Make Peace with Powerlessness

We call it hashtag activism: the arms-length identification with a cause or a person, using social media. The kind of involvement that doesn’t require much and typically doesn’t accomplish much.

Among the most impotent examples was the phenomenon around #BringBackOurGirls. In April of 2014, when 276 female students were kidnapped during the night, taken from a secondary school in Northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram was to blame. And people were rightly outraged.

When Nigerians took to social media to express their grief and demand more effective action from their own government, the story captured the attention of Western media and ordinary citizens. Suddenly Boko Haram was Enemy #1 for millions of us, and we hastened to show our outrage and demand action through social media.

But most people were missing the context–the history and the true size of the problem. In the five years before this incident, Boko Haram had killed more than 5,000 people in Nigeria. To this day, more than 650,000 people have been displaced by the violence committed by the group and the Nigerian military, who struggles to respond effectively. 10,000 children have been unable to attend school because the group often targets schools, and hundreds of children had been killed by the terrorists. In the last five years, the group has driven 3 million people from their homes in northeast Africa.

This well-publicized kidnapping was far from the beginning of Boko Haram’s terrorist activities. And in comparison to the 5,000 people their violence had already killed, 276 was a significant but fairly small number. In fact, the Nigerian government had declared a state of emergency almost a year earlier, in an attempt to contain the activities of Boko Haram. Yet until this incident, the group’s activities didn’t even register in the lives of most Americans and other Westerners.

For about two weeks, Western people were caught up in this story. They were moved to activism, but their activism had little effect—and no one brought back the girls. And then, like so many other stories before and since, this one faded away as the latest celebrity news broke and fresh disasters captured our attention.

Since the day these girls were kidnapped, Boko Haram has kidnapped more girls. They have kidnapped boys, forcing the boys to fight with them. They have kidnapped and killed men and women, including 11 parents of the girls who were captured at the school in 2014. They have visited violence on thousands. Nigerian and international governments have yet to find and rescue the missing Christian girls, and Boko Haram is forcing them and so many others to convert to Islam and marry or be held in slavery. Boko Haram is occupying churches, beheading men, forcing Christian women to convert to Islam, and taking them as wives. They have burned entire villages to the ground as the Nigerian army, along with forces from neighboring countries, advances against them. And in March 2015 they publicly pledged loyalty to ISIS, the extremist group that has terrorized the Middle East and aims to dominate the world with a brutal seventh-century version of holy war.

Ironically, there is hope in this horrific situation. But that hope lies in the progress of the region’s cooperating militaries, especially partnership from Cameroon and Chad offering unprecedented military support to Kenya. They are receiving some training and intelligence support from small groups of American and French soldiers—but the progress is not coming from an uprising of Westerners expressing their outrage.

And the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is pretty quiet in this part of the world these days.

People used that hashtag because they cared. They were outraged and horrified, and they really, really wanted to do something. They were also worried. And many probably felt they had done something, and they walked away from this news story feeling soothed by their involvement. But they weren’t really involved, and they didn’t really do anything. They were seduced by a false sense of power in a powerless situation.

Yes, we have seen examples of hashtag activism sometimes turn into more involved action and making a significant difference, when social media have served as a means for connecting like-minded people and mobilizing them to act. But such results require that people move beyond the hashtag realm. Most of the time, for most people, it’s a simple matter of clicking, maybe typing a couple of words, and nothing more.

“My hunch is that people often affiliate with causes online for selfish and narcissistic purposes,” said author Evgeny Morozov. “Sometimes, it may be as simple as trying to impress their online friends, and once you have fashioned that identity, there is very little reason to actually do anything else.” I suspect he’s right, and I think there’s another motive at work for many people. They are worried, and they want to feel better. They want to believe they have the power to do something.

As I wrote in Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry, sometimes worry is a way to mask our powerlessness. We are tremendously uncomfortable with the fact that we have no ability to stop or rectify some of the most horrific things that happen in our world. We want to do something anyway, so we worry privately and we publicly engage in things like hashtag activism to ease our sense of desperation and to show that we care. Worry becomes a way for us to feel productive without really doing anything helpful. Like most hashtag activism, worry is not productive action. And as difficult as it is for us to accept, sometimes we really are helpless.

Worrying doesn’t do any good, but we want to make ourselves feel better because we just want to do something! But living in God’s peace is no less helpful to others than living in worry. In fact, if we want to be the kind of people who really do have something to offer when others need us, we are far better off choosing peace and trust. And when there really is something we can and should do, we may discover it by acknowledging our powerlessness, praying, and becoming peaceful enough to listen for God’s voice.

  1. Janelle says:

    Thx for aligning my thoughts around this. You made me think how peace bids me to a PRECISE action, still powerless, yet…something. When #bringbackourgirls comes to mind, you’ve given me something precise to do: pray over the Cameroon and Chad possibilities.

  2. Marie says:

    Thank you for educating me around the background of this news story. I try not to bury my head in the sand about social issues in the world. But I have never understood the whole hashtag movement and have not engaged in it myself. It seems like another form of sensationalism. Thank you for educating me about this as well. You have confirmed what I unconsciously knew. It is far wiser to follow God’s promptings regarding priorities in terms of where to invest our resources, and not the world’s. He has prompted me to spend my time, energy and finances in areas where I can make a difference, not those that I can’t.

  3. Paul says:

    Coming to the realization that we cannot fix all the problems in the world, or at least make them better, can be discouraging. Who doesn’t feel the desire to somehow, be able to cure the ills of the world?

    • Amy says:

      Good question, Paul. I think we all feel that desire! We were made for a better world, untainted by our rebellion against God. It’s natural, and admirable, to want to make it better. But facing reality (that we can’t do it) doesn’t have to be hopeless. God is active in our world and there’s plenty that each of us can do to make this place better than it is.

© 2015 Amy Simpson.