The Common Good

A Spirituality of Privacy

Facebook screenshot, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com
Facebook screenshot, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

Robert Collins, a nursing student and employee of the Maryland Department of Corrections, took a leave of absence when his mother passed away last year. At his reinstatement interview when he came back to work, he was asked to give his Facebook username and password. Then the interviewing officer, Collins told NPR, logged into Collin’s account and began “going through my messages, my wall, and my friends list, and my pictures to make sure that I was not gang-affiliated.”

Collins said, “I felt violated, I felt disrespected, I felt that my privacy was invaded. But not only my privacy, the privacy of my friends and that of my family that didn’t ask for that.” In a video posted on YouTube, Collins added, “My personal communications, my personal posts, my personal pictures, looking at my personally identifiable information, where my religious beliefs, my political beliefs, my sexuality—all of these things are possibly disclosed on this page. It’s absolute total invasion and overreach.”

Not surprisingly, the ACLU of Maryland took exception to the Department’s actions, writing that “we believe the DOC policy constitutes a frightening and illegal invasion of privacy for DOC applicants and employees—as well those who communicate with them electronically via social media.” The rights group continued, “For social media users who maintain private accounts, the DOC demand for log-in information is equivalent to demands that they produce all of their private correspondence and photographs for review, or permit the government to listen in on their personal telephone calls, as a condition of employment. Such demands would be unconscionable, and there is no basis for treating electronic communications differently.”

This May, largely as a result of cases such as Collins’, Maryland became the first state to prohibit employers from requiring workers or applicants to divulge log-in information for social media sites. A spokesperson for the Maryland ACLU commended the act: “Our state has trail-blazed a new frontier in protecting freedom of expression in the digital age, and has created a model for other states to follow.” Other states are indeed following suit—the Social Networking Online Privacy Act was recently introduced in California—and similar legislation has been introduced in Congress.

Politically, the right to online privacy seems like a no-brainer. Just as employers, and the government, shouldn’t be allowed to snoop through one’s personal diary or journal, the privacy of our digital records should be likewise respected, in law and in practice.

But biblically, theologically, and spiritually, it gets more complicated. For instance, what would a “spirituality of privacy” look like? At the core of spirituality is a connection with the divine. That begins in our heart of hearts and is by necessity a private, solitary practice. But it doesn’t end there. Genuine, life-transforming spirituality is personal, but never “private,” in the sense of “restricted to me alone.” Rather, spirituality is about the connection between a person and the divine and about the connection between a person and other people. In other words, there is an essential communal, public aspect of spirituality. Genuine spiritual enlightenment leads not only to an enriching of our connection with God, but with one another as well. Thus in some ways the distinction between a “private” spirituality and our public face is an artificial one, and at our best these two aspects of our being will be in harmonious synchronicity.

And in this area there isn’t much biblical guidance at all—the very concept of “privacy” hardly existed in biblical times, so the writers of scripture didn’t really deal with the idea, or even very much with anything related. Biblical authors commended praying in secret, and almsgiving in secret as well, but generally there’s a clear call in scripture for disciples to live our lives as witnesses, as examples to the world—to shine our lights like a “city on a hill” so others “may see your good deeds and glorify God in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). In other words, we’re called to live in such a way that we needn’t worry about anyone prying into our “private” lives—everything to be found there would reflect our deepest and purest values.

That’s all good, and I’m not going to be caught arguing against the virtues of living a completely transparent life. But when it comes down to it, I still don’t want my employer, or the government, having the right to read my diary—or access my Facebook account—and I still support public policies that protect those rights for everyone.

I guess in this case I’m glad it’s a blog post I’m writing, not holy writ or an Edict of First Principles; I certainly have no clear sense of what a spirituality of privacy might entail. Maybe this is a good theme to crowd-source: Do you know of helpful resources for people of faith around issues of privacy, digital and otherwise? We’d welcome your thoughts and recommendations in the comments section below.

Jim Rice, editor of Sojourners magazine, is a research fellow for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary (a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology), where this was originally posted.

Facebook screenshot, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

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