Before my annual missiology lectures begin next week, I don’t just have to update my lessons and presentations this week. I also need to sort my thoughts on what happened last week, and my blog is a great place to do so.
On Thursdays, when I usually work for ALT* a maximum of four people are currently present in flesh and blood at the local study center. During the lunch break, however, there are regular lively discussions about current issues such as the pandemic or the siege of the US Capitol and how all of this should be interpreted. It’s great to be able to talk to real people, and I regularly hope for some I do not agree with, those who have completely different opinions. Because paradoxically it’s them who often hold up a mirror to me.
Little humility, much conviction
For example, I notice that we Christians – and I have to include myself here – have a tendency to use powerful words with little humility and much conviction. Words we hardly understand in depth. “Antichrist” or “Christian persecution” are some of them. They actually experienced a real renaissance in 2020, all their synonyms included. At the mentioned lunch table, once a pastor proudly read to the small lunch community his letter in which he called on his congregation to boldly oppose against the “persecution of worship” caused by the government’s corona restrictions. One might like to forgive him that he probably was ill that day many years ago when his former teacher at the Bible seminar went through the letter of Romans and taught that is was written probably in AD 57, which is right during the reign of a notorious Roman emperor. It’s so easy to lose sight of little details like that. Fact is, however, that neither the pastor, nor his congregation, nor any of us Christians in the West have ever experienced anything like the persecution of our brothers and sisters during that mentioned time in AD 54-68, and who were challenged by Paul in Romans 13 to bravely submit to their authority named Nero anyway! If those sisters and brothers of ours who then allowed themselves to be led into the arenas of death – half-naked, non-violent and singing – heard our arguments today, well, they would probably only look at us in pity and silence.
“Censorship” is another word with a steep career at the moment. Maybe not quite as deadly, but still fierce. But here, too, the question creeps up on me, how many who speak emphatically of today’s “censorship” have ever experienced real censorship – I mean comparable to real persecution. Censorship also goes back to the Romans, who invented the word in the first place and with it the profession of censor. As long as one does not speak of self-censorship, censorship has always meant only one thing for millennia: the explicit limitation of the freedom of information and speech by the state and its authorities. Clearly, it would be censorship for a president to block the Twitter account of a private person or a private company. But it is not censorship if a private person or a private company blocks a president. Twitter is no authority of the state, and as a private company it is in no way restricting the legally anchored freedom of speech and information. The president is still as free to share his thoughts and give speeches and press conferences or interviews from morning to evening. The blocking – even if the German Chancellor sees it as “problematic” – is not censorship because every company has the freedom and the right to set up and comply with its own rules as long as they comply with the applicable legislation. Twitter did nothing else. How to assess or rate Twitter’s decisions is a completely different topic, but censorship it is not.
The power of social media
Of course, one has to raise the question why a few private companies have so much power in the first place – power that enables them to influence world politics. But we won’t find any easy answers, even if we Christians truly love simple explanations. I’m looking at it from a European perspective, so we need to start with pointing out that the history, culture and legal situation in the countries where most of the social media are rooted and located, like China or the US, are completely different. (For this very reason, social media rarely comes from Europe.) Now you could easily demonize companies like Google or people like Zuckerberg and Dorsey because they have so much power, more than many politicians in the world. But if you want to scold someone, well, go on, but you should know there is only one place in the world where it is really appropriate to do so: the bathroom. We should read the riot act properly to the person in the mirror. Because here is the one who feeds the power of social media on a daily basis. Besides, it’s the only person you can really change. So you’d better start preparing your pedagogically valuable sermon for the bathroom soon.
Speaking of the sermon, don’t forget to mention Luke 22:24-27, one of Jesus’ key messages about power issues. A text that has been completely forgotten and hardly highlighted since the church married the inventors of the censor. Accordingly, for almost 1700 years it has always been difficult for us Christians to live out Luke 22:26 and to renounce all power. We believe we have a right to church, and yes, we actually do. Just as Jesus, the most powerful of all, had a right not to be crucified. But because we like to insist on our rights, we hope for those who’d help us to our rights and rant about those who spoil them for us. We’re truly so busy with our entitlements that we easily to forget how Jesus, whom we claim to follow, handled his rights: He literally hung it up. I think such a passage should definitely be part of a sermon on matters of power.
Do not forget to come up with a few practical examples of how your target group in the mirror can live this out in everyday life.
Well, as the new missiology course is approaching, the most recent events actually do confirm many of the thoughts I carried around already last year: In the future, credible mission can only come from a position of church powerlessness. In contrast to the history of missions, which often enough went hand in hand with imperialism and military force, we will have to be stripped of our privileges in the future. Only then can we do again what our Lord is doing as we are no longer distracted from what we can do ourselves.
* Academy of Leadership and Theology, a network of six study centers spread across the country. Personally, I work there on Thursdays (additionally on Wednesdays during the missiology course).