Technology & Social Justice

Tim Nafziger

Nearly 500 years ago, new technology—the printing press—enabled a network of European printers to disseminate pamphlets that spread the word of the Protestant Reformation and helped spur the birth of Anabaptism.

Fifty years ago, television network news beamed the use of water cannons on black Americans across the U.S., aiding the cause of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

And in the last two years, social media have played an important role in the Arab Spring and Occupy movements—allowing users to be the media—and are now being used by indigenous Canadians and their supporters in a struggle with the Canadian government to protect land and water.

Facebook, Twitter and their ilk are just the latest in a long line of technological advances that peace and social justice advocates have employed to launch "mega-underground" initiatives against the status quo, Tim Nafziger told a Bluffton University audience Jan. 22.

Nafziger, interim assistant director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, delivered Bluffton's annual Keeney Peace Lecture, addressing "Peacemaking and Technology: The Good, the Bad and the Redemption-in-progress."

"Social media can catalyze and dramatically grow the number of people willing to go out on the streets and show themselves," said Nafziger, also a Web consultant, photographer and blogger for The Mennonite magazine. That has been true, he noted, with the Canadian "Idle No More" movement, which began in October 2012 when four women from Saskatchewan began organizing sit-ins through social media to challenge a "legislative attack" on Canadian land, waterways and First Nations people.

"The bill that broke the camel's back," Nafziger said, was legislation backed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and aimed at making more land available for mining and oil drilling. Adopted, then effective on Dec. 5, the law inspired one Facebook "postcard" that pictured a man in a canoe. Indicating that the number of protected rivers and lakes in Canada fell from 2.5 million on Dec. 4 to 82 on Dec. 5, the postcard added, "Thanks again Mr. Harper."

The legislation drew on longstanding, broken treaties in Canada, where respect for indigenous people has gradually declined along with their economic indicators, Nafziger said. They have also borne a disproportionate share of the negative effects of logging and paper mills, he continued, saying that loggers have dumped mercury into waterways where indigenous people fish for food. They have then contracted mercury poisoning after eating the fish.

Christian Peacemaker Teams has rolled out its most wide-reaching social media campaign yet in support of Idle No More and Theresa Spence, the Attawapiskat First Nation chief who went on a six-week hunger strike that ended today (Jan. 24), calling on Harper to meet with indigenous leaders.

One photo of support from the Netherlands has been shared with about 2,500 people, said Nafziger, who joined CPT as a reservist in 2003 and has served in Colombia, Palestine and Canada. Another photo shows a woman holding a sign that reads "Palestine in Solidarity with Chief Spence"—representative of a connection with supporters stepping out of the shadows, he explained.

Movements for social change depend on the bringing together of people with shared grievances, and its ability to sway broader society, he added.

The campaign has gained momentum and participants in more sit-ins and other direct action similar to that advocated by King during the civil rights movement, Nafziger pointed out. He said King understood that when power is unequal, it can be equalized through direct action, which seeks to foster crisis and attention, making the powerful confront an issue that can no longer be ignored.

Nafziger also noted the late civil rights leader's pessimism about technological development. In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King referred to what he called an increasing "poverty of the spirit" that came with advancing technology. "We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the fish like sea, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers," he said.

Nafziger, who called peace and technology "the two spheres of my life," also cautioned against putting too much faith in the latter. "We can't talk about the good of technology without talking about the bad," he said. "We're so involved in technology that we assume all our solutions are in it." And that faith is "so complete," he maintained, "that we can't see it for what it is—idolatry."

Bluffton's Keeney Peace Lectureship was established in 1978 by the family of William Sr. and Kathryn Keeney to express appreciation for Bluffton's influence and to strengthen the continuing peace witness among the community.

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Bluffton public relations, 1/24/13