This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Kennel-Shank: Activism and tech

The young woman on the book cover holds the trunk of a tree and looks out from its branches. Julia Butterfly Hill’s The Legacy of Luna details the two years she spent living high aloft on a platform inside a redwood as a stand against irresponsible logging of old-growth forests.

Celeste Kennel-Shank

At one point, Hill had felt her anger grow at the wanton destruction of clear cuts, all for the pursuit of patio furniture and other consumer products.

“I was angry with myself for having been part of such a society for so long,” Hill wrote in the late 1990s. “But then I began to pray. I knew that if I didn’t find a way to deal with my anger and hate, they would overwhelm me and I would be swallowed up in the fear, sadness, and frustration. . . . My hate had to turn to love — unconditional agape, love.”

She used the communication tools at her disposal to share that message with others, with love for them and creation.

I heard Hill speak in 2005, soon after I graduated from college with a degree in environmental studies. Rereading her book now — two masters’ degrees and a dozen jobs in journalism and ministry later — I remain committed to work for justice and solidarity. But my mindset has shifted somewhat.

I wonder whether it’s true that one person can make a difference, as Hill proclaims, while being clear that any action is about the larger cause rather than that individual. In some ways I’d still say yes. In others, it depends.

As activism now has a symbiotic relationship with social media, each person’s ability to support a larger cause is both amplified and diminished. Myriad people and organizations are seeking donations, signatures on petitions, calls to elected officials, participation in online forums. It can feel like a competition for the number of people who respond and issues worthy of attention. It only takes a moment to click, right?

At the beginning of Lent, I decided to fast from social media. Almost immediately I felt a sense of freedom, a sign that I hadn’t been engaging this technology in a healthy way.

“Shaping Faith in a Digital Culture” was the topic of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Pastors and Leaders gathering in early March. Speakers gave guidance for reflection, self-examination and a path forward with better boundaries. They reminded us to separate self-worth from how many reactions we get on social media, to discern whether a technological tool needs to be part of our lives before adopting it and to ask how each part of digital culture affects our relationship with God and our families.

The conference took place one week before the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic. Like many others, I saw the time I spend online jump precipitously.

Living in a tree started to sound tempting. But even when Julia Butterfly Hill did just that, she had a cell phone (a late ’90s version) for safety and to do interviews to publicize the cause. The phone intruded on her peace and quiet many times. So much for the tree option.

I was grateful when Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, editor of Geez magazine, acknowledged how screens and phone lines can affect our well-being even as they allow us to share messages that build movements and community.

“Use this time to rest, to tend to your soul, to organize around needs, to love in new and creative ways,” she wrote. “Bake unusual things with the stuff from the back of your cupboard. . . . Make art. Bear witness. Move forward one step at a time.”

Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.

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