It began, paradoxically, in 2010, with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia. He set himself alight to protest his treatment by the authorities; within weeks the resulting public outrage had lead to Tunisia’s president resigning and fleeing the country. The dominoes began to fall across the Middle East, becoming known as the Arab Spring; the protests continue throughout the region and have become increasingly violent in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain.
Then there were protests across Europe, in Greece and Spain and elsewhere. The motivation behind these was more economic and financial, in the shadow of bankers’ bonuses and austerity for the rest of us.
Then there were riots in London. These seem to have been more apolitical and criminal, but it’s hard not to draw a connection between them and the social unrest spreading throughout the rest of the world. They stopped as suddenly as they started, but prompted a tremendous outpouring of community spirit in reaction against the violence and disorder.
The latest protest movement has sprung up in America, with the initial ‘Occupy Wall Street’ demonstrations going viral across the States; we’ll see how this evolves over the next few days and weeks.
These events have been triggered by, and run parallel to, the failure of major institutions – politics, finance, media – to act with restraint, foresight or compassion, and while I don’t think the Church (with a capital C) is quite in that boat, it’s naive to think it doesn’t have something to learn from all this. I’m no expert on any of this (read the rest of my blog, it’s pretty Jack-Of-All-Trades-Master-Of-None), but I figure there are at least three points that the Church can learn from…
(Churches like information to be delivered in three points. Preferrably all starting with the same letter, but I couldn’t manage that, sorry!)
The first is the internet. While it’s not true to say that all this is a worldwide youth revolution, it’s accurate to say that social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, have been the heartbeat of many of the movements that have erupted. Following the riots in London and the rest of the UK, there seemed to be a sense in which politicians were blaming the technology rather than the users, and this is key to understanding the internet’s role in all this – it’s an absolutely fantastic communication tool, but it’s value-neutral – how the technology is used is what matters, and effective use of social media depends on interactivity. This can be a bit hard for the Church to wrap its head around – after all, for years the primary formal method of Christian communication was through the sermon, which tends to pretty much be a one-way street. This is echoed by other examples of Old Media – newspapers, television, radio, books. The internet is interactive, and you can’t use it effectively without being adapting to this. Having 10,000 Twitter followers is great, but its not really a measure of success if all you do is make pronouncements to them every so often. All those followers are following a bunch of other people too, and your message will soon find itself at the bottom of a long list of other messages – many of which may be much more fun than yours.
The internet is a good metaphor for the next point – we’re living in a networked world. The protests exist within a context of crumbling authority, where many people feel disenfranchised and powerless in the shadow of faceless institutions. The protests are mostly self-organised, like-minded people getting together to do what needs to be done in spite of authority, not with its blessing – it’s the unexpected flipside of the UK Coalition Government’s ‘Big Society’. Now, some churches are better adapted to dealing with this sort of mindset than others – if you’re dependent on strong, centralised authority, then you may need to think carefully of where that’s going to take you over the next few years. On the other hand, I’m a Methodist, and we’ve always been big on the idea of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ – while ministers/presbyters are the professional end of our community, we’ve all got important roles and responsibilities. This would seem to lend itself well to more networked societies – heck, my church has been operating this model for years by accident – so it’s got to be worth thinking about. Yes, there are issues of accountability to consider, but isn’t that why they developed cell groups?
(Also, think about what Christ’s ‘network’ looked like – the working class, social outcasts, the radicalised. How would that be mirroed in 2011?)
The last point – humility. Yes, this is a strange one to end with, but stick with me. Look at the ways institutions have reacted to the protests – with violence in the worst cases, with disinterest in others, and with the protesters being dismissed as some sort of criminal sub-group. But the fact is, banks have played fast and loose with the global economy. The media have hacked phones and peddled fear. Politicians do seem more interested in protecting big business interests before grassroots communities. That’s not meant to dismiss the value of the institutions or the many good and decent individuals who work within them, but there needs to be a visible and genuine acknowledgement of the many flaws that have been exposed over recent months. We need to rediscover humility and repentance in the public sphere, and as those are meant to be key Christian virtues, the Church should be all over this. It starts with us though – we have to acknowledge the times that the Church has failed to follow Christ’s command to look out for the poor and needy, we have to admit we have too much money tied up in investments and not being released to where it could do the most good. Most damningly, the Vatican could more to address issues relating to child abuse. Confession, repentance, resolve to get it right in future with the help of God – these are engrained in Christianity’s DNA. We need to rediscover them.
Of course, these are only a few ideas, and the heavy thinking has to be – probably is being – done by people way smarter than me. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts – in a year where everything is in upheaval, and where society is undergoing what could be a seismic shift, where does the Church go from here?