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19 December 2014

Can we keep our virtual identity virtuous?

by Marika Rose

For Christians, the question of who we are and what we're called to can't be separated from the question that a lawyer once asked Jesus: "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus' answer to the lawyer's question probably seemed uncomfortable to his listeners. Your neighbour is the person who offers you kindness, even if – perhaps especially – they're not the sort of person you'd usually choose to spend time with; even if they're not religious in the right way; even if they're someone you would normally consider not to be your neighbour, but actually your enemy.

A lot has changed since Jesus first told the story of the Good Samaritan. The long history of social, political, and economic transformations that Christians have played a significant role in, both for good and for bad, means that we're more connected than we have ever been. We can't even go to the shop without getting caught up in complicated economic systems that stretch across the world in ways we can't begin to comprehend. That has all sorts of consequences for the way we think about what it means to be Christians, but perhaps one of the most significant is the way it changes how we think about our answer to that basic question: who is my neighbour?

What becomes clear online is something that has been true for a long time, but that Christians haven't always been good at acknowledging: the choices we make about who to spend time with, who to listen to, who to learn from as we continue to figure out what it means to be a Christian today, are always political. We can't possibly know all of the people whose lives are affected by our decisions. When we choose to care about some issues, we are choosing not to care about others; when we choose to ask what it means to love this person as our neighbour, we are choosing not to love that person.

Evangelicalism has tended to prioritise individual people over social structures. It tends to be more concerned with people's personal relationships with Jesus than with the big systems that control all of our relationships with one another. It's much easier to care about the people who are right in front of us than it is to care about the people on the other side of the world who make the clothes we wear and the food we eat. And even when we do care about those people, it's all too easy to assume that we know what's best for them, without doing the hard work of listening to what they're saying. One of the best things about the internet is that it makes us harder for us to ignore the ways that our lives are caught up with the lives of other people around the world. The internet makes it harder to hold onto models of engaging with the world that assume we can love our neighbours without paying attention to what they really need or want.

Offline, we can sometimes convince ourselves that the whole world looks and thinks like we do. Online, it's harder: we keep rubbing up against people we know from years ago, people on the other side of the world, people who insist on intruding on the conversations we're having about them, to demand that we listen to their opinions. 

We can choose to shut ourselves off from those opportunities to listen to unfamiliar voices if we want. We can build an online world for ourselves that's as gentrified or homogenous as the physical neighbourhoods we increasingly live in. We can keep talking about the poor and the needy as though they're helpless, voiceless victims who just need us to condescend to help them. We can surround ourselves with people who look like us, talk like us, think like us. Or we can take up the opportunities that the online world offers us like nothing else: to listen to and learn from people whose lives are even more different to ours than the life of the Samaritan was to the lives of the respectable religious people of Jesus' day. Maybe if we do that, we start to learn who we are, and what it means to love our neighbour in a complicated, connected world; in a world where Christianity is always political, where we have to make decisions about who we stop to help, and where we might find that the neighbour who saves our life is the very person we once looked down on.

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