Social Media and Justification

Social Media and Justification February 15, 2019

Again, Rev. A. Trevor Sutton, the co-author with me of Authentic Christianity:  How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World,  is studying the relationship between technology and theology.  He has written an article published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Concordia Journal on the topic of social media and justification.

People used to anguish over the question of their righteousness and their standing before God.  Though many still do, since this is the crucial question of our existence, people today tend to anguish more about their righteousness and their standing before other people.

Just as people try to justify themselves before God (coram deo), they try to justify themselves before the world (coram mundo).  From the “Like” function to the virtue signaling, from the public shaming to the indignation of the Twitter mobs, social media has become a forum for self-justification.

The futility of such self-justification points to the need of the gospel–that is, the good news that we are justified freely, as a gift of God, by the Cross of Jesus Christ–a justification by grace through faith that puts us right with God, which renders the favor of the world inconsequential.  This has implications, according to Rev. Sutton, for issues that pastors will face in the course of giving their people pastoral care.

Here is a brief excerpt from the article.  From A. Trevor Sutton, Inclined to Boast:  Social Media and Self-Justification:

Luther described the human penchant for sin as incessantly building a case for our own righteousness while rejoicing in the deficiencies of others: “But the carnal nature of man violently rebels, for it greatly delights in punishment, in boasting of its own righteousness, and in its neighbor’s shame and embarrassment at his own unrighteousness. Therefore it pleads its own case, and it rejoices that this is better than its neighbor’s.”[21]

Oswald Bayer echoes Luther’s assessment of the human condition. Bayer describes humanity as being utterly fixated on justification: “To be recognized and justified; to cause ourselves to be justified or to justify ourselves in attitude, thought, word, and action; to need to justify our being; or simply to be allowed to exist without needing to justify our being—all this makes for our happiness or unhappiness and it an essential part of our humanity.”[22] Bayer argues that there is an inner longing within all people to be justified and deemed righteous; desiring justification is a central part of the human experience.

It is no stretch, therefore, to assume that the tools and technologies humans design might facilitate this justification. Scholars have argued that humans seldom interact with the world apart from tools and technology.[23] Instead of interacting directly with the world, we create artifacts to mediate our external activities. These tools range from ancient technologies such as hammers and shovels to more recent technologies such as smartphones and social media. These tools are designed by humans, for humans, to help humans. It is important, therefore, that theologians interrogate the tools and technologies used for self-justification. . . .

Human users, being broken and sinful creatures, are inclined toward boasting in their own self-righteousness and building a case for their own self-worth. User-centered design strives to understand real human behavior and design with this in mind. Social media is a designed technology intended to maximize user experience and enjoyment. Therefore, this technology has been designed—at worst, furtively, or at best, unintentionally—in such a way as to facilitate our sinful penchant for self-justification and boasting. The Like button on Facebook is not there by accident. The Like button is there because of our deep longing to be liked by others, celebrated for our accomplishments, and deemed righteous in the horizontal realm. This affordance was designed, wittingly or unwittingly, with this kind of user in mind. [28]

The one-click affordance of the Like button on Facebook is a good example of technology designed for self-justification: it provides visible confirmation and affirmation from other users. Users post a picture or text while other users are able to like what has been posted. The amount of likes a post receives is visible to other users. The Facebook platform is a public forum for determining what is deemed good, right, and salutary by other users.

[Keep reading. . .]



Illustration via Pixabay, Creative Commons License

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