A popular group on Facebook hosted a collection of people very much opposed to the destruction of an historic fountain in downtown Copenhagen. The name of the group could be translated: “No to the Demolition of the Stork Fountain.” Its members’ outrage filled its Facebook wall. The creator of the group urgently spoke of the need for action, sounding 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 call “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 brief participation. Of course, we may very well be impassioned slacktivists (the social media vitriol over the demolition of the Stork Fountain or the acquittal of Casey Anthony was alarming), but they are really just words. Other social media vitriol, like that after the recent killing of Cecil the Zimbabwean Lion, escalates to worrisome tirades.
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 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. 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 right 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—which does not sound like slacktivism! Or, as the apostle Paul writes elsewhere, “The kingdom of God is not in words.” What do they mean? And how does 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. Far more whole.
One of my favorite stories of Jesus is in the way he responds to Mary and Martha after their brother has died. Martha is full of pain and essentially asks Jesus where he has been. “If you would have come my brother wouldn’t have died.” Jesus gives her an answer to that question. He responds by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life and the one who believes in me will not die. Your brother will rise again.” When Mary approaches Jesus she 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 intuitively understands that they need different answers. With Martha he gives a rational answer. With Mary, he doesn’t say anything. He simply weeps. He knew she didn’t need words; she needed a more intuitive response. She needed to know that the human Son of God heard and shared her lament.
Jesus comes at us with far more than words to offer, more than a moral system, a set of principles, or fleeting causes. He offers a vicariously human savior, a safe place in the kingdom of God, and the overwhelming hope of new creation. He could have given Mary and Martha a lesson in theology or told them to stop crying or asking questions because he was about to perform a miracle and call their brother out of the grave. But he didn’t rush there. Instead, he heard their questions and he offered the hand of a friend within a safe and inviting kingdom that is more than words. Slacktivists of the world, this is a cause that is worth dropping everything to join.
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.