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Security “Like the Other Nations”? The Piety and Politics of Living in the Surveillance Society

Monday, 1 September 2014  | Christine Redwood

I’ll admit it: I am an anxious person. And I think I can tell easily when others are anxious. We live in an anxious society. We are obsessed with the elimination of danger or risk. Through law and regulation, governments seek to constrain actions deemed unsafe. And through our remarkable technologies, our governments are increasing their surveillance capacities. I suppose that is supposed to make me feel less anxious. It doesn’t.

I am not certain what the right answer should be to the questions I’m asking. But I suspect the stakes are getting higher on how we will seek to answer them.

I like to watch ‘Person of Interest’, a science fiction TV show about a computer (“The Machine”) able to monitor everyone through the network of cameras already present in modern society—its theme of surveillance mirrors a big discussion going on in our wider culture about security versus privacy. The character Control says:

“while the public shouts from the rooftops about their civil liberties, they do so under the protective bubble of the very program of which they are railing against, the one that saves them from terrorist attack every single day.”

Sound familiar? In the third season, yet another artificial intelligence was released that uses mass surveillance without people’s permission and knowledge in order to protect them. The characters speak about these machines as gods rising up:

“In 20 years time, life on earth will come to resemble the myths of the ancient Greeks. A pantheon of super-intelligent beings will watch over us, using human agents to meddle in our affairs”.

As good science fiction often does, this got me thinking about our present world.

More and more, governments are looking to mass surveillance with the stated aim of keeping people safe—going through private emails, listening to phone conversations, looking at video footage or our internet usage to try to prevent terrorist attacks. Justification for these activities is fed by an underlying fear: a fear that you can just be going on with your normal life and then, out of the blue, everything you know is ripped away. For governments, this also stems from a need to control, to keep order, and to protect national secrets to “further the national interest’.  

In times of fear and confusion, we look for people to protect us. We look for leaders who can guide us. Leadership helps groups to not descend into chaos; it helps steer communities toward a vision. Good leadership encourages everyone to play their part. Good leaders are able to create a space for all people to flourish. Leadership is important both in the church and the wider society for these very reasons. Yet there is a major danger in our dependence on human leaders if that’s all the security we have.

Leaders let us down.  We frequently see scandals that force people to bow out of public office. We see promises broken. We see power and privilege abused. To what extent then should we trust governments with increased surveillance powers? Even those who use mass surveillance have recently confessed to abusing those surveillance privileges. Edward Snowden recently shared in an interview how it was routine for intelligence analysts to get a little off-track and stumble perhaps on a private picture of a naked woman or people having sex and then pass it on to their friends, having a little chuckle. He also exposed how pervasive state surveillance is in the U.S. (Alan Rusbridger and Ewen MacAskill, "Edward Snowden: 'If I End Up in Chains in Guantanamo, I Can Live with That'," The Guardian, July 2014).

Where is our security found? Are we concerned about these revelations?  When we see what’s happening in the world, sometimes it seems like a very bleak picture. The temptation is to succumb to our fears and to do ‘whatever it takes’ to feel safe. But do we put too much trust in human-devised systems?

I am reminded of the Israelites in Samuel’s day when they asked for a king. God tells Samuel,

Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you (1 Samuel 8:7-8).

God accuses his people of rejecting him. How? Didn’t they go to Samuel, God’s prophet, and ask for help? Yes, that’s true. But there seems to be the sense that God’s way of doing things lacks the certainty and visible strength of the surrounding nations. Israel had never had a human king before. And it worked. God raised up leaders according to need. Israel hadn’t needed a human king because God was their king. He was their security. But now that is not enough. They want something more… “like other nations”.

There is the temptation for each person that says with his or her lips “Jesus is Lord” to actually reject his lordship in practice—not necessarily an outright denial so much as a demotion. We rely on our church leaders to ‘feed’ us, we substitute the podcasts, books and blogs of our preferred ‘Christian experts’ for the Bible, and we rely on our government above all to keep us safe and well. Christ the Lord disappears into the background.

But 1 Samuel 8 challenges us all: are we in danger of rejecting God? We need to examine our own lives and ask whether we actively trust him above our own abilities. But as citizens in the wider society, we need to ask similar questions. Governments have a role in creating safe societies, but they always do so under God. Yahweh is the ultimate king over all other kings, Prime Ministers, and CEOs. Given that accountability, we need to be unafraid in constantly asking how power is been used and making sure there are appropriate checks and balances. We need to remind those in power that they are not the ultimate authority. We need to keep asking questions of our government.

Christian leaders—whether in a business, school, church, or elsewhere—are called to be different.  We are not to be consumed with securing and protecting our own power and wealth, but rather to be those who treasure the word of God that calls us to promote justice and love for the most vulnerable. Despite the common sense of keeping safe, we need to make sure our efforts do not compromise the moral requirement of treating people with respect. There is a danger that security systems can be used to censor freedom of expression, including religious expression. In Egypt recently, this fear was raised by activists:

Egypt’s security forces have a track record of abuse and enjoyed virtual total impunity. Putting such equipment in the hands of unaccountable security forces is a recipe for abuse,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui…. Amnesty International has documented cases where peaceful protestors have been arrested, tortured or ill-treated. Dozens of Egyptians have also been arrested for electronic communications and posts including on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter (“Egypt's Plan for Mass Surveillance of Social Media an Attack on Internet Privacy and Freedom of Expression,” Amnesty International).


Don’t panic.  

Now, I am only just beginning to explore this theologically. I don’t know where we need to draw the line politically. I do think that seeking to tighten control of our society through technological means will lead us down dark paths in the longer term. I do think that a post-Christian society doesn’t simply leave the place formerly filled by faith empty; it seeks to inflate its own capacities to fill the void.

The people in Samuel’s day refused to listen to the prophet’s warning. They practically begged Samuel for a king ‘like the nations’. Yahweh granted their request. God honours our choices. Be careful what you chose.

Let us be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap of wanting safety no matter the cost. Let’s be prepared to be a prophetic voice. Let’s name and renounce our false idols: leaders on too-high pedestals, reliance on technological saviours, or social acceptance through conformity.

Resistance to the culture of fear begins in communities prepared to live in such a way that dares to believe that God still reigns even when there is chaos and uncertainty. Hope for a better world does not lie in tighter human controls but the grace and ‘foolishness’ of the resurrection of a crucified messiah.

Rev. Christine Redwood
is an associate pastor at Hornsby Baptist Church in Sydney. Christine holds a Bachelor in Communication and a Master of Divinity and is working towards a Master of Arts in Theology and Graduate Diploma in Divinity. She is passionate about films, theatre, writing, social justice and, most of all, sharing God’s story with others.


Gordon Preece
September 8, 2014, 5:36PM
A timely reminder linked to a very suggestive O.T. text for our situation. Having watched half of "Divergent" on the plane last night, I can't help thinking of ways governments are increasingly trying to tame us in the name of resisting terrorism. Thanks, Christine.

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