New Spiritual Disciplines: No.4 – The discipline of Activism (not just slacktivism)


Each day this week, we're looking at a new spiritual discipline for the modern world. Inspired by Richard Foster's classic book Celebration of Discipline, we've created a list of additional practices and attitudes which – when brought before God – could powerfully and prophetically impact our culture, our community and our selves. Read, reflect, think and pray through the article and the questions at the end. You might want to start with article No. 1, which includes a longer introduction.

The digital revolution has made campaigning, lobbying and sharing our political perspectives easier than ever. You can seldom scroll through a social media feed which doesn't include demonstrations of political activism, in among the pictures of cats, lattes and quotes-on-clouds. The Government's statement on x is disgraceful! Sign a petition to stop this awful law change now! Watch this video of a celebrity comic totally nailing why the statute books must be rewritten. While many of us protest that we've lost interest or faith in politics, these actions belie a widespread level of engagement in the way our country is run.

Except of course, this isn't really activism, and there isn't a whole lot of action. Social media, and the dopamine hit we get when people enjoy our posts on it, can often enable these shows of political engagement to become self-contained. We share a view, others affirm it, and we allow ourselves to believe that the job is done. Because we've posted an opinion online, we've engaged in the political process. Well, yes and no...

It's true that by sharing our opinions convincingly, we can compel others to action. But if we leave our activism at what's been termed 'slacktivism' (or online, 'clicktivism'), then we're doing little more than slightly amplifying a message. In the Bible, we're told (in Isaiah 1 v 17) to "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause." That's a much more widescreen version of political engagement, which involves the use of our hands and feet, as well as our minds. In that context, a strongly-worded Facebook post or a shared petition link doesn't quite make us the next Wilberforce.

It's hard to go further though. Apart from anything, there are just so many causes to engage with, another issue made all the more prolific by social media. Perhaps what clicktivism does is allow us to share out our outrage in manageable portions. But again, is that really going to change the world? In most cases what's really needed for that to happen is people going much further; marching, writing letters, even running for local and national office.

In 2015 then, I think activism (rather than just slacktivism) is a spiritual discipline. It takes effort from us to go beyond our cultural conditioning and really act, and it's an attitude that is best developed when we ask for God's help in doing so. That means regularly asking God to show us injustice, and where and how we might counter it. It means meditating on the issues we really care about, and seeking God for a prophetic way to respond to them.

There's a related issue in our spiritual lives too, and developing this discipline of activism might just be the antidote for it. How many of us have responded to a friend's challenging news by promising to pray for them, only to entirely fail to deliver on that promise? In the online space that problem is only exacerbated – we can only speculate about how many of the claims of #praying actually translate to real prayer, while in sharing hash tagged prayer requests we can so often fall into exactly the same trap as we do around politics. By sharing it, we con ourselves into thinking we've already prayed.

The Bible seems to require more of us than just talking about our beliefs; arguably that's exactly why Jesus got so upset with the Pharisees. Actions speak louder than words, and sometimes the way we now live and communicate can leave us confused between the two. If we really want to change the world, we'll need to do more than retweet some positive suggestions about how; moving beyond that is a spiritual pursuit; an attitude change that God will be delighted to help us with.

Questions for reflection

1. Are you prone to 'slacktivism'? In what forms if so?

2. What are the justice/political issues you really care about? What do you currently do to engage with them, and how could you do so more effectively?

3. Do you sometimes fall into the trap of claiming you'll pray? What could you do to ensure you follow through in future?

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders