When Slacktivism is a Sin: Awareness and Action

Social media and awareness activism are BFFs.

Whether we’re writing love on our arms, “bringing back our girls” with a hashtag, changing our profile pictures to a black X to end sex trafficking,  taking a #nomakeupselfie for cancer, or dumping buckets of ice water over our heads, these trends catch on like wildfire. A cause can go from almost unheard of to a household name seemingly overnight. #Kony2012

Every time a new craze like this hits the internet, some things about it leave me feeling unsettled. Maybe you’re like me and there’s something about it that bothers you. Or maybe you have participated. If you fall into the former category, I hope to give voice to some of those concerns that get overlooked in the frenzy of viral sharing. If you did participate in any of the above, please do not feel that I am condemning you. This is meant to be a call for Christians to deeper thought and self-examination the next time one of these things pops up (as it inevitably will), not to shame or judge the hearts and motives of those who have taken part in the past.

My goal with this post is  that everyone, regardless of whether they do or do not take part, makes their decision conscientiously. I believe that Christians need to be especially discerning when they choose to participate in viral charity campaigns. There are many pitfalls to doing so that can be overlooked with the ease of a click of a button. But if we are striving to honor God in all of our actions, we should weigh our participation in internet charity campaigns as much as we do our involvement in charities that have not achieved a viral status.

One of the biggest problems with a campaign to awareness, or “slacktivism,” is the fact that awareness is not an end unto itself. There is nothing wrong with pointing out great opportunities for serving the Lord through caring for those who are in need. All donation-based charities need a way to get their names out there, and social media is a great option. But as Christians we can never stop with publicity. If you know of a need and the extent of your response is change your profile picture or post a status, it is essentially the same as seeing a brother or sister in need of food and clothing and telling them to “’Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body”  And, as James 2:16 says, “what good is that?” Being aware of a need and taking no action other than a show of “support” through a video or hashtag is, for a Christian, worse than being completely unaware of the need. Scripture goes so far as to say that when we see brothers and sisters in need and do nothing, we are refusing to help Christ Himself (Matthew 25). If we are activists without action, our awareness testifies against us.

Most of the world would acknowledge that mere slacktivism is empty. Even Charlie Sheen, hardly a paragon of moral character, criticizes those who dump water over their heads as an excuse not to donate in the “ALS ice bucket challenge.” In similar fashion, many seek to avoid the label of “slacktivist” by making it clear that they have donated or participated in some other commendable way. But  Scripture has a further warning for those who (rightly) choose to act, rather than  just passively “participating” through sharing or retweeting. Matthew 6:1-4 says the following:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Posting something on social media is the “announcing it with trumpets” of our day. It is the place in our lives where there are the most witnesses. The peer pressure inherent in many of these viral campaigns can cause us to participate in order to avoid criticism or to appear to others as though we are concerned for social justice. In a church where too many make being a “world changer” synonymous with being a Christian, the pressure is on to look like we are actively participating in social justice causes that have a big impact. But Scripture clearly says that if you are doing something to be seen by others, rather than out of a heart to honor and serve the Lord, your reward is your Facebook likes, not the pleasure of your Heavenly Father. Furthermore, the peer pressure can cause us to act hastily without correctly understanding the situation or knowing the full picture. As with #Kony2012, some viral campaigns can actually give offense where they are meant to help, and cause harm rather than the good that was intended. Or you could be donating to a cause that does not use the funds in a way that honors the Lord, whether it be embryonic stem cell research or enriching the leaders of the organization while neglecting the poor. “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way” (Prov. 19:2).

Calling the attention of others to a worthy cause is a worthwhile endeavor, and all Christians are to follow after Christ in ministering to those in need. There is much good to be done in offering support, including prayer, to those who are suffering. But be careful when you utilize social media in this pursuit. Christian giving that pleases the Lord is done cheerfully and through the Holy Spirit’s leading, not under the compulsion of peer pressure or a challenge on social media. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). It is also done with humility, and not with the fanfare that the world craves. When you make the decision to participate in social media activism or not, are you doing so thoughtfully, as unto the Lord?

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