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Social justice and social media: A Disciples perspective

August 29, 2013
By Verity A. Jones

This is the third in a seven-week series on Social justice and social media.

Using social media tools for social justice efforts should come somewhat easily for people in my tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). But some of us have been slow to adopt the practices.

Disciples, as we call ourselves, identify as part of the mainline Protestant traditions. We may be a smaller denomination than the Presbyterian Church (USA) or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but we have much in common with these mainline siblings, including a bent toward historical criticism in Biblical studies, ecumenical openness, and social justice.

However, we Disciples like to say about ourselves (whether it is historically accurate or not) that our tradition was the first born on the American frontier of the nineteenth century. Our forebears were not sent from Europe to establish a Reformed or Anglican foothold in the new world, like so many mainline churches today. In fact, early Disciples rebelled against such colonial establishments, instead pursuing a passion for Christian unity among those churches vying for prominence.

The tenth edition of Mead and Hill’s Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Abingdon Press, 1995) says it well: “Among the dozen largest groups in the United States, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) might be called the most American” (p.95).

Wanting to free themselves from the doctrinal claims that separated them from other European Christians, these early Disciples pursued Christian unity by looking to the Bible. A favorite early saying was, “No creed but Christ. No book but the Bible.” Historian Mark Noll in his work, America’s God (Oxford University Press, 2002), explores the impact of nineteenth-century American ideology that shaped, and was shaped by, rapidly growing evangelical traditions (in which he puts early Disciples). He describes them as groups that “rejected ecclesiastical tradition, inherited authority, and historical confessions to insist upon the Bible and born-again human conscience as the primary religious authorities” (p. 161).

Disciples’ ecclesiology is congregation based. Clerical authority derives from the bottom up and has a heavy emphasis on education. A leader’s authority is at least partially dependent upon his or her power to persuade, hence the proliferation of journals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which church members debated theology and practice. Disciples have another saying that goes something like, “We don’t have bishops; we have editors.”

In this context, twenty-first century Disciples’ commitment to social justice makes sense. Not only does the Biblical call to care for the aliens, orphans, and widows (i.e., the vulnerable and dispossessed), ground Disciples in humanitarian ministries, but also the American ethos of self-determination fits with Disciples’ value for freedom, access to information, and self-government. Additionally, Disciples have a rich theological and ethical tradition that elevates God’s love for “the world” and God’s desire for peace and equal respect among the people.

So how do Disciples engage social media for social justice? Much like the rest of America: Some are cautious and skeptical, but some denominational leaders, pastors and church members are leaning into ministry in a digital world. Disciples could warm to the patterns of social media easier than some other traditions. We do not have a rigid hierarchy. We value being informed and educated. We invest the people with the power to drive decisions. We think social justice is what the Bible asks of us. We insist on an open table, excluding none. We want a better a world for all of God’s people.

Social media requires us to think differently about how we might go about social justice. Now, with the advent of social media, a campaign like Dan Savages’ It Gets Better initiative that encourages young LGBT people who have been bullied can go from one YouTube video in late 2010 to over 50,000 videos and 50 million views in 2013. That’s 50,000 expressions of hope shared virtually around the world with lightning speed. Knocking on doors is not required. Expensive overseas travel is no longer the only way to encourage the peaceful sharing of cultures. Witnessing can happen in very short video segments and make a world of difference, today.

In a previous post, I cited Arianna Huffington who cautioned the social media-crazed media not to fetishize social media tools as goods in and of themselves. What content is shared via social media makes all the difference. Likewise, we ought not demonize social media tools in and of themselves either.

Social media are not the new social justice. But they can help us participate in movements of social justice in powerful new ways.

Verity A. Jones is the executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, and project director of the New Media Project which is now part of this new Center.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.


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