The world is awash in conflict. The push and pull for supporters to back a particular position is broadcast and often inflamed by digital media. Suicide bombers wager that death will bring notice to their cause. They trade their own lives for the publicity and the chaos that ensues when their heartbeat stops. American politicians, campaigning in a context of democracy, actively engage in attention-getting stunts that translate into tweets and re-tweets, which they hope might eventually turn into votes. Individually, we post what we think are compelling or insightful messages to our facebook feeds and measure the reception of these posts by the number of “likes” or comments.
I am beginning to wonder what we lose as a society when we measure the value or worth of an idea by the number of followers, tweets, likes, and hits? How does the digital revolution contribute to the ground game for justice? Every day, there are men and women who are laboring to affect change without the hope of a head turn, much less a re-tweet or like. Many, many of them are simply rising with the sun each morning to face another day of hard work. They don’t have a marketing or public relations staff advising them on what to tweet when or what image should be paired with their facebook post. They soldier on with a deep sense of responsibility to make the common good accessible for all.
Earlier this month I started a new job in a fledgling parish-based organization tucked between the parochial school and the rectory. Barbed wire and concrete do little to communicate the vibrancy inside the gates. With each ring of the doorbell there is another moment of life unfolding. I watch one of the priests, collar pushed to the side, papers balanced in one hand and a glass of water in the other, try to answer the door while also answering the phone. Unfailingly, he greets the visitor with a smile and a kind welcome. Meanwhile, the parish secretary holds court by the photocopier, turning out flyers for the upcoming health fair outreach. A somewhat beleaguered young mom, toddler in tow, requests a package of diapers to bridge the days between now and her husband’s next paycheck.
I have worked in nonprofit organizations for over twelve years and several of those in settings with few resources, yet in each one, marketing was a preeminent concern. I came to this position ready to lend my technological savvy to raise awareness of the challenges facing this inner city parish community and the good work they are doing here. Yet with each passing day I feel less and less comfortable with spending my time promoting the facebook page. I have a front row seat to very basic Gospel principles in play. Justice for the broken and abandoned is painfully slow to come, but it is being pursued humbly and earnestly.
One of my favorite contrarians, Wendell Berry, wrote, “I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.” I am not ready to wholeheartedly agree with him, but I am struck by his observation. Is my best effort spent in doing the good work or in communicating the necessity of it to others? What role should digital visibility play in advancing a good cause? Millennials are perhaps the first generation to have the full range of wired resources at their fingertips, but also to be aware of the complexities that progress can bring.