Before last Friday’s horrific terrorist attack in Paris even concluded, the hot takes and recriminations thereof had already begun (and have not slowed down since). If you didn’t see obscene posturing from both the right and the left in your newsfeeds, you either have impossibly good taste in your social media cultivation or none at all. The French flag avatars followed almost immediately, like American flag cakes after 9/11, as people with varying levels of grief chose to express electronic solidarity at the click of a button.Our hunger for human flourishing outstrips our patience for the work necessary to achieve it; the power we have and the powers that be then incline us towards whatever option is easiest.
Of course, Newton’s Third Law demands that for every public expression, there must be a social media backlash. The tributes to Paris, while undoubtedly genuine, seemed disproportionate to the attacks a day before in Beirut and numerous other atrocities committed by terrorists in places that none of us wouldn’t dream of studying abroad in. Should half of us change our avatars to Lebanese flags and the other half to French flags? Should we have changed our avatars to Kenyan flags last year when 147 people were killed by ISIS? Does it even matter?
The empathy that Westerners feel for other Westerners under assault is entirely normal, as is the indifference that we have towards death and violence in places we don’t know much about but assume to be dangerous. It is right to mourn more acutely the violation of places that we usually think of to be safe from terrorism, as this represents an incursion of unique evils into places that were once free of them. Something good is violated when a place like Paris, where safety is taken for granted, becomes more like Mosul instead of the opposite.
The fear of a violent attack that many Westerners are experiencing in varying degrees (with their commensurate calls to build bigger walls around our safe spaces) is real and the empathy for people under attack is genuine. It is important to remember, though, that millions of people live with the same sort of fear of violence–sometimes from the same terrorists that attacked Paris, but sometimes from their own police. It isn’t any better that more Parisians now feel the same fear as Nigerians, but it does illuminate the basic human need for security and justice that many people in the world lack today.
Of course, even if we did have a perfectly proportionate social media spasm for every moral injury that occurred worldwide, I’m not convinced the people hungering for security and justice would be any better off. Overlaying our avatars with flags from Lebanon to France to Burundi and then back to Iraq might expose and amplify the fact that our performative grief and outrage are merely butterflies flitting from the largest flower to another, but that’s about it. You could even add a “Donate” button somewhere–many do–but despite the need that good organizations like International Justice Mission or Voice of the Martyrs have for donations, a lot of violence throughout the world isn’t exactly susceptible to cash.
For example, #BringBackOurGirls was a remarkable “success” a year and a half ago as far as viral social media campaigns go, even getting Michelle Obama on board. Given the tangle of economic, religious, and political considerations in bringing peace and justice to Northern Nigeria, it’s unsurprising that progress has been slow and even now the people responsible for bringing the girls back are saying that they won’t rush. The difficult work of building institutions necessary to provide security and defang violent men taking advantage of others does not move at the speed of Twitter and requires what Nietzsche called (and Eugene Peterson wisely appropriated) “a long obedience in the same direction”.
Our hunger for human flourishing outstrips our patience for the work necessary to achieve it; the power we have and the powers that be then incline us towards whatever option is easiest. If you’ve ever wondered why most short-term mission trips go to Mexico or the Caribbean and involve construction or Vacation Bible School while the greatest needs in missions tend to be things like Bible translation and long-term discipleship, it’s because VBS is accessible and simple while Bible translation is not. Changing our flag avatar is easy, loving a Muslim neighbor is not. Building a wall is easy, carefully supporting the democratic process to ensure peace is not.
It is even harder–I would say impossible–to actually provide every human tragedy with the appropriate amount of sorrow. It is the craven nature of social media that suggests we can even do so, but I freely admit that I have tweeted about hospitals being bombed to lacksadaisical municipal oversight with the same level of outrage in the same five minutes. While different problems require different solutions, Twitter and Facebook are, in the end, about as limited in their usefulness as the one-week VBS trip. The more that you use them, the more likely you are to be enamored with their power and thus the more pressing every errant tweet (or lack thereof) will feel. Silence becomes violence and the wrong words become triggering.
Realistically speaking, most people have enough time and money to really care about one or two causes beyond themselves and whatever pays their bills. Even people who pay their bills caring about multiple things at once–such as journalists and public servants–tend to do better when they focus on particular subjects. If human flourishing and shalom are a beautiful woven tapestry of “nothing missing, nothing broken”, then the world is best served when each person takes the number of threads that fit between their fingers and follows them through as long as their life and health allow.
It seems many people don’t narrow in appropriately, instead, expressing their concern or outrage about whatever the topic du jour is while anesthetizing themselves with the media that tells them what to be outraged or indifferent about. We obey and sacrifice for what we love, and if our heart loves the gilded toys of the world, we’ll develop the disciplines that earn us more of them. Even the need to care for one’s spiritual life, self-care, or family relationships very often appear subsumed to the acquisition of money, status, or entertainment–the things that make their demands for a long obedience seem very appetizing.
If we move beyond the baubles of worldliness, then, we might find ourselves in a bubble of caring only for people like us and with us. Getting to that place is an important step to take–but, as Jesus pointed out, it’s still only exemplary for a pagan. Christianity is implacably expansionary, crossing borders and breaking walls with its tug outward to keep us from becoming consumed within that bubble. This tug makes the balance harder to keep, as it gives us far more threads of human flourishing that have to be taken up.
This isn’t to say that you should only give your money to one cause and only share articles about things that are in your wheelhouse–this would only be another form of tribalism. Rather, all Christians should seriously consider their vocations and callings to focus which direction we should walk in for a long time. If the Holy Spirit is consonant with the revelation of Scripture, then our obedience to our calling would naturally result in a Christian diaspora that tilted towards the most damaged parts of our tapestry. The first step, though, is knowing and learning–and here’s where social media and technology are goods, as long as we can wrest them from the madmen who would rather just keep selling us stuff all day. You can use the Internet to learn about your locality, the nearest big city full of needs, or the most desperate and vulnerable places in the world. Then prayerfully pick one.
The next step is getting out and learning the contours of place as you get to know the people within it. As CaPC’s own D.L. Mayfield said on Twitter as she mourned the tragedies unfolding across the world this week, “It comes down to the fact that you always care more for what you know, so we need to address our poverty of relationships.” Activism and ministry disconnected from deep relationships with the people you are called to serve are always bound to be self-serving, and the less diverse your relationships are the greater your likelihood of self-deception will be.
Of course, there are always seasons of preparation or rest that punctuate our lives as well as nice distractions along the way; a long obedience in the same direction doesn’t mean that you don’t spend time beforehand buying good shoes or taking a break when your feet get tired (or, for parents like me, when your kids need a nap). Just like the use of social media and technology, rest requires an attentive appreciation for the power of what you are applying your time, money, and energy towards.
If you love Paris and hate terrorism, go ahead and change your avatar. It won’t hurt. But if you want to work towards the end of these tragedies, you will have to give yourself to something for a long time and give of yourself until it hurts. There are enough institutions that will endure beyond our individual efforts even as they multiply our work and there are enough threads going in enough directions for all of us to get to work.