here for a reason, or that I need to not live anymore. Especially being a girl too with insecurities. Satan will definitely use that and highlight it.
The whole kerfuffle got me thinking a bit.
The United States Federal Government has something it calls “protected classes,” classifications that are intended to protect people from discrimination. Those include, of course, race, sex, physical or mental disability and religion.
Now, these classifications are legal distinctions, and they don’t necessarily have any official bearing on how these people are treated in the public square. They protect people from being discriminated against when they’re applying for a job or getting an apartment or being served in a restaurant. But when it comes to what you tell your friends or Tweet, you can still legally, be a bigot.
But culturally, we’re growing less and less tolerant of hateful messages toward most of those protected classes. Fire off a YouTube video making fun of someone because they’re in a wheelchair, or because they immigrated from Mozambique, and you’d be excoriated. And rightfully so. I think that most social networks like YouTube take a dim view of hateful, bigoted monologues. They should.
But 21st-century society makes a social exception when it comes to Christianity. CinnamonToastKen’s video isn’t so much a display of religious bigotry as it is an example of that exception. Religious expression may be protected by law, but in the everyday rule of etiquette, religion falls into a very different category than race or sex or disability.
Admittedly, there are legitimate reasons for this.
First, unlike race or sex or disability, we choose our faith. We select what we believe in, whether it’s Jesus or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As such, faith is different than many other protected statuses. Religion is a topic of conversation, debate and sometimes confrontation in a way that race or disability can’t be. I can’t do anything about my race, so it’s useless to try to talk me out of being white. But my faith? I chose it. Because I believe in its veracity so much, I might encourage you to choose it, too. Or you might encourage me to choose.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that Emma, by virtue of having a YouTube channel, is a public figure, and that opens the door toward all sorts of feedback. When you willingly put yourself out into the public eye, that sort of thing is part of the gig.
But all that said, CinnamonToastKen’s video does feel like bullying. In the admittedly squishy realm of public engagement, it feels like it crosses a line. This wasn’t a thoughtful discussion of Emma’s faith. It wasn’t a gentle ribbing of how that faith manifests itself in Emma’s life. It felt cruel. The sort of thing I used to hear in the halls of my public high school about the kids who, through no fault of their own, just didn’t fit in.
Listen, I’ve dealt with a lot of slings and arrows in my career. Even since I’ve been working here, I’ve been called an idiot and a hack, a know-nothing conservative and a closet liberal. I’ve had my faith questioned a dozen times or more.
And you know what? I appreciate that sort of feedback. Sometimes those comments suggest a reader or a viewer missed something in translation (be it my fault or theirs), but they’re at least engaging with the substance of what I’m trying to say.
But sometimes critics don’t engage. They dismiss. They mock. In CinnamonToastKen’s case, they suggest that Emma’s faith is beneath contempt because she’s too happy. Or because there’s some sort of (unseen) defect in her eyebrows. Or because she reads her Bible carefully.
I don’t know much about CinnamonToastKen, and for all I know, he could be a nice guy otherwise. He didn’t do anything illegal in his video. I have no idea what YouTube’s ethical responsibility is to take the vid down.But I do know this: Videos like these do nothing to further understanding or debate. They shame. They ridicule. They bully. They fuel the sense of persecution that many Christians already have, which can only damage reasonable discourse.
We live in a sensitive time. Society is hyper-aware that what we say and how we say it has meaning. In this era of unfettered connectivity, and as we place ever-greater, informal restrictions on how we engage with each other over our backgrounds and ideals, I’d ask one thing: that Christianity, even when it manifests itself in quirky ways, be treated with the same courtesy.
We don’t need to handle faith with kid gloves. But you don’t need to smack it with a set of brass knuckles, either.