Recovering Place: Counteracting the Polarizing Effects of Consumerism & Online Communities
In November 2018, Duke Kwon wrote a post that analyzed the spiritual and moral dynamics at play in the breakdown of civil dialogue in the public square. Using the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), he illustrated the ways that Americans across the political spectrum, Christians included, have fallen into the trap of political self-righteousness. In this essay, I will share how and why I’ve personally struggled with political self-righteousness and discuss two major ideas: 1) how our human needs interact with modern cultural and technological factors in ways that enable political self-righteousness to grow deep roots and thrive, and 2) how we can counteract these trends by being faithful in and to the places God has planted us.
It Started with a Garden
When my family and I moved into our house in Atlanta eight years ago, I got the urge to grow my own food. But a couple of things about my property struck me as less than ideal. First, the ground consisted of red Georgia clay. Second, tall trees limited the amount of direct sunlight that was available. So, I decided to go with container gardening. I drove to a local nursery and bought three tomato seedlings, three containers, and a large bag of organic soil. Then I spent the entire summer moving the containers around to keep the plants in full sun as much as possible. Fortunately, the following year, a neighbor who was an experienced grower took me under her wing and showed me how to use compost to amend the ground soil. She told me not to be afraid to plant things in the earth. From that point on, the earth began to work on me.
Gardening is a mirror for our souls. My inaugural effort, which involved chasing the shifting light but not giving to or receiving from the land itself, reflected something unsettled in me. I had grown up with a parent who suffered from a serious mental illness. The stigma around that, coupled with the difficult-to-describe dynamics under my roof, effectively isolated me from the larger world. When I left home, I began what would become a perpetual search for communal connection, safety, and belonging. In 2015, that search led me into the world of online common-interest groups, which seemed to provide all those things I longed for but also made me more judgmental, more self-righteous, and more closed off toward people who didn’t happen to share the same interests and beliefs.
But from the day I started working on my little plot of land, God began communicating through it the wisdom of being anchored to a particular place, of faithfully nurturing it through both health and pestilence, fair weather and poor, joyful bounty and disappointing scarcity. I just wasn’t able to receive it. Once I was, however, it led me out of the world of online communities and enabled me to plunge deeply into the nooks and crannies of my neighborhood, the simple joys of family life, and the complexities of congregational life. These things, in turn, helped me see the world less as a collection of competing interests and more as an ecosystem – and myself as an integral part that brings to it both health and sickness.
Human Needs and Consumerism
In my formative years, the bulk of the messages I received from my parents were ones that emphasized my flaws and shortcomings. Positive reinforcement came with only the most exceptional of accomplishments; but even then, it sounded less like “I’m proud of you” and more like “You see? Hard work pays off.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my parents were that way largely because in the world where they came of age – one recovering from World War II, regime change, and a terroristic period of mass murder and political repression – academic exceptionalism and mental toughness were the keys to climbing out of subsistence-level living and being protected from outcomes like sexual exploitation, indentured servitude, premature death, and family separation. There was little room for things like optimism and words of affirmation. So, even years after arriving in the “land of opportunity,” my parents’ gaze on the world around them – whether it fell on my standardized test scores, the shape of my eyebrows, or my unconventional career path – remained haunted by a sense of scarcity and impending doom.
I also received incessant messages from advertisers through TV commercials, newspaper inserts, and billboards– messages designed to make me feel like I was missing something and the solution was to buy (and consume) what they were selling. The anxious inadequacy that had been imprinted on my psyche by trauma survivors who saw mortal danger behind every flaw dovetailed with promises of fulfillment from companies who made money selling things. By the time I was three years old, I was well on my way to becoming an insatiable consumer — not just in terms of acquiring material things but as a posture toward life in general. It’s no surprise, then, that when I noticed the red clay in my yard and observed the intermittent sunlight pattern that fell on it, I could appreciate none of its potential – only what was missing. Running to a store and buying things to make up for the missing pieces felt like the most natural place to begin.
But the heart of consumerism isn’t represented by the act of buying things. It’s the belief that we can meet legitimate human needs for things like nurture, justice, dignity, meaning, safety, mercy, companionship, belonging, and validation through the illegitimate practice of reducing people, places, and things – even God, church, and Christian discipleship – to acquirable and consumable commodities. Although the practice is destined to leave us wanting, we’re tempted to stay on the hamster wheel as long as there are choices we haven’t explored. In the consumeristic universe, choice is what keeps insatiability in play. And the technological advancements that have taken place over the past twelve years have made our choices myriad.
A Synergistic Soup: Internet-Capable Phones + Social Media + Apps
It wasn’t that long ago that the internet could only be accessed from either a desktop or laptop computer. That was the case in 2005 when YouTube launched. It was still the case in the second half of 2006 when Twitter and Facebook introduced their respective platforms to the general public. But between 2007-2008, a series of foundation-shifting developments took place: Apple introduced the iPhone and unveiled the Apple App Store, and Google launched the Android operating system and its competing Google Play Store. After these changes, social media usage exploded, and a new reality emerged. P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking explain:
“Previously, even if internet services worked perfectly, users faced a choice. They could be in real lifebut away from the internet. Or they could tend to their digital lives in quiet isolation, with only a computer screen to keep them company. Now, with an internet-capable device in their pocket, it became possible for people to maintain both identities simultaneously.”
This possibility proved popular. By February 2010, Facebook had 400 million users and Twitter users were sending 50 million tweets per day. Today, three quarters of Americans own a smartphone; six billion people worldwide have mobile broadband subscriptions; the number of active monthly users of Facebook has increased to 2.32 billion; 326 million monthly active Twitter users send 200 billion tweets per year (or 500 million per day); the Apple App Store offers 2 million apps; and the Google Play Store offers 2.1 million apps.
Numbers are only part of the story, though. Perhaps the most important thing to appreciate about the convergence of smartphones, social media, and app technology is that it birthed a whole new milieu that’s fundamentally altering the way a large percentage of the population interacts with information, ideas, and one another. And the fact that there are now widely used apps that socialize and methodize Bible reading plans, prayer requests, and worship services means that it’s even changing the way we relate to the sacred. We ourselves are changing. As French sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote in 1964, “The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man's very essence.” The following list is not exhaustive, but it highlights some of the key characteristics of the new milieu:
1. We receive a continuous stream of messages that are simultaneously fragmented, decontextualized, and amplified. The quantity of information overwhelms us while its quality reduces our capacity to appreciate its real-world complexity.
2. We can now invent, reinvent, brand, and rebrand ourselves endlessly – today an artist, tomorrow an activist, foodie, survivor, inspirational speaker, or rebel theologian.
3. We can occupy numerous screen-mediated roles and functions: teacher, friend, confidant, counselor, spiritual director, mentor, number-one fan.
4. We can form and join or dissolve and leave countless digital communities to suit our preferences, desires, and whims.
5. We have an ever-expanding number of opportunities to transcend our physical boundaries and limitations, even our very selves.
6. Our attention is increasingly diverted to supplying content for a digital audience or being concerned about the happenings of our digital crowd.
Virtual Communities Centered on Ideology and Shared Values
From early 2015 to the end of 2016, I was a part of five separate Facebook communities that were organized around shared interests and shared experiences. They were spaces in which people who had never met face to face shared personal stories, exchanged advice, asked for prayer, and offered emotional support. I would retreat into these spaces when I was actively hurting, when I felt alienated from the people around me, or when I felt silenced. The people in these digital spaces lamented with, affirmed, and encouraged me.
According to Facebook’s own metrics, more than 100 million out of its 2 billion users are members of communities like these. At the first ever Facebook Community Summit in June 2017, Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “These are groups that upon joining, quickly become the most important part of your social network experience and an important part of your real world support structure.” He called them “meaningful communities” and announced that the company’s goal was to help one billion people join one or more of these Facebook communities. He claimed it would “strengthen our social fabric and bring people closer together.”
Six months before Zuckerberg shared this particular vision for bringing the world closer together, however, I had already concluded that my decision to allow online “meaningful communities” to become part of my real-world support structure had shaped me in some negative ways. None of the people in these virtual groups had the benefit of knowing my full life context. I could share anything and receive validation from the group, even if what I really needed most was correction or a different perspective. This self-justifying feedback loop ended up reinforcing tribal and anti-tribe tendencies in me. I hadn’t learned to love my enemies but to look down on them in the name of justice and personal healing.
Eugene Peterson wrote the following about the way we use words:
“We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us. Our imaginations become blunted. We end up dealing only with surfaces, functions, roles. In our present culture all of us find that we are studied, named, and treated as functions and things.”
I think the same is true about social media. Even if we start out using it for good and necessary causes, like creating synergy for benevolent projects or amplifying the voices of marginalized people, if we’re not careful about how we use social media, social media can end up using and distorting us.
When Virtual Communities Take on Flesh
On three separate occasions in 2015, I took the opportunity to meet up with some of my online connections at conferences around the country. When we met, we joked about how great it was when our favorite avatars took on flesh. Having already bonded online through shared ideology and values, we all felt an instant sense of community. It felt like how I’ve always wanted church to feel. It was intoxicating.
Attempts to translate online affinity groups into physical gatherings are becoming increasingly common. But because their connection point is a URL and not a geographic location, people have to spend money and take time off work to travel to an appointed place to be together – a cruise ship, a tour bus, a retreat center, a conference hotel. The efforts are expensive and involve a lot of logistics, but people do it. Because no matter how beneficial online spaces can be, we’re embodied creatures built to seek out community that’s not mediated by, well, media. We want to look each other in the eye, share meals together, and talk face-to-face.
The problem is that even when these communities take on flesh their physicality is transient and not a fundamental characteristic. They’re rooted not in a place but in some combination of political, religious, and social ideology. Additionally, they’re solidified not through the everyday interactions of shared life in shared places but through highly curated shared experiences. In many ways, they represent a reorganization of individualism and its pursuit of personal fulfillment into group form.
When I was heavily invested in online communities, I made very little effort to deepen relationships or work through conflict with the people around me. The reality is that we’re limited creatures, and if we’re investing a good measure of our mental and emotional energy in online communities, we’re compromising our capacity to build community in the places where God has planted us. People scattered across the country may be feeling “closer” to the people they access through their devices, but at the expense of their ability to connect with actual neighbors, which weakens, not strengthens, our social fabric.
Recovering Place: Back to My Garden
Let me go back and talk about gardening for a moment.
Gardening is not for the faint of heart. One morning, I discovered that some nocturnal animal had walked through my garden and snapped the main stems on a bunch of bell pepper seedlings I had planted the week before. Those that survived the overnight assault caught a virus a few weeks later and had to be removed. Every last one. Another time, I fought a two-week-long battle against stem-boring pests that were attacking my zucchini vines at the height of their growing season, only to have mildew seal the plants’ demise. I can see why people resort to earth-contaminating pesticides and soil-depleting synthetic fertilizers. Whether we use them or not, though, it’s inevitable that some things will succumb to the unpredictable force we call nature.
Here’s the point: after six years of growing my own food, an emotional discipline began to develop out of enduring losses and disappointments from things I couldn’t control. Seasoned growers learn to grieve and surrender what doesn’t survive to the compost bin, where it transforms into nutrients that replenish the soil. Meanwhile, we continue to care for what remains because we’re bound to the land.
Well, at some point toward the end of 2016, I sensed God inviting me to see the life of the soil as a metaphor for community and place. It’s as if God was asking me, “What if you approached community and this place where you live as a member of an ecosystem instead of as a consumer trying to fulfill your insatiable needs? What if you learned to surrender to me the losses and disappointments you experience in community the way you’ve learned to surrender your dead plants to the compost bin?”
Intrigued by the idea, I accepted the challenge by faith. At the beginning of 2017, I left all of my Facebook groups, “unfriended” people I didn’t have real-life history with, and committed to being as fully present as possible to the people in the places I had been planted – namely my home, my local church, and my neighborhood. It was a shock to the system at first. But as embodied interactions began to reclaim the place that disembodied ones had occupied for two years, I started to feel more whole, less compartmentalized. I also noticed that I could still have important conversations about the things I cared about, but they unfolded at a slower pace and in a far more relational way, determined by the rhythms of life – by things like meals, work, familial obligations, traffic, and illness.
Friendships deepened over coffee, shared ministry experiences, walks around the neighborhood, conversations in the school parking lot and on the church playground, and gatherings in our home. It was good to feel increasingly connected to a physical place and the people in it. In September 2018, I deleted Facebook altogether.
The real test for whether I could thrive without my online communities, though, came when I went through a serious rough patch from November 2018-January 2019. I developed an agonizing and debilitating illness. Then, I got hit with a series of major stressors from my family of origin. The combination clobbered me. My husband was a rock star through it all. He was compassionate, empathetic, and supportive. He did everything he could to ease my suffering. But that part of me that longed for a sense of belonging in a larger community, the part that drove me to move tomato plants around for a whole summer, ached for more. So, in my vulnerable physical and emotional state, I reached out to a handful of people at my church for support. Two of them responded immediately with love, words of encouragement, and offers to bring meals. But the others didn’t respond at all, or at least, not for almost two weeks. The pain I felt from the latter was so intense that I despaired of life. I’m telling you, it wrecked me. My illness worsened, and I became virtually homebound for a month. There were days when I sobbed until my face went numb and I cursed so much the “f” word lost its punch. I uttered incoherent prayers. Even worse, I regretted having left my online communities and having deleted Facebook.
Decades ago, environmental activist Wendell Berry wrote about the need for humans to be liberated from the consumer mentality about everything, arguing that it was the only way to escape the limits of our own dissatisfaction, to not be confined to the negativity of our complaint, and to change both our lives and our surroundings. In the deep dark hole I found myself in, I had no imagination for how to get there, but it was at this point that I remembered the second question: “What if you learned to surrender to me the losses and disappointments you experience in community the way you’ve learned to surrender your dead plants to the compost bin?”
At the start of 2017, this proposition was merely an intriguing idea. Now that I was wrestling with concrete disappointments and experiencing physical and emotional pain, the proposition had teeth. It cost something. The grief I felt from the unresponsiveness of people whom I thought were friends, the physical misery of an illness that seemed unending, the cocktail of rage and self-pity – these things were the real-life version of the sick, failed, spent, and dead plants in my garden that I pulled out of the ground every season and surrendered to the compost bin. It was an invitation to enter into the cycle of death and resurrection.
“The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.” (emphasis mine)
In fits and spurts, I started surrendering things to the dung heap: self-pity and its victim narrative, hatred, resentment, vengefulness, everything I had hoped for but failed to receive from my spiritual community, and finally, the impulse to leave my church like a disgruntled consumer.
No single act cured me; but when I look back, I realize that each act of surrender, even the smallest one, increased my capacity to love a little more like Jesus. With even slight downshifts in my emotional turmoil, it became possible for me to have some much-needed conversations with the people who had initially let me down. While labor intensive, most of those conversations led to deeper understanding and brought about reconciliation. They also helped me recognize that I had this pattern of leaving communities following experiences that provoked unbearable pain. Doing some soul work with my counselor helped me identify messages I had internalized since childhood, like “You’re only worth paying attention to when you’re well, competent, and toeing the line. When you’re weak, suffering, or dissenting, you’re ugly and worthless.”
Identifying these messages helped me reframe previous experiences. I realized for the first time that these messages and the lifetime of pain they carried were running in the background whenever I experienced certain kinds of rejection – like when I advocated for a sexual abuse victim and his bereaved mother and the church leadership reprimanded me for being adversarial toward the church; when I told a pastor that racism within his church was discouraging me and he suggested that some of it was probably in my head; when I withdrew from ministry due to extreme burnout and depression and no one in church leadership reached out to care for me; or when I sent a really vulnerable, pleading email to five ministry partners and didn’t get any response from three of them. I had processed each of these experiences as a brutal assault on my identity and value, as injuries so devastating that leaving seemed like the only viable option for my mental health.
Even though I had been a Christian for many years, there were still times when the false beliefs I had grown up with had more power over me than biblical truths about who I am in Christ – a recipient of every spiritual blessing, an heir to glory, chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, fully armed for any battle (Ephesians 1:3-14; 6:10-20). As a result, parts of me were both fragile and hard – brittle. When the brittle parts of me were activated, I lacked a strong center from which I could bring greater health to unbalanced and unhealthy ecosystems. Recovering place and abandoning consumerism turned out to be key steps that enabled God’s truth to begin displacing those false beliefs. The triumph of truth, in turn, empowered me to move toward my enemies with both love and justice in my sights, without a spirit of either self-immolation or vengeful belligerence.
Here’s the thing about community: it’s where our virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses, competence and incompetence, healed parts and open wounds, and all of our hidden fears, neuroses, and attachment disorders mix with the same in others. Depending on the particular mixture in play at a given moment, community can be anything from a life-giving agent of healing and fulfillment to a toxic agent of injury and disillusionment. What makes community so fraught is its unavoidable tendency to expose the most tender and fragile parts of us. We each bring a lifetime of experiences that impose their narratives and meanings onto the present. It’s inevitable that communities will create turmoil for us. But it’s precisely that turmoil that enables us to look honestly at everything that’s broken and decaying in ourselves so we can surrender it to the Lord who heals and transforms.
Implications for the Body Politic
Just yesterday, I had a conversation with my twenty-eight-year-old neighbor Monica, who was troubled by how willing people are to be highly outspoken and argumentative online about controversial subjects, yet unwilling (or unable) to talk about those same subjects in person. She recently tried following up face-to-face with her friend Sal about a sociopolitical disagreement they had had on Facebook. Just five minutes into the conversation, Sal leveled a blunt, unflattering accusation at Monica, shut the conversation down, and walked away. Monica decided she would never try that again.
I have no stones to throw at Sal because I was Sal. And what happened between her and Monica is an example of how online habits can erode our ability to relate to people in our physical spaces. I’m not saying that people who aren’t on the internet do a better job at talking about controversial things in person. Plenty of people who never get online are abysmal at it. Technology didn’t introduce human conflict. Nevertheless, at least two-thirds of Americans are on social mediums that condition us in relationally destructive ways. That alone is contributing to cultural shifts that are hastening the disintegration of our public discourse, even at the highest levels of government. For example, at Michael Cohen’s Congressional hearing last week, Representative Paul Gosar (Arizona – R) had a sign set up behind his chair that featured a large photo of Cohen and the words, “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE.” It was essentially a physical manifestation of the internet meme phenomenon.
As we enter the season of Lent, I think it’s the perfect time for Jesus’ disciples to do the following:
1) Repent of the pervasive consumerism that we apply to church, communities, and Christian discipleship.
2) Repent of allowing the tools of “disincarnation” to shape us in their image.
3) Repent of our own participation in the culture’s self-righteous and contemptuous finger-pointing party.
Only then will be be able to receive the kind of healing and transformation that only Jesus can provide – the kind that will enable us to transcend the negativity of our complaints, resist the polarization of our time, and infuse Kingdom values of enemy love into the physical “ecosystems” where he has placed us.
Judy Wu Dominick is an Atlanta-based writer and musician focused on helping believers in Christ engage more thoughtfully, lovingly, and effectively across racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and religious lines as a means of fulfilling the public dimensions of the Christian faith. She blogs at lifereconsidered.com. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.