One of the most popular news accounts on social media among young people is called Shit You Should Care About. Run by three twenty-something New Zealanders, the account has 3.4 million followers and hundreds of thousands of views on each post. I have to be honest and I have not tracked with the account for several years, but there was a time around 2020 when I followed quite closely. What I liked about the account was that this was a conscious effort by social media influencers to direct their followers’ attention towards things that matter, i.e. stuff we should care about. At some point in the last couple of years, I remember chatting with a friend during a run and bemoaning the fact that the original curatorial content of stuff that capital-M-Matters was not showing up on my feed as much. Whether that was due to the algorithm prioritizing mundane or pop culture content or a change in the priorities of the account, I’m not sure.
Nevertheless, there are two really interesting aspects about the original premise that I want to muse on here. The first is that there is a moral and ethical duty to give a shit. The second is that in this globalised, networked world, there are specific things we should care about, and perhaps other things that should take a backseat in our individual and public consciousness.
The first aspect of a moral duty to give a shit about what goes on in the world seems intuitive. To love your neighbour means one should know what’s going on with your neighbour. Swiss reformed theologian Karl Barth was quoted in a 1963 Time magazine article saying, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” It certainly seems that Barth is advocating for a Christian life that is aware of what is happening in the world around us. How else can one know how to love one’s neighbours if one does not know what is happening with them or to them? To further complicate things, Barth refuses to give priority of loving the near neighbour over the one that is far. He writes in Church Dogmatics IV/3 (page 301):
As he [sic] holds his near neighbours with the one hand, he reaches out to the distant with the other. And so the concept of his own people is extended and opened out in this respect too. It is true that he belongs wholly and utterly to his own people. But it is equally true that the horizon by which his people is surrounded and within which it exists as his people is humanity. It is equally true that he himself belongs wholly and utterly to humanity.
What does this refusal to give priority of the near neighbour mean for the ways that one directs their attention, concern, and empathy? This gets us deeper into that second aspect of the premises behind Shit We Should Care About.
Recently, religious journalism went nuts with an address from Pope Francis where he denounced the exploitation of women in surrogacy arrangements. What almost every one of those journalist pieces were missing was the rest of the address. In this address, he walks around the globe and denounces the conflicts that are happening from Gaza to Myanmar to Ukraine and then to those conflicts that—whilst deadly and horrific—do not make the Western headlines. He prays for Tigray, Sudan, Venezuela, Guyana, and Nicaragua. He prays for those places struck by natural disaster around the globe. Are these not things Christians ought to care about? Are these not things that Christians ought to do something about?
One conflict that Pope Francis did not touch on is one in our backyard here in Oceania, that of the ongoing slow genocide of the indigenous peoples of West Papua by Indonesia. While the Pacific Council of Churches has repeatedly affirmed support for the liberation movement in West Papua, even calling for a boycott on Indonesian goods, that call has gone largely unheeded.
What makes a conflict or situation worthy of our attention? What makes a neighbour worthy of making it above the line of shit we should care about?
Barth continued his Time Magazine interview by saying that he prays deeply for journalists. “Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him—either East or West. He should make it his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?”
In an age coloured by an obsession over authenticity and identity, there is an ever-growing desire to be seen as knowing the right thing and saying the right thing, and if one succeeds in those two endeavours, one becomes morally good. But perhaps, there is no singular bounded set of things that are the right things to care about. Perhaps, as Bonhoeffer wrote in his essay “Christ, Reality and Good” within Ethics:
“Whoever wishes to take up the problem of a Christian ethic must be confronted at once with a demand which is quite without parallel. He [sic] must from the outset discard as irrelevant the two questions which alone impel him to concern himself with the problem of ethics, ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do good?,’ and instead of these he must ask the utterly and totally different question ‘What is the will of God?’”
This complicates things for us. There is no “right” thing to give a shit about. What would God have us — Christians in a specific place in a specific time — give a shit about? In a hyper-connected age, whom do we trust to direct our attention? To whom do we trust to tell us what shit we should care about?
I’m not completely sure. But I do think that listening to God in this starts with listening to our neighbours. Those both near and far. And attuning our attention to all those suffering—whether or not they make the instagram stories, headlines, or 6pm news.