That House Down the Street Where Fear and Harm Meet (2 of 3)

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Down the street in my neighborhood, just off the alley to the left, is a shelter for battered women, although you wouldn’t know it. It’s an ordinary looking house, if large for the city, with a big white porch and three floors and one imagines 5 or 6 bedrooms. Its markings and yard look the same as every other family home on the street.

Yet the house is a secret place—a place of safety for women who have found themselves in domestic abuse situations and need to get out. Here they can an immediate shelter from someone who would harm them—protected not by large gates, but by privacy. Their anonymous presence gives them a place to hide in plain sight.

I only learned the true purpose of the house after years of living nearby, and only because I am a pastor who knows other pastors who need to know. I know very little else about it—who lives there or even what ministry operates the shelter. Until an unfortunate time where I would need to make use of this place on behalf of someone else, I have no need to know. I’d prefer this be kept private.

Recently I wrote an article for Christianity Today about digital privacy. Counter intuitively, I assert that in a cultural moment of anxiety about digital life, the church has to show up and demonstrate vulnerable communities. They will look like water to a thirsty soul.

I suspected that my call for vulnerability was so counter-intuitive that it was likely to be misread. Sometimes it has been.

The most common complaint has gone something like, “this guy thinks I should tell everyone everything about my life. First, that’s crazy! Second, what about those out there who want to harm us?”

So with this in mind, I have some cross-bracing assertions to show why I build my proposal on Christians and privacy the way I do. More simply said: These beliefs help explain where I’m coming from

I think there is a gap between the fear of harm and actual harm.

The example of the women down the street needing privacy is real. In every way. I can only imagine the emotional or physical harm that has come to them, and we all pray that God protects them and their privacy is held.

It’s just that, when the cable company notifies me that my password may have been stolen in a server breach… this isn’t even comparable to the situation above. Aside from my discomfort, rarely is there actually even any real possibility of that password being used to hurt me. But even if there was, what would happen? A malicious upgrade of my cable package?

Sometimes "core identifying numbers” (more on this idea another time) such credit or debit cards are stolen. Yes, these are daily tools for financial life. Yet aside from the fear associated and the inconvenience of changing some automatic bill payments, almost nobody is monetarily harmed. This because years ago, laws were changed to make someone liable for at most $50, and most companies (Visa, MasterCard, etc) have a zero-liability policy.

But to watch the tech headlines on the local news, you’d think people are dying in the streets.

I don’t deny there are harms just like there is potential for real crime in my city. But I believe, like many things in public discourse right now, they are greatly exaggerated. They are the exception, not the rule.

I believe technology and culture are like volcanos.

They are the tectonic landscape of our lives. And so the discussion around how to live in world of technological realities and cultural values is mostly one of how to respond, not how to terraform. Yes, there’s something to patiently influencing the culture (Andy Crouch Culture Making, etc), but for the most part, the new iPhone XS is the sitz im laben. Neither macro efforts to pass new laws or micro efforts to hide our phones I think will not change the tide (eesh. from volcanos to oceans—I’m going for a bunch of metaphors here. Predicting a “forest" next).

From one school of thought this is labeled as a technological determinism—the idea that tech plays a leading role in the shaping of human culture, ideas, events. And I believe it does, although my view is “soft determinism” in the sense that I’d include its relationship to other key global-social forces (language, economics, etc).

But theology has a way of speaking about this too. Stanley Hauerwas,

"Christian social ethics can only be done from the perspective of those who do not seek to control national or world history but who are content to live "out of control.”

Yes.

I want to form ethics from the ordinary, not the extra-ordinary.

If a captured alien from Mars is pregnant and we find a divorced Christian psychic who can save the baby by denying the Trinity, should we buy sustainable coffee…. ? One approach to thinking about right and wrong is to create difficult and often fanciful scenarios that pit difficult values against each other. These quandary ethics or ethics-from-crisis become moral math equations, trying to balance difficult interests in the abstract.

I am working with a different approach to ethical reasoning. I’m formed in the school of thought that places the choices and narratives of daily living as a guide for the difficult moments. At the individual level, this is virtue ethics—the question of who I am and who I am becoming. My character—faith, hope, love, wisdom, courage, temperance, justice—is shaped by God and my daily decisions. At the community level (the church!)—this is story-formed ethics. When the church tells the story of the Creation, the Fall, the Redemption, and Consummation (or the acts of God in history like acts in a play—NT Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, etc), this shapes how we identify and live as a people. Crises in individual settings or public spheres are less about shaping us and more about revealing who we already are.

in a cultural moment of anxiety about digital life, the church has to show up and demonstrate vulnerable communities. They will look like water to a thirsty soul.

Why all that? From a technology and privacy view, this is foundational. In a world of digital anxiety, I’m advocating for the church to be a certain type of story-formed community. It’s a story where creation is good, sin is real and has broken us, we hide and fear. Yet God is saving us. This story makes our community one where vulnerability and love, mutual sharing and trust can be normal. They point to the future. These characteristics require a check of our individual pain & sin which tempts us to hide. Or a check on our communal story, which can too easily look like the defense, outraged, or fearful culture around us.

When a couple shares with their church in a living room and says, “we’re struggling with our finances, or "can you pray for us to get pregnant" - it’s rich. It opens up space for compassion, reduces defenses, and it shapes us to trust Jesus. As we become a community of wisdom and love, we start to know how to rightly react to reports of stolen data or government watching.

So how then should we live?

As Christians who are tempted by the culture confuse the fear and hype with actual harm? Let’s discern and trust.

As Christians who live in a culture shift that we can’t control? Let’s draw close to the God who does hold the world!

As Christians who can be buffeted by crisis waves? Let’s live with integrity and love in our daily lives, knowing that Jesus led the way.

And let’s protect women who are in fear and keep their privacy. Because as courageous people in a big world with a big God, it’s exactly the right thing to do.

Chris Ridgewayprivacy, ethics