What do Jesus and Paul have in Common with Twitter Activism

Originally posted at Gathering Voices, TheThoughtfulChristian.com

Twitter is not simply a tool for organizing or a space to share random thoughts. Like any significant technology, it alters our behavior and even thought patterns. How one seeks to organize across the globe has been changed by twitter (for more on how twitter works and issues related to hashtag #activism see the recent In the News).

The creation of key phrases or aphoristic, value-laden slogans have been around for centuries. Jesus and Paul are examples of social networkers who benefitted from the viral spread of information. Jesus arrived in towns to something like a flashmob today. People spread stories and quotes attributed to Jesus that built a persona recorded today in scripture. The red line bibles look like an early version of twitter feed. Paul, might be better understood as a blogger with all his short letter style writing. But he too knew how to not only raise awareness of Jesus’s story and this newly forming religion; he knew how to motivate a group of often random individuals to become a community with a shared cause. Similar to what most twitter activism seeks out with its # slogans and viral spread.

The spread of such networks and formation of communities reaches new levels with digital social media. Given the speed and possible anonymity, great harm can be done. There are plenty of reported examples of harm such as the homophobic tweets that Michael Sam received after kissing his boyfriend on ESPN when selected in the NFL draft or the onslaught of tweets that women of color receive when they speak up against sexual violence. Some would say that the instantaneous quality of twitter leads to people posting and forwarding without thinking first. Others would say it just allows people to see another’s true colors.  Still others question how those with privilege often co-opt a movement on behalf of under-represented voices. This issue was particularly salient in the recent #BringBackOurGirls campaign in response to the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria.

On the other hand, when celebrities and government officials publicized the lack of response to the kidnapping, international pressure resulted in action. Twitter like any other network of people, form of communication, and open space for the public is not free from the same oppressive forces that shape our everyday lives. Twitter can be used to reinforce inequality or counter it; it can have massive immediate impacts or be overlooked in a nanosecond. One positive aspect of Twitter is its democratic, open format that often magnifies and networks those in a minority group.

Twitter activism is not the silver bullet of social justice (no matter how quickly it travels). Rather, similar to the canon of Scripture and those writings left out, twitter might offer a view to the values and movements that various communities and even global connections support today. As Andrea Grimes writes,

Activist hashtags, while they may be fleeting, and they may require a bare minimum of engagement from many, also act as memory markers, identifiers and names for mercurial moments and movements that shape our present and our future, but which might otherwise be obscured by the passage of time, as so often happens to our work when it happens online. This is not a failure of online activism itself, but a failure of humans to find good ways to achieve it.

Paul and Jesus might be equally surprised to find the histories that are recorded by their endeavors to build community and speak against the status quo. It seems no matter what point in history or what medium of communication, humanity has yet to perfect the task of bringing about the kind of community and justice that Jesus and later Paul envision in passages such as the Beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12) or the radical inclusivity named in Galatians (3: 26-28). Thankfully, there seems no end to those who continue to work toward this vision.

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