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Celebs and Social Justice

Is celebrity involvement in social justice a help or a hindrance to the various causes touted by the rich and famous? Two of our writers weigh in for this series. Here’s part one, from Revolution contributor Jill Sims.

Pop-culture—through film, television, and music—assembles a generation. It is a classic example of what is called “shared experience.” I may not know John from Iowa, but when we both anticipate the release of Borat or we both want Jack Bauer to save the world, we experience an immediate connection. The lines between character and actor blur and, without realizing, the public becomes fascinated with the real lives of the people we trust from the popular characters they played.

The same thing works for musicians and the songs that underscore meaningful moments in our lives. It is human nature to want definition and significance. We relate to celebrities and see ourselves in them. Famous people thus become spokespersons for groups of people within a society, easily earning generous portions of trust. This is true even for our news anchors. We accept what they tell us about the world because we believe them. From this dynamic, fame becomes a powerful force.

We exchange all forms of power as currency. Political power, money, real estate, beauty, popularity and notoriety are all traded in an unfair market to gain for causes, both selfish and selfless. As stars navigate through this market where they have been given greater sway than they deserve, many find solace in utilizing that influence for the good of others. While many jumped on the bandwagon of social injustice as though it was the newest “it” accessory like this year’s Louis Vuitton bag, many public figures are deeply committed to change. Those who were devoted prior to the fad will continue their path of addressing the needs of the hurting and afflicted long after the trend fades.

Sally Struthers promotes the Christian Children’s Fund, Sarah Jessica Parker advocates for UNICEF, Angelina Jolie is widely known to be a goodwill ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency, and countless bands endorse World Vision at their concerts.

However, Bono and the ONE Campaign shine as an inimitable example of how a celebrity can use their name and power for the cause of social justice. It joins together a once splintered force, to include many of the aforementioned organizations. It crosses political, religious and even denominational views bringing them all under the ONE umbrella. It is about food distribution, clean living, providing healthcare, education, human rights, ending violence; the list goes on and on.

When public figures as diverse as Dave Matthews, 50 Cent, Penelope Cruz, Justin Timberlake, Jamie Fox, Tom Hanks, Orlando Bloom, Julia Roberts and countless others lend their names and images to the ONE Campaign, regular people see themselves in the faces of the famous people they love and trust. There is a luminous brilliance in the broad population that can be reached when so many different stars stand together on behalf of an even more diverse society. Each one of those names represents hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people that want to “be like Mike.” Regular people aspire to emulate their heroes; shouldn’t we give them the opportunity to do just that?

The white heat of fame is disorienting at best. This unhealthy attention should be used for the greater good. When one person is given more voice than what is justifiable, hopefully they can seize the opportunity to speak for those left without a voice. As the spotlight is transferred from an empty spectacle to real issues such as hunger, poverty or genocide, children are given clean drinking water, workers earn fair wages, or warring cultures learn to peacefully co-exist.

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We, as Christians, should stand beside anyone championing truth, peace and fairness, and we should declare it as “good.” If it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, shouldn’t we celebrate when those who are overcoming the most obstinate bondages of the flesh, money and greed, willfully choose to put the needs of others ahead of their own wants? With the rapid population growth and the vast canyon of pain and undue suffering in this world, what better way to educate the multitude than by employing the effective and strong currency of fame?

The condition of the world is set. The system of esteem and glory that we give to celebrities is complicated, mysterious and polluted. Nevertheless, it is the best existing framework in place that can make education and eventually justice possible. As people learn about Darfur, AIDS in Africa, female castration and the killing of baby girls in China from the faces of celebrities they trust from film and music, can Christians believe that the Holy Spirit will tug on the hearts of the many who became involved in an issue simply because they think George Clooney is cool? Can we let God be bigger than all of that? Can we allow Jesus to use even the sexiest woman alive to help make all things new?

Fame is powerful. If we cannot break the warped reality that celebrities will be given more credence for their causes, we can at least harness it to equip and mobilize the masses into taking real action. And as Bono plainly says, "It’s not about charity, it’s about justice."

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