Kyndall Rae Rothaus: Slacktivism is not social justice

BigStock / AndyKatz / Composite by Claire Doyle Ragin

The internet is a powerful tool for speaking out, giving voice to the voiceless. But we cannot change the world from behind a computer screen, writes a Baptist pastor. We still have to get our hands dirty.

If you grew up as a woman, a minority or an eccentric of any type, you probably had to fight to find your voice. If you have any trait or characteristic that is easily stigmatized, you know how difficult it can be to break the silence. And you know how liberating it can be to make your voice heard.

Today’s internet has become a powerful tool for speaking out. It has given voice to the voiceless by providing virtually everyone a platform -- whether or not the powers that be have approved the message.

Even so, we ought not mistake our online activity for social activism. Let’s not confuse a rant with a social cause or an angry spat with an internet troll with meaningful dialogue. Just because we are sitting and typing in air-conditioned comfort doesn’t mean we are “doing our part.”

And yes, I am sitting cozily on my couch as I write. Irony noted.

Consider this: Martin Luther King Jr. was a phenomenal speaker whose words had the power to persuade people, to move a nation to change. But would his eloquence have been as powerful had he not been jailed so many times in loyalty to his cause?

If King had not led marches and participated in boycotts, if he had not been willing to risk his own comfort and safety, would the world have listened? Without his actions, and the actions of many others, would his words alone have transformed America?

The lure of technology is the myth that we can change the world from behind a computer screen. We cannot. Change will always require getting our hands dirty.

Posting a timely article about the refugee crisis or an intelligent critique of an adversary’s position doesn’t make you morally superior. Opinion-giving is not the same thing as doing justice.

Airing opinions too aggressively or too often can even thwart justice by making enemies out of would-be partners. Instead of bringing people together to strategize solutions, it can polarize, adding fuel to the fires of dissension rather than forging new relationships.

It’s not that social media can never be used well. It can. Speaking up is valuable.

Finding your voice, however, is about more than words. Finding your voice is about finding the message your life wants to tell the world.

Learn the art of silence so that when you do speak, it will matter more. Live what you preach, and if you’re not living it, stop preaching it.

If you really care about an issue, don’t rant. Get involved.

Give up an hour or two of your weekly internet time and volunteer. Use the voice of your body. Move towards solutions and actions. Take long breaks from talking and wait for inspiration. Follow through on what you say you believe.

In the Bible, God often asked the prophets to do crazy things like preach naked or eat scrolls -- as a way of sending a message and challenging the status quo. While we’re not asked to do that (thank goodness), we do have to put our lives where our mouths are.

Sometimes preachers in particular feel pressured to comment on every social issue and significant news item, to be aware of the wide world and articulate about the church’s response. But it’s not the preacher’s job to be a social commentator. It’s the preacher’s job to be a prophet. There is a difference.

Social commentators are always ready to say something about everything. They often pretend to have more expertise than the experts. They strive to be pithy and original, witty and thought-provoking, challenging yet likeable -- at least, likeable enough to draw in listeners or readers.

Compare them with the biblical prophets, who were usually hated. They didn’t say something about everything. They spent long periods in the wilderness, in exile and in solitude, listening for God.

They were not very popular. Yes, they regularly challenged the status quo, but not to impress others with their insight and righteousness. They didn’t speak up to be perceived as brilliant or possessed of some elusive sixth sense. Prophets challenged the status quo because they had a fire shut up in their bones that could not be extinguished.

Prophets are not called to be bloggers. The goal of ministry is not to achieve online fame or have our posts liked, shared and retweeted. Our ministry is to seek justice, do good, rescue the oppressed, defend the marginalized -- and that doesn’t mean just talking about social problems. It means entering the fray and suffering with, as Jesus did.

God did not stay safely behind a computer screen posting messages of importance to the world. Neither should we. We need to stop making idols out of commentary and building shrines to our own ideas. Let’s stop worshipping the false gods of strong opinions and savvy critique, as if they will save us.

We don’t have to quit the internet, but we do need to fast from it -- regularly. Make certain that your justice runs deeper than your fingertips, all the way to your feet.

Examine your motives. Do your words come from the heart or from the ego, from love or from fear? When you encounter an opposing opinion online, do you become an internet bully? Do you try to control people or change their views by mocking them, belittling their beliefs, calling them names? Do you foster friendships or war?

Yes, it can feel like a dogfight out there; sometimes we must fight for justice. But how will we fight? With inflammatory speech or right action? With sarcasm or grace? With incessant chatter or carefully chosen words? Do we try to shame people into agreeing with us or do we start movements and invite others to join?

What is our mission? To win arguments? To win the internet game? Or to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, as Jesus did?