Salvation and Social Media

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Jesus died on the cross …

to free us from fear of what other people think…

… and from the danger of being misled by their flattery or adulation.

What is it like to be occupied by a foreign power … to be told that your culture is inferior and your God is powerless … to have every attempt at resistance beaten down and your leaders tortured and executed in the most brutal and degrading way?

Are you then in danger of believing what you are told, and even of blaming yourself for your foolishness?

That was the condition of the poorest in spirit in the Palestine of Jesus’s time.

And that was why they understood the Resurrection of Jesus as freedom now – from the mistake of believing that they had been forsaken by the God of their ancestors, the God of Moses who had freed the Israelites from the Egyptian Pharaoh.

It is time to recall what belief in the Resurrection originally meant, and still means:

We need not fear the judgment of other human beings, whoever they are – and will be foolish if we spend our lives in search of their approval.

How did we lose the original meaning of salvation?

How did it happen that Christian teachers today have so often forgotten the original meaning of ‘Salvation’ – and cannot explain the relevance of prayer to the epidemic of self-harm now ongoing via Internet social media?

For the earliest Christians the story of Jesus was ‘salvation’ right now – not just a promise of life after death. Occupied by an often brutal foreign power the Jews of Israel were in real danger of of internalising Rome’s judgement of them as an inferior people whose God had failed. It followed that a belief in Jesus’s resurrection was also a belief that Rome’s power lay at the mercy of the God of Israel and was ‘passing away’.

History was to prove them right. An empire that ruled by fear and the most cruel shaming had been overthrown where it most mattered – in the minds of a minority who were quick to pass on this electrifying news.

The same story of Jesus, amplified in the Gospels, also overturned the myths that wealth, health and social status were signs of God’s approval, while illness or misfortune or extreme poverty must be proof of God’s condemnation. The assumptions that sustained the social pyramids of the ancient world had all been thrown into question.

So, in their own lifetime many of ‘the poorest in spirit’ had become convinced that they had never been deserted by a transcendent power that knew them individually – and the world’s greatest empire had been proven a hopeless judge.

However, through the centuries this original understanding became dimmed, especially by a theology of atonement that implied that God was still dissatisfied by our sinfulness – identified mainly with our sexuality. St Anselm of Canterbury convinced many in Cur Deus Homo (1098) that God the Father sent Jesus to collect a debt on which we had defaulted, and that Jesus accepted crucifixion to repay this debt.

And then, in the 1500s, Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin developed the idea of Jesus as penal substitute, the one who accepted the extra punishment that must otherwise fall on ourselves – because the suffering that sin itself brings is not enough.

In this way the liberator God of the early Christians had become instead the Great Medieval Debt Collector who will send us to Hell for defaulting. No wonder this doesn’t make sense to so many of today’s young people.

Social Media – an Empire Built on Our Search for Recognition and Approval

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Its favourites are no longer the military heroes of the ancient world but the ‘silicon’ hardware and software icons of the Internet, and anyone else who can ‘influence’ its markets. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and “the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use”.

Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge has found that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls is even stronger.

“…The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.” (Washington Post, 16th Feb 2022)

Why the Phone Fixation?

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions – that our value and importance can be determined by the judgement of others. Disappointment and elation – obscurity or recognition – honour and shame – are in the power of a handheld device that will tell us at a glance where we stand.

Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are anyway vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is now well established. To believe in the Internet – or in media generally – as the arbiter of a person’s worth – is, for millions, to become poor in spirit all over again. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality and the real world.

And that is why we need to remind ourselves, constantly, through prayer, that we should never make ourselves the prisoners of the judgement of others.

What has the experience of media shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power broker of both honour and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option – to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honour’ as truly in the gift of other humans – and to identify that as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras – and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. If the Gospel story was not a revelation of that mistake – and of the fallibility of human judgement – even when all are in agreement – what was it?

Is not that mistake – the seeking of honour in the adulation of others – the root of all tyranny in all eras? Was not that the mistake of the sons of Zebedee also, and the root of all conflict?

Can homilies address the threat to young people of online bullying?

Why should we not see the disgracing of the Irish church – at the hands of a secularising media – as deliverance in disguise – especially from the mistake of supposing that when the church was itself the great social arbiter of honour and shame it was where Our Father wanted us to be? Was it not to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation’, that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children?

Has not their own ‘humiliation by media’ been in truth a later stage of the formation of Catholic clergy for the world of now? Is not the Creed – the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief – to be celebrated and re-affirmed now, in the face of a secularism that direly needs it?

Certainly there must be many Irish teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet – so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market’. Who is now ready for the rescuing? Is that not a calling for all of us?

Sean O’Conaill

[This article was revised on January 14th 2023, in light of reinforcing research data on the negative influence of social media on the mental health of young people.]

About Sean O'Conaill

Retired teacher of high school history and author. Now editing here and on acireland.ie - and campaigning for immediate implementation of Article 37 of Vatican II's 'Lumen Gentium'. A fuller profile can be found at 'About / Author' from the navigation menu above.

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