Interesting times

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It’s now clear that we live in the proverbial interesting times.

Long-established dictatorships in the Middle East crumbled within a matter of months in the face of mass non-violent assembly - although nobody is yet sure quite what happens next. That doesn’t happen all the time. Entire European economies are failing in slow motion. Tens of thousands of people are currently right now in protest at… well, basically at the whole way Western society works. Sure, that happened to some degree with the student protests in the 1960s, but this is global. The relationships and even the rules of international diplomacy are being rewritten as a result of a small bunch of volunteers who believe that information wants to be free, and they’re not alone in that belief.

Each of those is a once-in-a-generation thing, and they’re all happening at once. I think all this means that we’re sitting on an inflection point, the kind of thing that keeps the history books interesting.

The common factor, of course, is the Internet, or more specifically, the rise of the Network Society. We’re now seeing the outworking of all the theory. I can’t help but wonder what the theological implications of this are.

I don’t just mean the practical implications in terms of the way we do mission; we’re already seeing traditional mission organisations rearrange themselves into globalised networks, and it is now pretty much a cliché to talk about mission being from everywhere to everywhere. We’re almost beyond even that. What I mean is the way the Gospel itself sees these changes.

I think half of the picture is provided by liberation theology, which highlights a God who stands peacefully but unceasingly with the oppressed against their oppressors; which reminds us that structures can be sinful as well as individual acts; and which follows a Jesus sold out by a greedy backstabber, manipulated by a religio-political elite, tried under an unjust system, and executed by an invading power. Yeah, I think that has quite a bit to say to the world right now.

But it’s not the whole story. The thing about the network is that the balance of power is shifting. Knowledge is power, but knowledge is now democratized. Ancient priestly castes maintained their position by being the only ones who knew the incantations to appease the gods; authority was derived from secrecy. Now the incantations are available to everyone. If they’re not on the Internet already, someone will put them there soon. So power is shifting from hierarchical to horizontal structures. Bosch saw this about to happen in the Church as well:

The movement away from ministry as the monopoly of ordained men to ministry as the responsibility of the whole people of God, ordained as well as non-ordained, is one of the most dramatic shifts taking place in the church today.

We expect less power distance from our leaders. We want them to explain themselves to us. We want, ideally, to be leaders with them.

I think on the whole this is positive. The new covenant brought a radical change in the nature of relationships within God’s people, emphasising the breaking down of traditional barriers and rivalries between Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women. The recognition that “all are one in Christ Jesus” cannot but move us to a more equal society.

But at the same time we need to ask whence, and from what motives, does this desire for power-sharing arise. Where the desire for information, for consultation and for involvement purely arises as an attempt to gain and gather power for oneself - count me in, because my views are important - it needs to be seen for what it really is, an expression of greed and pride. At the start of his ministry, Jesus faced the temptation to achieve quick wins by sharing power, and promptly rejected it. He made it clear that his path was a way which involved sharing powerlessness.

On the other hand, counterbalancing this we have moved from the modernist concept of the emancipated individual towards a recognition of our interdependence. Because we know that we are stronger in networks, we are more cautious about how we see ourselves apart from networks. Julian Assange had an idea, but he didn’t change history; he and his network did. Wael Ghonim said that in the Egyptian uprising, there were no heroes because everyone was a hero. But conversely, if everyone was a hero, then no-one was a hero. In networks, we’re amazing, but individually, we’re just not that great any more. If we lose the network, who are we?

I think theologically we have to re-emphasise the image of God in every individual, the createdness and dignity of each person. But I’m aware that’s also a very Western way of reading the Bible, and the Biblical authors would hardly conceive of the individual outside of the context of their relationships and networks - which is also a much more postmodern way to see it. I think we also have to rediscover the role of social networks, families and kinship groups within the Biblical narrative if we are to tell the stories of the Bible faithfully to this generation and faithfully to their own context. Too often we read the Bible in the tradition of the Great Man theory of history: a set of stories about the “heroes of faith”, Moses, or Joshua, or David. Is there another way?

Those outside of the network feel themselves marginalised and powerless, and I think there is a message of the Gospel to them: that they are not alone, and God is with them. As we saw above, powerlessness by the world’s standards is not powerlessness in the Kingdom. Throughout the Bible God constantly brings those on the outside into His network, whether it be creating a people for Himself, or bringing the alien and stranger such as Ruth into a place of esteem and care, or eating with (and hence esteeming) the tax collector and prostitute. I do not think it is too far a stretch to claim that God gathers the disconnected into networks - in fact, I think this is a contemporary reading of Ps 68:6.

These have been a few initial thoughts, but we need so much more engagement than this. I would really love to see more theologians deal with the network society and speak the Gospel into today’s situation.