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Root December 13, 2010 The Eschatology of Slacktivism Over the course of the last few years, with the accelerated rise of social networking, a modified form of social activism has taken shape in the lives of many who use these websites. Social networking giants such as Facebook and Twitter, and their millions of adolescent users, have been overcome by what sociologists are calling “slacktivism”. The term is derived from the two words “slacker” and “activism”. It has most widely been defined as “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact.”1 This is becoming a wildly popular, in some cases even viral, way to promote certain causes, even if no more action than promotion is taken. This is where much of the criticism comes in. And this is where our concern as leaders in the church should also protest. Because we are a church that believes in the human participation with God in God’s mission for the world, the ramifications of this slacktivist mindset can be quite severe. As church leaders, we need to be aware of what these kinds of actions are doing to our collective role as participants in the ministry of God. While there are many worthwhile ventures and means of
Morozov, Evgeny. “The Brave New World of Slacktivism”.
2 positively impacting the world, slacktivism promotes awareness without agency. And in doing so, create a hopeless eschatological outlook for young people as they mature. Along with this, we will see that slacktivism is ultimately an attempt by youth to fix the problems they see with the means they have. They see suffering in this world, but often feel hopeless by their social location so they resort to shallow, relatively ineffective means as a way of satisfying that need. By thoroughly looking at this relatively new phenomenon, we will come to a greater understanding of these slacktivist actions as a means of agency for young people that ultimately fail the causes they wish to help. Empirical Task (What is going on?) The advancement of the internet and technological breakthroughs therein have lead this new generation of adolescents into a peculiar place in world history. Never before have social interactions become so accessible. However, the online character of social interaction has forever changed how the majority of adolescents relate to each other and the world. Impersonal interactions have given way to a form of passive activism that has since found its way into sociological discourse. There are thousands of links throughout the Facebook/Twitter world that connect people to different causes and websites where they can actually contribute some form of capital, monetarily or otherwise. However the majority of people simply join
3 the group, “like” the status, re-tweet the text so that their followers may read it. Often times, this is as far as it will go. Nothing else will come about in the form of physical or even verbal protest and the person will go about their day. This kind of activism is a far cry from the sit-ins, protests and other various activities that defined earlier generations of Americans. However this inaction extends further than the World Wide Web. It has started to infiltrate the church. And will continue to negatively impact what youth remain in our pews if we do not seriously alter the course. When action is replaced by inaction, or at the very least passivity, there are a number of things that begin to suffer. When we look at this from a church perspective, the results are all the more troubling. It comes as no shock to say that fundraising among most Christian denominations is down as the economy is in a depression, jobs are being cut, and people just simply are not going to church as often as they used to. Yet still there are links on Facebook that you can “like” that say things like “Let’s see how many true Christians are on Facebook! Press ‘Like’ if Jesus if your Savior!!” By liking this certain link, people get an affirmation of their religious devotion without having to go to church, participate in a Bible study, or write any kind of check to a congregation. At a psychological level, not only do these people get an affirmation, in and of themselves, in this action, but other people see their religious devotion as well. With this
4 externalization of devotion, acts of faith are poised to become exponentially shallower the further into this technological age we progress without taking a serious look at our theology surrounding mission and what ministry will look like without a change in course. One of the main problems with the slacktivist view of mission is that it is in many ways a cause-and-effect view of problem solving. There are programs on social media websites called applications, one of which is named ‘causes’. Each cause on the list is some kind of humanitarian organization or effort that wishes to promote awareness of a certain cause. Once the cause is ‘liked’ that is often the height of action taken. If a young person is feeling particularly moved, they may donate money to a cause but, for young people, awareness is often as far as this will go. This is cause and effect mission. There are problems identified in the world that promote a need for action, and simple actions that involve no real sacrifice of capital are exerted as the effect. This hinders the possibility for creative responses and instead seeks to solve global crises by ourselves and from the comfort of our own computer. It promotes an eschatology that is fundamentally hopeless, because it closes off many realms of possibility. There is a fundamental gap in the theology that seeks to answer big questions with small answers. Subsequently, the mission that develops with this theology seeks to solve big problems with little effect. As the church, we cannot
5 underestimate the profound impact that this kind of disengaged involvement in the world will have on the generations of people that will be raised in a culture of social media. The popularity of slacktivism is quite troubling because it gives way to a close-ended eschatology that severs possibility in favor of quick responses. The simplicity of cause and effect mission rarely looks beyond the immediate situation that the consumer is presented with. With every philanthropic e-mail, the young person can either forward the e-mail or not. It is a very cut and dry situation that involves immediate response with little to no responsibility for follow-up. This develops false sense of mission because there is no imperative behind the split-second decision. This depletes any hope for large-scale, systemic change in favor of shallow platitudes to feign altruism and often fails to generate any positive impact. Interpretive Task (Why is it going on?) Since the 1920s, the concept of the teenager has evolved into a cultural force that influences how national corporations spend hundreds of billions of dollars. In spite of all of this economic influence, the only capital given to youth is social. They work within the social structures of their communities (school, church, online etc.) as a means of seeking identity2. It makes sense, then, that the main form of activism for young people comes in the form of social interaction.
From In-Class Lecture. 10/11/2010.
6 Activism that culminates merely in awareness is a clear product of a generation with only social means and capital to use and consume. We have been socialized to know that issues such as global poverty, wars and other global epidemics cannot be solved with the click of a mouse, yet we still sign the online petition, re-tweet a philanthropic message or change our profile picture as our effect in reaction to those global causes. The universal problems in the world (hunger, poverty, disease etc.) are met with concrete actions in a way that limits the scope of the response. When the universal goes to the concrete, mission becomes suffocated and can only move forward to a closed-off horizon. In the face of this radically increasing method of raising awareness, the church has been silent. Technology is an ever-present reality in the lives of kids. And yet with almost every confirmation lesson, retreat or any other program directed at youth, we yell at kids when we sense that they have brought along an iPod or cell phone. Since it is through technological means that they feel they are really able to make a difference in the world, when the church takes these things away, a significant gap appears between youth’s perception of church and their tangible concept of making a difference in the world. That is very bad news for the church. Normative Task (What ought to be happening?) For a wider look at what a hopeful eschatology contributes to the life of a teenager, we turn to the work of German theologian Jurgen
7 Moltmann. It could be said that universal, eschatological hope is the central theme that runs throughout Moltmann’s writings. It may seem tedious to look for a way to be missional with the social network generation in Moltmann. However there are some clear cut lines drawn within Moltmann’s theological framework that help lead to a fuller understanding of eschatological mission in the lives of youth. These kinds of shallow, quick-response methods of slacktivism often correspond with some of the deepest suffering in the world. Here we find a centerpiece of Moltmann’s theology: suffering and hope are two sides of the same coin. Moltmann calls us to look beyond the actual events at hand in order to find the inbreaking of God’s promise. If we use one-click solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, we fail to see beyond the action itself and into the future and hope that God is calling us into. Another key point that Moltmann tackles in his theology is that the future and hope are thought of as open-ended categories that are centered in hope. This is a universal category. By simply existing in the world, we are involved in the hope of the open-ended future of possibility. It is no longer just an epistemological category. It is no longer if you believe this, act in this way. Because you exist in the world, you are involved in the hope that is centered in being. Therefore hope in the open-ended future of God is an ontological category. We have no choice but to exist in that reality. Therefore we have to take
8 that seriously as a framework for the mission of the church. In the previous section, the protest methods of slacktivism were discussed as a way of giving universal problems concrete solutions. The problem with this is that it limits the scope of the hopeful horizon we look to as the future of God. Moltmann uses these terms to talk about the cross. Moltmann says that in the cross, the unique, concrete event of the cross and resurrection “becomes general through the universal eschatological horizon in which it anticipates”3. Moltmann continues by asserting that we must view all theology in a similar fashion. We must see the Christ event as the concrete, which leads to a future of unending possibility and hope. This must become the framework for the way we do mission and ministry with youth if we want to break out of the simple solutions that do not seek to foster hopeful participation in the mission of God to the world. Pragmatic Task (How should we act?) A disclaimer is important at this point. The points that have been made are largely in paradigmatic shifts and looking forward to an ontological reality of open-ended hope of our involvement in the ministry of God. In doing this, I realize that there are a lot of ideas that are discussed without many concrete steps to be taken. I will outline some suggestions, but we are dealing largely with hypothetical situations and abstract ideas. This is problematic because it is the very
Moltmann Jurgen. Theology of Hope. Translated by Margaret Kohl, 3rd ed. Fortress Press. Minneapolis, MN; 1993. Pg. 142
9 thing that slacktivism deals with. It is abstract ideas and solutions with shallow roots in actual change. That being said, I am fully aware that full, systemic change is not going to come overnight. However I am confident that paradigmatic shifts can begin to orient youth towards an active mission and a hopeful future. That being said, there are some small changes that can be implemented to begin the work of re-framing slacktivist tendencies in a way that orients it more toward positive change in the world. The first thing that we must do as youth directors and people who work with youth is to orient ourselves to a ministry of possibility. If there is one theme that is consistent throughout the entire Biblical narrative, it is that God gives life where there once was none. The inbreaking of God is only possible when all other options have been deemed impossible. If we follow this premise, then our ministry must involve an invitation and an opportunity for youth to share their brokenness and suffering, to share instances where they see suffering in the world so that they have a place to work through their pain and suffering in the process of growing up. In the biblical narrative, barrenness and struggle end up leading directly to hope and promise. We need to operate with Moltmann’s category of cross and resurrection when we deal with kids. They are two sides of the same coin. Because slacktivism grows out of an unsettling feeling that things are not right with the world, it ties
10 directly into our experience of suffering. However since kids do not have capital, aside from social, they do not feel they can make an impact in the world, which only leads to more impatience and suffering. If the church became a place to embrace those feelings of brokenness and becomes a place where kids can bring their barrenness, then together we can assemble a theology of mission that seeks the eschatological horizon of the open-ended future of God in a way that takes seriously this suffering. In doing this, we are rendering slacktivist tendencies futile and are instead inviting people into a ministry centered in relationship between each other and God.