We are torn between our lust for surveillance and our desire to be free of it. Reports of the death of privacy may well be exaggerated—nevertheless, privacy is in critical condition, pressed upon by surveillance. It may yet recover, but privacy will never be the same again. Rapid and extensive developments in surveillance technologies and strategies will see to that. Privacy may—like the patriarch Jacob, wrestling with the angel of God in Genesis 32—have to do battle with the Patriot Act (a melee which the NSA’s PRISM readily joined). It will likely walk away roughed up, limping, if it can walk away at all.

But these days, privacy is not only being bullied; we are neglecting it. Our romance with privacy has soured, has been spurned in favor of that frisson of excitement that comes from exposing ourselves on social media. We are careless and prodigal with our personal information whenever a seller waves a glittery trinket in our direction. And yet we are conflicted: we desire privacy so that we might live without (or with as little as possible) intrusion from others, but as we withdraw more and more from face-to-face engagement, we also require alternative strategies for negotiating necessary relationships with strangers. We therefore turn to surveillance in order to help us feel safe(r)—and safety comes with knowing that those strangers are being monitored. This is why David Lyon describes surveillance as “the paradoxical product of the quest for privacy.”[1]

Whether or not the age of privacy is coming to an end, we need to take a complementary approach: to challenge the ubiquity of surveillance instead of bemoaning the loss of privacy. The practice of (in)visibility—managing our visibility in social space—offers us this. It is a skill we already deploy and one which more clearly leads to the solidarity with those unjustly burdened by contemporary surveillance that a Christian theological critique demands.

The traditional model for theorizing surveillance has been the Panopticon, Bentham’s 18th century concept of the penitentiary. Shrouded in darkness, guards in a central tower were to look out over a radial arrangement of cells. One (or perhaps a few) could observe many; the many never sure when precisely each, as an individual, was actually being watched. In an analogue world panoptic surveillance was the most feasible. A supervisor sat at a raised dais looking out over ranks of typists. Clerks gathered data to write on index cards for elementary cross-referencing. Secret agents had to actually tap into a cable to intercept communications and then relay reports to a distant office.

New interpretive imagery has turned to botany. According to these theories, surveillance does not spread out like branches from a central stem, but rather resembles rhizomatous plants. These plants—like mint—propagate via an underground root system, in which new buds produce both the new plant’s shoot (which grows upward) and roots (which grow down).[2] One sees, with this as a model, that political control of surveillance is much more difficult—indeed, almost impossible—given the lack of a central stem. Any gardener knows the frustration of plucking at the heads of a few blooms only to find that, scarcely after one’s back has turned, new shoots have sprung up many feet from what one thought was the main stalk of the plant.


If God keeps us all under surveillance from on high, privacy is readily framed as rebellion against full exposure to God.


Theological critique of surveillance proves likewise ineffective when it is wedded to the out-dated panoptic model. Paintings depicting God watching from on high, perpetuated in the image of Christ Pantocrator ruling the world from heaven, draw on panoptic sensibilities. As much as God’s watching over us may be an act of care, it is also a powerful disciplinary mechanism. The Church has frequently found it hard to resist deploying (old-fashioned) surveillance herself, and today she rather readily endorses the state’s surveillance of the (dangerous) Other. A panoptic theology is also poorly suited to engaging with issues of privacy. If God keeps us all under surveillance from on high, privacy is readily framed as rebellion against full exposure to God. Of course, a case can be made for privacy amongst people—but predicating this on a right to be left alone goes against the grain of theological values of interdependence and openness to others.

In the face of ubiquitous and, significantly, digital—and thus rhizomatic—surveillance, the right to privacy itself is problematic. The distinction between public and private is now often blurred. At multiple points in our daily lives information gathered about us is no longer confined to its own context. Digital data flows across boundaries and is aggregated from a variety of sources to yield new assumptions about our buying habits, political affiliations, or health issues. We are routinely sorted into categories about which we often have no knowledge or awareness. Privacy, centered as it is upon individuals, has limited possibilities for groups. Writers such as Helen Nissenbaum and Daniel Solove argue cogently for the social dimensions of privacy, and give particular attention to the range of cultural perspectives in operation.[3] Likewise, treating our personal information as if it were material property that can be grasped, or handed over to another, does not cohere well with the reality in which multiple users can hold the same data simultaneously.

(In)visibility, which emphasizes the skill rather than right of privacy, is an important complement to our current navigation of surveillance societies. Andrea Brighenti identifies visibility as a site of strategy because we are dealing in social relations—seeing others and being seen by others.[4] Communications technologies encourage a supply and demand market of social visibility in which we compete by managing how visible we are to others and what we make visible from among the numerous dimensions of who we are. I bracket the “in” of (in)visibility to express the fluidity of making ourselves—and, crucially, of being made—more and less visible. The brackets also acknowledge that visible-invisible is never a dichotomy: we may be visible in a number of contexts while being invisible in others.

Just as rhizomatic models displace outmoded panoptic theories of surveillance, and (in)visibility skills require we move beyond seeing privacy almost exclusively as a right, we need a corresponding shift in our theological paradigm of surveillance. Christ watching from the Cross needs to be a more prominent motif than the Pantocrator monitoring from Glory.


Those whose (in)visibility is significantly constrained are those with whom Christ (and thereby his followers) are in solidarity.


Christ was himself under surveillance—not least in his eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:11), and for the lack of fasting practiced by his disciples (Matthew 9:14). The Pharisees watched Jesus cast out demons and commit illegal actions on the Sabbath (Matthew 9:34; 12:2). We are told they were plotting against him—a typical reason for surveillance (Matthew 12:14). Luke 6:7 is perhaps the clearest reference to Christ under surveillance: “So the scribes and Pharisees watched Him closely, whether He would heal on the Sabbath, that they might find an accusation against Him.” It is likely that the Romans were keeping a watchful eye on his actions, too. In Luke 7 we read about a centurion who heard about Jesus and sent elders of the Jews to plead to Jesus on his behalf and for his servant’s healing. I think it is not unreasonable to infer that word was spreading around the Roman military about Jesus.

I think we can speak of Christ as keeping us under surveillance from the Cross. This is not to say that during those fateful hours he had omniscient knowledge of all our actions. Rather, it is the Christ of the Cross—whose very nature was demonstrated to us on the Cross—who keeps us under surveillance. To speak of Christ keeping us under surveillance from the Cross says something about the character or qualities of the person undertaking the surveillance. It is Christ—the identifier with us, the one in solidarity with us—who is the one keeping us under surveillance. Pantocrator and panopticism, on the other hand, reinforce images of oppressive control and offer limited critical traction in the face of the rhizomatic nature of surveillance.

This alternative theological paradigm makes a positive statement about surveillance. Christ’s keeping us under surveillance is not an oppressive, catch-you-out gaze which, sadly, has been all too prevalent in many forms of Christian discipline. This new theological paradigm affirms the possibility of seeing a particular surveillance technique as a good and necessary act of care. Christians, and others, may too readily dismiss criticisms of their own deployment of surveillance strategies (such as, for example, data gathering in congregations, or “accountability software” that reports one’s internet activity voluntarily to a designated person). If the only conceptual framework is panopticism and the strategy in question is not panoptic then, so far as that argument goes, there is no problem.

Secondly, the deleterious consequences of surveillance for marginalized peoples come into focus when we think of Christ as under surveillance. He is in solidarity with those who feel the force of surveillance which is both prejudiced and unequally distributed, and which reinforces existing social inequalities. Those whose (in)visibility is significantly constrained are those with whom Christ (and thereby his followers) are in solidarity. God’s preferential option is towards the surveilled; the surveillers do not get the benefit of the doubt.

Eric Stoddart teaches Practical Theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and is the author of Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched.


[1] David Lyon, Surveillance Society : Monitoring Everyday Life (Issues in Society; Buckingham: Open University Press, 2001), 21.

[2] Kevin D. Haggerty and Richard V. Ericson, “The Surveillant Assemblage,” British Journal of Sociology, 51 (2000), 605-22.

[3] Helen Nissenbaum, Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford Law Books, 2010), Daniel J. Solove, Understanding Privacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[4] Andrea Brighenti, “Visibility – a Category for the Social Sciences,” Current Sociology, 55.3 (2007), 323-42. See also Sean P. Hier and Josh Greenberg, “The Politics of Surveillance: Power, Paradigms, and the Field of Visibility,” in Sean P. Hier and Josh Greenberg (eds.), Surveillance: Power, Problems, and Politics (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2009), 14-29.

Image of Christ Pantocrator from Flickr via fusion_of_horizons


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