We Are Not Disposable
A meditation for the church and the world.
One of the most disorienting things about being a sports fan is how often, in order to continue being a fan, you have to adopt a pretty ruthless outlook about your fellow human beings. If you came up to me and said, “There’s a guy I know who really needs a job to feed his family; he’s better at this job than 99% of other humans but sometimes makes the occasional mistake,” I would immediately feel almost total solidarity with this unnamed, family-providing, exceptional worker. But if you clarified that this unnamed person was actually the guy who fumbled the ball twice in the playoffs or dropped a touchdown in the fourth quarter, I would probably say it’s a tough business but we gotta get somebody who can make those plays. Sports has a way of slithering beneath even a rock-solid worldview of altruism and imago dei, and making people feel disposable.
When I think about my contemporary culture, the disposability of people stands out as one of the chief values of the day. What Alan Jacobs so artfully called “the trade-in society” is a very real thing. And it has taken control of so much of our conversation, decision making, even relationships. In the last few years, for example, I’ve seen my corner of evangelicalism throb with the ethos of disposability, as friendships forged over gospel ministry are rent asunder due to political or even social media strife. If you made me, I could name probably a half-dozen people with whom I at one point felt a great solidarity and partnership with in life and work, whom I would have to admit now (again, if you made me) I hope I don’t run into at any point in the future.
I’ve never had many “enemies” in my life. But I used to not have many “opponents” either, and it seems like that latter category has expanded. Based on conversation with others and observation about the general malaise we find ourselves in these days, I think this is true for many people. I’ve written before about Facebook, and how the Facebook of my freshman year of college seems almost like a dream that I had one time. The idea of a website whose only ethic was friendship and only currency was neighborliness seems too ridiculous now to say out loud. But that was really how it was back then. Today, places like Facebook and Twitter are so often the places you go to combat other people, not know them. And as so much of our life takes on the values and structure of the Internet, it seems to me that we are far more likely to dispose of another person—relationally, or at least in our private imagination—than we used to be.
One thing I’ve noticed is how, according to the language of “justice” or “orthodoxy” (the word depends on whether your membership is in a progressive tribe or a conservative one), you have a moral obligation to be willing to turn on your friends and colleagues at a moment’s notice if they are found to possess unacceptable views or a sinful past. The latter situation is a little more tricky and I won’t say much about it, except to note that many of us have testimonies of grace that wouldn’t exist except that someone in our lives took a risk to their own comfort or reputation in reaching out for us. But let’s take the first category. It is absolutely the spirit of the age in which we live that no relationship, no partnership, and no collegiality can be allowed to survive if one partner adopts a political or institutional point of view that is beyond the pale. Institutions are expected to punish and expel members at the first whiff of an unpopular opinion. Colleagues are expected to distance themselves, often explicitly, from someone deemed “toxic” (and the questions of who is deeming them “toxic” and what justification they have in doing so are usually not considered important).
There’s a sense in which the sports-mentality that I described above has now been extended and applied to just about all of us. The question of how much we’re worth is now a question that can be calculated using the sum total of our political correctness, our Instagrammability, or how efficiently in control of our lives we are. I see a lot of young men, for example, who increasingly compare themselves to alpha males in the “masculine influencer” space. One of the effects of this is to see guys who are seemingly blowing up their lives every couple of years, or maybe even every few months. They’re constantly trying something new. Their friendships are thin and superficial precisely because the restless pace of their lives demands people who can be disposable. In a few weeks they might have a totally new job, a totally new hobby, or a totally new worldview. The endless novelty makes these guys feel very in control, but it creates a pervasive sense of disposability in just about every aspect of their lives.
For most people in America, day to day life is mediated by a screen that fits inside their pocket. The smartphone is the existential anchor, the base camp of consciousness that shapes everything from the moment of wakefulness to the blue-lit moments right before sleep. This feeling of disposability in our culture is embedded into our devices themselves. Just recently I saw Apple announce the features of the newest iPhone. There is comparatively little that iPhone 14 can do that iPhones 10-13 could not (Apple seems to be investing most of the best upgrades on the camera, which should tell us something important about the real role these devices are playing in our lives). But iPhone 14 is new, and that fact alone makes your old phone disposable. When the technology that literally connects us to our work, our relationships, our art, even our health, is intended to be disposable after only a few years, how could we not internalize the values of disposability? How could we not become shaped by it? How could we not suspect in our souls, perhaps at an even unconscious level, that we should be more willing to throw people and places away, lest we miss out?
Disposability threatens to become a kind of civic religion. Unfortunately, many Christian personalities and institutions are appropriating this religion rather than evangelizing it. There are some reading that sentence who are probably already instinctively defensive, reminding themselves that doctrine matters and that yes, you really should flee from that which threatens your soul. I agree, and I even wrote a short book about this. Here’s the thing: Doctrine does matter—all doctrine. And one doctrine we would do well to think more about right now is providence. Providence teaches us that nothing comes into our lives by accident. This is usually what we reach for in times of suffering, but it’s just as relevant in times of thanksgiving. Disposability is a rejection of the doctrine of providence. A posture of disposability toward the people and places that God has providentially given to us (and given us to) is a de facto denial of his wisdom and power. Before a social media dustup convinces you to end that relationship or withdraw from that institution, have you considered that these things ended up in your life only because an infinitely wise and good God declared that they would? If that question haunted us as much as it should, we would be better at not taking the bait of presentism. We might decide that the skirmishes and disagreements of the moment are not the existential warfare that they feel like. This would make us less efficient pawns of the trade-in society, but it would make us better Christians.
The Internet age is one in which God’s providence is questioned at an emotional level every second. Every time we log on, we are seeking in some ways to escape the embodied realties that our Creator has placed us in. Owing much to this, ours is a culture in which people feel that they and everyone else is disposable. What an opportunity for the gospel! Forget what you’ve heard about militant secularism winning the day. What good is a sexual revolution if everyone is too depressed and anxious to have sex? The culture of disposability is doing a number on us. For Christians, do we know our gospel well enough to engage it? Or we are too swept up in our own digital demolitions to see the pain and emptiness and meaningless on the faces of people around us?