A popular group on Facebook hosts a collection of people very much opposed to the destruction of an historic fountain in downtown Copenhagen. The name of the group can be translated, “No to the Demolition of the Stork Fountain,” and its members’ outrage fills its Facebook wall. The creator of the group writes of the urgency of the need for action and the call to join the cause and get involved. Almost overnight participation in the cause went viral, members joining and getting the word out to their friends. Click here, forward there, speak out.
Ironically (and more ironic than activism that only requires joining a Facebook group), the cause was completely fictitious. The creator of the page, Anders Colding-Jørgensen, is a professor of Internet psychology who was conducting a social experiment on activism and online behavior. Sadly, had these outraged activists searched just a bit more for information, they would have read on the page itself that it was an experiment and that in fact Anders knew of no plans to destroy the fountain. Yet by the end of the experiment, more than 27,000 people had joined the group with a click of outrage and a desire to join the cause.(1)
Anders’ experiment is one example of what cultural commentators are calling “slacktivism,” online activism that essentially leads to nothing on the part of the participant and no real effect on the cause itself. Slacktivism offers the feeling of doing good without actually having done anything at all. Though not all online causes can be classified as such, they are appealing because they are so easy to join, though we often seem unconcerned with whether they actually accomplish something. It’s simply one more click, one more forwarded email, one more status update; it won’t require writing long letters, standing in lines, or marching the streets. No one will ask you to do anything, and you can feel good about your participation, brief though it is. We may very well be impassioned slacktivists (the Facebook vitriol over the demolition of the Stork Fountain or the acquittal of Casey Anthony was alarming), but they are really just words, a display for display’s sake.
It seems religion has often been accused similarly. Isn’t it all just words? Isn’t Christianity all talk, tenants, and tirades? The Theologian is an owl sitting on an old dead branch in the tree of human knowledge, says one critic, and he is hooting the same old hoots that have been hooted for hundreds and thousands of years, but he has never given a hoot for anything real. A nearby bumper sticker berates similarly, “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day; give him a religion, and he’ll starve to death while praying for a fish.”
Even in friendlier circles, I am sometimes left with a similar impression among Christians that believing in Jesus has more to do with saying the right things, knowing the right words, holding the proper principles for a watching world. Many a church is filled with people who have the feeling of doing good without having really done anything at all. Knowing Christ can seem more a corollary to knowing the words than the other way around. Is Christianity simply a kingdom of words?
Jesus himself said the kingdom was like a sower who went out to sow seeds. (This does not sound like slacktivism!) Or as the apostle Paul writes eloquently elsewhere, “The kingdom of God is not in words.” What do they mean by this? And how might it answer both the skeptic who thinks religion is all talk and the Christian who reduces the kingdom to words and laws?
For starters I think it means that the kingdom isn’t calling for slacktivists, and that nothing we embrace with spirit and truth can be reduced to words or sermons or the ease of outrage. The kingdom Jesus presents is far more alive than this. More experiential. More whole.
One of my favorite stories of Jesus is in the way he responds to Mary and Martha after their brother has died. When he walks up to Martha, she is full of pain and essentially asks, “Jesus where were you? If you would have come my brother wouldn’t have died.” And Jesus gives her an answer. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life and the one who believes in me will not die. Your brother will rise again.” Jesus gives Martha what he knew she needed, an answer to an honest question. But then Mary comes up to Jesus and asks the exact same question. “Jesus where were you? If you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Here are two different people asking the same question. And Jesus understands that they need different answers. With Martha he gives her a rational answer. With Mary, he doesn’t say anything. It is the shortest verse in the Bible, in fact. We are simply told that Jesus wept. This was his response to her question. He knew she didn’t need words; she needed a more intuitive response. She needed to know that he heard and shared her pain.
Jesus takes these two identical questions and he knows they don’t need the same answers; they don’t just need words, they need a person, they need a kingdom. He could have told both of them to hold on, that he was about to perform a miracle and call Lazarus out of the grave. But he didn’t rush to that. He heard their questions and gave them a kingdom that is far more than words.
This is a cause worth dropping everything to join. Of course, it will also cost our very lives.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Monica Hesse, “Facebook Activism: Lots of Clicks, but Little Sticks,” The Washington Post, July 2, 2009.