Social Media, Feminism and Public Writing (@ the Table: “Feminism Online,” Part 2)
We live in an increasingly public world where our lives are more and more lived in and touched by the public. What we wear, what we eat, where we are going, with whom we are hanging around are just some of the things which are becoming increasingly easy for the world to see and observe. With the rise of social media, our way of being and living can be followed and displayed for the world to see, if we let it.
Our lives are always on public display, even if we don’t intend them to be. And our public opinions matter. Justine Sacco learned this lesson in a most public and embarrassing way. Right before the public relations official boarded an international flight to South Africa, she tweeted an offensive message on Twitter about AIDS. While the plane was in the air, her tweet became viral and sparked worldwide outrage, outrage that eventually cost her job.1 A public voice can come with public costs.
Theology should be a “critical reflection on the beliefs and practices of the faith community out of which it arises”2 Theological reflection must not be ignored or neglected but must take precedence in one’s life, community, and church. It should be an important task of the individual believer as well as the church’s responsibility to engage in theological reflection. The faith community’s responsibility is to be engaged in critical reflection which takes seriously the issues of the day precisely because these are matters of life and death. When another African American unarmed boy or man is shot down by a police officer, when another woman is raped, when wars break out and innocent children are killed, theologians are called to try to make sense of these events.
Theologians must seek out God and God’s face in this broken world so that we can offer some fleeting glimpse of understanding, hope, and peace. Our writings need to encourage the broken-hearted and the downtrodden so that even in their depths of pain, they may see God and recognize God in each other. This makes it crucial for every theologian to engage in public writing. When theology becomes irrelevant, then theology is dead, and God’s voice is stilled.
Theologians are always informed by their circumstances and events shaping the world around them. “A responsible theologian is guided by deliberations on the historic themes of faith, by scripture and tradition, by worship, and by engaged service in the world.”3 These important aspects need to guide and shape the public theological discourse. Theology seeks to understand life. Theology tries to make sense of what we do and the difference between what is wholeness to be relished and what is an illness to be opposed.
It takes a great investment of time and effort to write for a wider audience. Is it worth it? When all things are taken into consideration, writing publicly is necessary and crucial for ministers today as it may be exactly how God will communicate the good news through you in a rapidly changing world.
Our audiences are on the Internet. They are tweeting. They are on Facebook. They are writing and reading blogs. In order to reach out to those who do not enter our churches, we need to adapt our forms of outreach and begin to take seriously our task of writing for an audience that does not share our vocabulary, assumptions, or contexts. We must write to convince rather than to chide. We have to remember that God is in the public sphere, not locked up in our churches. God is among the poor, the hungry, the outcast, and the marginalized. Our writing should also be out there where God is. When our writing is specifically out where God is, then it becomes more meaningful, enlightening, and empowering.
As a theologian, it is important that you try to make use of media to help share news of hope, justice, peace, and love. Chances are there are more people out in the media-saturated world listening to us than people sitting in our pews and classrooms.
In a media saturated society, the media has become our podiums and pulpits. It has become the backdrop and the medium of our messages. More people read media reports than read theological textbooks. More listen to and view media outlets than hear our sermons. That means, of course, that if our message from the pulpit is out of touch with these other sources, our message will not be taken seriously.
Furthermore, it is crucial for women to be part of the conversation and be engaged in online discussions. For too long, women’s voices have been absent in theological discourses and church history. Christianity and theology has been male dominated as evident in our church doctrines, church history and history of theology.
As the online theological forums are burgeoning, it is important that women’s voices are not eliminated, silenced or discarded. Women are making important strides in religious discourses as women work towards equality and justice. The Internet should be no exception to where women can continue to work and make an impact. With critical feminist engagement, women can offer new insights, perspectives and understandings of religion and Christianity that are often missed and ignored by men. Women’s participation in online theological and religious discourse is more important now than ever as gender equality and women’s rights are debated in the public sphere.
In short, we, both women and men are called today to become public theologians who will engage in public writing. Our lives, our thoughts, our ideas should make an impact on the world around us. Our understanding and practice should influence the world around us so that together we can all participate in building the reign of God here on earth that will be just, equal and welcoming of all people.
1 See Ashley Southall, “A Twitter Message about AIDS, Followed by a Firing and an Apology,” The New York Times, December 20, 2013. (Accessed September 6, 2014).
This piece is adapted from my book chapter, “Writing Publicly” in Writing Theologically, edited by Eric Barreto (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).