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Taking Up Our Cross?

Ordinary Sunday 13, 26 June, 2011
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Jesus, I suspect, would not have entirely approved of Facebook.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am an enthusiastic user of Facebook which has grown, as I imagine you know, into a social media phenomenon over the last few years. Not least among those aged 55 and older, who during 2009 were the largest age group taking up membership of the site. I keep in touch with a lot of my ex-students via Facebook, although I'm guessing my presence there is a sign of just how terminally uncool it is becoming and I'd imagine Gen Y will soon bail out for the next new thing leaving it, like email, a middle-aged person's technology. My experience of Facebook has been overwhelmingly positive but, as I say, I think there are aspects of it that would not have impressed Jesus.

And these are not the things you might initially think. There's very little evidence for instance, that users of social media are socially isolated or disconnected in "real life". Significantly, though, Facebook and related technologies have allowed bullying behaviour to spread online in the phenomenon called "cyber-bullying". This can be appallingly damaging, but the criticism I'm suggesting is more subtle than that.

Let me give you an example.

A few weeks some of my ex-students, who are still pupils of the school at which I formerly taught, posted pictures of their arms with hearts drawn on them in Texta. It was part of a Facebook campaign to raise awareness of, and express support for, young people with mental illness. Now it sounds a fraction curmudgeonly to criticise them for that and, indeed, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to make this problem more visible. But at the end of the process what has been achieved? The work of helping a young person with a mental illness is hard going — whether you're a parent, sibling, teacher, counsellor or friend. It's a challenging, difficult, frustrating and sacrificial business. It can make you angry, depressed and despairing. What it doesn't do — at least in my experience — is give you a smug inner glow. And that's what worries me about these sort of Facebook campaigns — the point seems to be more about making the participants feel virtuous than about doing anything tough to fix the problem.

This issue was identified last year by the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, in an article which criticised the media obsession with the role of social media such as Twitter in the failed Iranian popular uprising. Gladwell describes the energy, bravery, persistence and commitment displayed by the young African-Americans who sought desegregation in places like Greensboro North Carolina during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. He goes on to point out (and I quote):

The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, "We wouldn't necessarily gauge someone's value to the advocacy movement based on what they've given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It's not something you can measure by looking at a ledger." In other words, Facebook activism succeeds, not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro. [1]

And we are a long way from 'whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me'. Jesus' demand here is clear and unambiguous. Matthew's audience would have been under no illusions — following Jesus means that the cross we are expected to carry is the one to which we can expect to be nailed. 'Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.' The mandate we are given here as Christians should warn us that the Christian life, as opposed to what Gladwell calls 'Facebook activism', demands sacrifices of us.

The motivation for Facebook activism, I suggest, is the desire to feel good about ourselves. It's so easy to "like" a page dedicated to eliminating prejudice against the mentally ill. One click and you can feel virtuous all day. As opposed to carrying the cross of genuinely supporting a depressed or psychotic family member. And this sort of thing doesn't just happen online. I think the Baillieu government's abandonment of the requirement for state events to include an acknowledgment of traditional ownership is a retrograde step. But you don't have to be Andrew Bolt to suspect that some of the appeal of such a ceremony is that it allows the participants to feel good about themselves without having to, you know, actually sacrifice anything to make life better for Indigenous people. Or as I have said to my Year 9 students — silicon wristbands will not save the world. There's a certain irony that, in a world so damaged by Western consumerism, one of the most significant sorts of activism appears to be buying more stuff — go to this concert, buy that right-on slogan t-shirt, go on this consciousness-raising trip to a Third World country — as if they didn't have enough problems already.

I sometimes wonder if this sort of mindset lies behind the oft-repeated contemporary mantra, "I'm not religious but I'm spiritual." I don't wish to disparage those who are trying to work out a meaningful spirituality outside the context of institutional religion, but I suspect this idea is too often a code for "I want to feel spiritual but I don't want a religion that might make actual demands on me." And of course, this is the accusation levelled at those of us of a liberal Christian persuasion by our more conservative brethren — sometimes with justification.

This is not the vision with which Jesus presents us. The Christian life — or, I'm sure Gladwell would argue, properly committed secular activism — demands far more of us. 'Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.' Where does this sort of faux-activism fit in with that confronting statement? Could it be that doing something because it makes me feel virtuous and good about myself has more in common with what Jesus calls trying to find my life? After all my actions under those circumstances are really all about me — not about losing my life for Jesus' sake. After the spiritual re-charge of the music and liturgy and fellowship at Mass, do I sometimes forget that I have to pick up my cross in the narthex?

Now we've got to be honest. All of us have mixed motives and there's a point at which self-analysis of our actions can become neurotic. And we can turn to the martyrs' window for one vision of lifting our cross to follow Jesus — but all of us, I'm sure could turn around now and point to a person who embodies that call in another way. Jesus is pointing, not necessarily to a life of spectacular self-abnegation, but to the sort of quiet persistent refusal to place oneself at the centre of the universe that we can all recognise as holy when we see it. Like the Shunemite woman, to welcome a righteous person in the name of a righteous person. Or even to give a cup of cold water to one of these little ones. To pick up our cross and lug it one more day down the road. Knowing that the road to the resurrection takes us past Calvary.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Notes:

1. Malcolm Gladwell, Small Change,
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell#ixzz1PuCbnika


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