By Rev. Dr. Jay Johnson
I learned something from social media over the last couple of weeks, something important about empire, distractions, and spiritual practice. Something about home.
It began with being amused by the online flap over Starbucks holiday cups – a “tempest in a coffee cup” as a friend rightly dubbed it. I toyed with the idea of photo-shopping my own holiday cup design and posting it on Facebook. Someone beat me to it. So I posted instead an image of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with a facetious rant about Rudolph as an ancient Christian symbol and how outraged I was that Starbucks had slighted such an important religious figure.
Then came Paris: Explosions. Shootings. Hostages.
So I posted some heart-felt messages of sympathy in rusty French. Since Paris holds a special place in my heart, I then posted a photo of the glorious stained glass windows in St. Chappelle from a trip I took there last year. Less than a day later, I followed the lead of many others online and changed my profile picture on Facebook to include a French flag. Dismayed that France began a retaliatory air strike in Syria barely two days after the Paris attacks, I changed my profile picture again, from the French flag to the Eiffel Tower as peace symbol.
In the midst of all this, my “Next Door” app on my smart phone registered posts about gun shots in my usually peaceful neighborhood in Richmond, California – about which I posted nothing.
Staying current (let alone correct) on social media is time-consuming and a potentially dangerous distraction. Worrying about coffee cups (including worrying about those who worry about it) gobbled up a lot of my energy without ever finding out who was actually worried about Starbucks launching a culture war against Christmas (was anyone, really?).
Worried about my profile pic in the wake of terrorism is only slightly less absurd than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. More to my chagrin, I realized that I had posted the French flag meme because I worried about whether I would ever feel safe again as a tourist in my beloved Paris – while ignoring my own backyard.
I should have been worrying about imperial power and how it relies frequently on distractions to sustain its reach and influence. More precisely, how the totalizing power of the modern nation-state, now governed by the financial interests of multinational corporations, distracts us with shiny things to buy and the promise to keep us safe enough to use them. Here are two examples of what I mean, drawn from reflecting on my own frenetic engagement with social media over the last couple of weeks:
Distraction Strategy #1: Focus on the design of a holiday cup rather than what’s inside the cup and how it got there. This matters because what’s in that cup is the product of human bodies harvesting beans, shipping them, roasting them, grinding them, brewing them, and serving them up as a venti latte (not to mention the bodies of cows who produced the milk). That’s a vast economic system for a single cup-o-joe, and the daisy-chain of exploitation it fosters is too long to recount here. If Christians focused on the bodily cost of a cup of coffee, we might come closer to what Christmas is actually about: the divine embrace of bodily life.
Distraction Strategy #2: Focus on the security of national borders and the solidarity of patriotism rather than the economic suffering wrought by global capitalism. This bothers me far more than the origins of my morning espresso, even though the two are related. To be sure, there is no simple cause of terrorism, yet the unprecedented power of the modern nation-state and the reach of its economic influence surely belong among the factors.
I am no expert in geo-political relations and I cannot fathom a solution to global violence. I do know this: When I worry most about whether I will be safe on my next tourist trek to Paris, I have been distracted from noticing the intricate economic systems of power in which I live that wreak havoc on countless people. This, too, is at the heart of what Christians will celebrate on December 25th – God’s own solidarity with all those most vulnerable to imperial occupation and colonization.
What then shall we do? I think we need to draw from the deep wells of the world’s religious traditions and develop some shared spiritual practices, practices that can help us “decolonize” our perceptions and actions.
As a Christian, I try to remember that Jesus of Nazareth was born into a colonized province of the Roman Empire. Many of his parables exposed the systems of social and economic domination wrought by imperial power and, even more, how spiritual practice can shape communities of resistance. (For an introduction to the counter-imperial postures of Jesus and early Christians, you could begin here or here).
The dynamics of that ancient empire remain, now cloaked in the guise of the modern nation-state and its totalizing economic system. That system colonizes nearly every aspect of our lives and relationships, not least in convincing so many of us that only violence will sustain the system and “keep us safe.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged us to remember that hate can never cast out hate; only love can do that. Dr. King put that insight into practice in a searing analysis of white supremacy in American culture. We must do the same, and add to it a commitment to unmask today’s totalizing power of the nation-state and its capacity to colonize our perceptions and imaginations; violence will not solve our current addiction to global violence—nor the potential violence in our own backyards.
The approaching “holy-day” season, replete with a rich array of religious traditions, offers an opportunity to channel our social media energy constructively. We need each other if we’re going to resist imperial distractions. Not only resist, but to engage with what Rabbi Michael Lerner has called a “Strategy of Generosity” to counter the fear and militarism infecting our globalized world.
That sounds like a tall order. Yet the great work of making the holidays holy can begin quite modestly. For me, it begins by connecting with my backyard neighbors – not just about gunshots but about their lives and families.
Reaching with compassion across the fence, physically or online, matters. At the very least, it can help us see complaints over the design of coffee cup for what they are – a distraction.