The Surveillance Society

By Brian Emmet

So much for privacy: once you make that deal-with-the-devil known as a smartphone contract, your privacy is pretty much gone. I don’t read those “EULAs” either, and when an app says that it needs, it simply must have, access to my location, photos, browsing history, blood type and DNA sequencing, I blithely click “OK, yes, I agree!” After all, I want the app; after all, we’re all just data anyway. While I really don’t want the NSA snooping around my life, I am sure that Apple, Facebook and Google have only my best interests at heart, and are doers only of good.
And there are those who argue that maybe this loss of privacy isn’t a totally bad thing; in fact, maybe it’s going to serve the common good.

Public video surveillance allowed the police to identify and fairly quickly apprehend the Boston Marathon Bombers. Citizen photojournalists are exposing police brutality, deficits in airline customer service, and heinous acts of all kinds, from all over the world. Further, the more that is known about us, the better we can be served, by retailers, software developers and government agencies. And then, “tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” – “to understand everything is to forgive everything.” This quote, of some popularity and very uncertain provenance, gives voice to a human longing, so maybe a society of total surveillance would be a society of complete forgiveness?

I don’t think so, either.
Among the many reasons advanced by celebrity atheist Christopher Hitchens for atheism was his hatred of the idea that belief in God meant that all of life was under God’s eternal surveillance. For not a single instant, in not the single tiniest space am I ever left to myself; that Eye is always upon me. Hitchens hated the lack of privacy entailed in belief in God. Perhaps he, like all of us, didn’t really look forward to that kind of scrutiny from that kind of Scrutinizer.
It’s worth noting that Jews and Christians, for thousands of years, have viewed the idea that I am never unknown or unattended to by God as very good news, as a wonderful thing, not an invasion of my privacy. Are we right to view our rapidly-developing surveillance society with serious misgivings—and to view God’s “watching” of and over us with gratitude and delight?
My interest here is not to present any argument for “belief in God,” nor am I assuming that such belief is shared by those reading this. What I am exploring is the language of “surveillance”: I think such language is appropriate for our current cultural moment, and wildly misplaced when it comes to belief in God.
To be surveilled is to be viewed and examined, without my knowledge or consent (other than all those EULAs I’ve signed), and for purposes that primarily or exclusively serve the interests of someone else. Nobody likes being spied upon, because a “spy” is never out for my best interests, but for the best interests of her employer. So I do believe that “privacy” is an important social good, that it is under technological assault, and that these assaults need to be surfaced, recognized, and often resisted, even when that resistance seems like nothing more than spitting into the onrushing tide.
But to be beheld by Love? That strikes me as wonderfully good news.
God is love, the Bible tells us, and because God is love, God doesn’t need anything from me or from us. To be beheld by the God who is Love is different from being surveilled. Unlike retailers, tech companies, pharmaceutical firms, political parties and governments, God isn’t trying to gain any advantage over me, get a leg up on me, make money by selling me something I may not need or want, use me as a tool or data point, or do “oppo research” to be used against me at some point down the road.
Yes, as I am invited into the Life that is Love, which Christians see as the fruit of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, that Love may have some things to say about me that may be painful for me to face or costly for me to embrace. Love is honest and truthful, and for me to become fully at home in the Life that is Love, there are some things about me that need to change, or go. But none of those things changes God’s nature or disposition towards me: I am always beheld by Love, even when what Love sees when beholding me isn’t all that pretty!
To be beheld, to be held, by Love is actually the safest place in the cosmos. I don’t need any defenses: my rationalizations of my bad behavior fall on Love-deaf ears, not because my behaviors aren’t bad, but because my rationalizations are; the value of my many good accomplishments won’t buy me anything in Love because there is nothing for sale; I don’t get what I deserve because that’s not how Love treats the Beloved.
“This is the verdict,” John’s Gospel tells us, “that light has come into the world, but that we loved darkness instead of light, because our deeds are evil” (John 3: 19). “Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light. For fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (vv. 20-21).
The fact that I have closed my door or sidled off into a dark alley, or pulled the covers over what I’m doing does not change the fact that the Light of Love is always shining upon me. I’m not in control of that Light or that Love, I cannot turn them on or off, but I do play a role in choosing my response to their illumination and invitation.

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