New media prayer warriors try to shake the world.

By Elizabeth A. Castelli

The banner reads: “Shockwave: Identify Yourself with the Rest of the World.” Sign up, plug in, kneel down, connect. If Shockwave’s organizers have anything to say about it, evangelical Christian youth all around the world will be doing just that this Friday.

Shockwave is a project of Underground, the youth wing of the organization Open Doors, “serving persecuted Christians worldwide” since 1955. For the third time in three years, Shockwave is working to organize the prayers of Christian youth in the service of a particular goal. In 2001, Shockwave participants prayed for the fall of the Taliban (“a few months later that prayer was answered,” the website proclaims). In 2003, they prayed for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (“Whatever your views on the war, change occurred and God is now using the true Church in Iraq to share Jesus’ message” — again, the website). Emboldened by their geopolitical successes of the last two years, Shockwavers will pray this Friday (March 5, 2004) for persecuted Christians around the globe.

 


The Shockwave Gang

 

Shockwave is just one of dozens of evangelical Christian organizations and initiatives that have cropped up in the last several years devoted to prayerful and practical intervention on behalf of “the persecuted church.” International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Voice of the Martyrs. Christian Solidarity International. Jubilee Campaign. The list goes on.

Like many of the other groups involved in advocacy for the persecuted church, Shockwave is addressed primarily to the privileged members of the first-world middle-class, seeking to create solidarity and identification among privileged Christians with their coreligionists in the third world. What sets Shockwave and other programs of Open Doors’ Underground movement apart is their particular emphasis on the experiential and the affective. Shockwave is clearly addressed to the “non-persecuted,” admitting that “It’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like to be persecuted, but persecution is the type of thing that impacts your whole life!”

Shockwave invites privileged young people to “identify with the rest of the world” through scripted games and activities. For example, the Shockwave website suggests that youth group members play “Survivor,” a Christian adaptation of the reality TV show of the same name. The game seeks “to challenge young people to evaluate their own faith levels and to determine whether they themselves would uphold their faith and survive persecution like that experienced by so many Christians across the globe.” The game divides participants into two “tribes” named for countries (“e.g., Colombia and Ethiopia”) and is staged in several “challenges.” Among the challenges suggested is one called, “Kidnap: Group Challenge—Tribe vs. Tribe,” where each tribe “must work together in a cooperative effort to locate their [kidnapped] tribe member; load him/her onto a stretcher; . . . and carry him/her back to the original meeting place.” Each “challenge” includes the screening of a video clip about the persecuted church in a particular country (Colombia or Ethiopia?) and prayer time devoted to the plight of that country’s Christians.

Shockwave is but one of numerous activities promoted by Underground USA. Many of these activities involve creating situations in which Christian young people play-act persecution: “A Night of Persecution” is promoted as an opportunity to “experience the persecuted church!” “Locked Up” promises to “take your next youth meeting to a whole new level of experience.” The “Locked Up” manual offers three different schedules—two-hour, fifteen-hour, and thirty-hour protocols—for the simulation of imprisonment, along with directions about how to “Turn your bedroom into a prison cell for 15 hours!”

With guidelines on how to perform the “Role of the Secret Police” and on torture techniques, interrogation, and “Re-education Bible Study,” the “Locked Up” manual urges young people to “rally together with some of your mates and see if you can survive with no music, no shower, no cleaning your teeth, no mobile phone, no TV, fast food or decent meal…” and then asks, “Are you up for it?”

Shockwave characterizes itself as “a global phenomenon that is shaking the foundations of this planet.” Or, put otherwise on the website, “There is a strange phenomenon that is gripping the hearts and minds of young people all over the planet and it’s going to explode!”

Shockwave’s presence on the Internet is certainly phenomenal, although visits to its electronic message boards suggest that its reach may be significantly narrower than its organizers would imagine or hope. Those who study the role of the Internet in transforming religious groups, globalized activism, and other attempts to coordinate collective action will find in Shockwave’s materials content essentially unchallenged by the new media. The form may be digital, but the content is definitely analog. That is, the Internet functions for Shockwave primarily as a delivery system for materials bearing a remarkable resemblance to old-fashioned print church magazines.

As for encouraging privileged Christian youth to enact situations of persecution as part of a purportedly prayerful solidarity with their benighted coreligionists, this “identification with the rest of the world” manages to leave undisturbed the material differences between the first and third worlds while selling yet another commodity to a Western market hungry for reality TV-style “suffering.” Indeed, Shockwave and related projects seem to be devoted to creating solidarity more amongst first-world privileged Christians than between them and “the persecuted church.” Moreover, those who encourage young people to enact the roles of “kidnapper,” “secret police,” and “torturer” ironically may be encouraging treacherous if unintended identifications. The aggressiveness embedded in the rhetorics and practices of the Shockwave organizing materials gives pause, making one wonder what “the persecuted church” would possibly make of such acts of solidarity and identification.

Elizabeth A. Castelli, an associate professor of religious studies at Barnard College, is author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture-Making, forthcoming from Columbia University Press, and a visiting fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, where she is researching “The Persecuted Church: Towards a Genealogy of a Political Program.” She will be a panelist at the Center’s conference, “Who Owns The Passion?” on March 12.