Team Human, Christianity, and Our Collective Future
Updated: May 12, 2019
From its opening words, Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human means business. “Autonomous technologies, runaway markets, and weaponized media seem to have overturned civil society, paralyzing our ability to think constructively, connect meaningfully, or act purposefully. It feels as if civilization itself were on the brink, and that we lack the collective willpower and coordination necessary to address issues of vital importance to the very survival of our species.” This grim introductory statement carries with it a glimmer of hope, though. “It doesn’t have to be this way” (3).
Rushkoff follows these words with 216 lean pages of rich cultural commentary on the present digital media environment and its exploitation by anti-human forces for the isolation and control of humans. This is a perversion in Rushkoff’s eyes, as the promise of the internet seemed at first the emergence of a peer-to-peer, reconciling and democratizing network by which humans could flourish and collectively transcend the top-down, “tyrannical” media homogenization of the television era. Instead, the internet, as a corporate tool, mutated into an all-in-one time sieve, surveillance network, invasive advertiser, population divider, and propaganda machine. The thrust of Rushkoff’s book is founded in the unnatural, grossly constructed, and morally underdeveloped character of the present manipulation complex the internet has become and upon how humans might subvert the corrupted net for the reconciliation, liberation, and wellbeing of people.
According to Rushkoff, humans have evolved to be social animals. Calling common, neoliberal readings of evolutionary biology into question, Rushkoff draws on data that emphasize the reality that more complex creatures, and more successful ones, thrive not because of their suitedness to out-kill their competitors but rather to form increasingly numerous and nuanced relationships. Humans, however, have fearfully engineered ourselves away from the prosocial into the starkly competitive, fostering structures based on elitism, domination, and hate. Rushkoff writes quite specifically about the pitfalls of human civilization that have driven themselves between people, especially considering the incredible scope of his historical portrait and the very broad brush with which he paints it. Our animal virtues of sociality and the capacities for awe and ambiguity and diversity they engender have been pushed aside by the linear history and colonizing spirit of institutional religion, unregulated capitalism, and global elitism. These fundamentally exploitative forces eschew the public good in favor of the unsophisticated 1’s and 0’s of extremism, social darwinism, and slavery. Media of all kinds, from cultic corpi to social networks have been their favored instruments, confirming authority, dictating law and doctrine to the masses, fostering separation among lower classes with the false promises of obedient or consumerist fulfillment, and now (through social media with their filter bubbles, radicalizing drive, and unshared realities) the isolation of individuals from themselves.
Rushkoff’s fix in Team Human is fittingly open-ended. The last three chapters serve more as general guides and motivators than concrete blueprints for social action. Rushkoff emphasizes the awe of real human interaction in physical, fleshy spaces. He calls for the reclamation of lost or arbitrarily eliminated social goods like the commons. He exhorts his readers to organize locally rather than nationally, to begin with the redemption of the city-state rather than the abstract nation-state. He asks that we put down orthodoxy for inclusion, that we set aside the desperate thirst for scale and give human flourishing primacy, that we embrace an ethic of solidarity, that we be weird rather than uniform, that we accept that we are all on the same side and collaborate. Technology isn’t the enemy in Rushkoff’s eyes, but a resource to be reengineered for humans rather than an arbiter of information that extracts life from us (211). In the end, Rushkoff is out to prove his motto for the book (and the very good podcast it accompanies, which is a great place to look for more specific manifestations of the author’s rhetoric): “Being human is a team sport.”
As a still-young clergyman in both pastoral and clinical contexts, I put down Rushkoff’s manifesto after completion and just said, “Shit, that’s all I’ve been trying to say.”
Which isn’t exactly true, but it mostly is. I don’t possess a perspective remotely as developed as Rushkoff’s, which is built upon a decorated resume of interdisciplinary insightfulness that goes back before I was born, but I am working to bring myself into full participation in movements for human flourishing that are sweeping into the life of the Christian church from the margins.
Christian pastors in the twenty first century walk a very odd and precarious line. If we believe, like Rushkoff seems to, that the fundamental activity of humans on this earth is to build together a global community of dignity, peace, and acceptance—one in which the forces of classism, racism, heterosexism, and hate of all kinds are abolished in the light of ultimate love—then we also have to accept that we are card-carrying representatives of perhaps one of Western history’s most historically anti-human institutions. This is no easy task. We have lots of confession to do concerning our participation in capitalist separation, colonial domination, the upholding of slavery, and the erasure of other experiences of the sacred. We also have lots of systemic undoing to get to, a task with which whole denominations are reckoning and one that is too great in scope to adequately discuss here. What does fit, however, is reflection on the disruptively intimate ruptures and raptures that Christianity has to offer humanity, the spaces in which the spirit has been leading Christians to human flourishing in spite of themselves, the light shining through the cracks in the old, imperial edifice that give the disciple hope that Christians can still be on Team Human.
I am a hospice chaplain. Much of the hospice chaplain’s day revolves around explaining to people what a hospice chaplain does. It is expected of me that as a chaplain, I am an agent of empire at the bedside. Most patients and their families expect me to enter and reinforce what Christianity says they should be believing, that I am there to make sure God gets another point on the scoreboard, sometimes right at the buzzer. I actually do the opposite of that. My job is to help to cultivate uniquely individual spaces of sacred vulnerability, to join with people in grief or trauma or hardship and to connect with them in a way conducive to their empowerment. Empowerment here does not mean the installment of false hope or the glossing-over of weakness or sickness or uncertainty, it is instead the embracing and accepting of the human in reflection of divine love which cares far more for the restoration of the lowly than it does for anyone’s doctrinal consistency. The chaplain’s toolkit is simply her own trust in God, her knowledge of the religio-symbolic language of her care receiver(s), and the universally profound experience of actual encounter with an-other. Her aim is radical acceptance of human creatureliness and doubt, solidarity in trial, and recognition of dignity.
This is deeply prosocial and utterly rupturing to the typically contractual, exploitative, and progress-centric ways in which people are taught to associate with one another. It calls on erosive doing to stop and invokes healing being. It does not ask the human to be more than human—it denies scale for growth or eternity. It comforts but it also builds back up, introducing ambiguity, acceptance of diversity and occasional wrongness, and prioritization of caring into relational systems, and as such it strives to be not just palliative but transformative. It allows people who operate in the anti-human structures Rushkoff’s talks about to experiment with the building blocks of solidarity and cooperation. It is not charitable work but just praxis which rests paradoxically in the compassion to not demand.
One could draw from chaplaincy a line into more communal expressions of Christianity done justly (or “Christianity” for short, as opposed to imperial heresy). Christianity allows for radical civilizing and organizing, like it has on the margins throughout the twentieth century in forms like the Confessing Church, the Civil Rights movement, and the rise of liberation and post-colonial theological perspectives and practices. It also serves as an affective coordinator of shared experience and social development, teaching us to be and feel and communicate together as different people united. Introducing Rushkoff’s focus on technology, Christian use of digital media must transcend cynical marketing, social media branding, and the trivial but somehow contentious question of *screens in worship.* The Church’s use of technology must serve first (and only) real encounter, organization, and loving interaction among disciples.
Christianity is at the verge of a momentous paradigm shift. Some churches are embracing it, reclaiming some just ways of old, leaving oppressive baggage behind, and accepting the reality of the church as people together not a building full of members. Team Human is a text that has much to give Christians. Christians, I believe against plenty of convincing evidence, have much to give Team Human. May we discern carefully the way forward, and lovingly contribute to the inbreaking of justice in spite of the forces that try to divide, repress, and do away with us.