One day I was sitting in Starbucks, my “second office.” While reading and writing, I often take short breaks and just people watch. I noticed two teenagers come in and take a seat at one of the empty tables. They were doing what teenagers do, which is laughing and giggling while simultaneously operating their smartphones. They were immersed in whatever or whomever they were interacting with on their phones. For the next half hour, as I went in and out of reading and writing, I was mindful that they never said a word to each other. They typed as if they were texting friends who weren’t present (or maybe each other). They laughed, apparently at videos. But they never spoke to each other. After 30 minutes went by, they got up and left. I’ve noticed this same phenomenon time and again, not just among teenagers but also among people of all ages who have adopted this new cultural practice. I have experienced countless meetings where the person I’m with cannot go more than a few minutes without picking up their phone even if no one is calling (I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this as well).
As a society, our relationship with technology really has changed. When I was young, the best I could hope for when it came to engaging friends or family members who lived across the country was a phone call, a letter, or, if I wanted to see their faces, a visit. Today, while I live in Southern California I am able to speak with my nieces who live in South Carolina via Facetime. Rather than being limited to hearing only their voices, I can see their faces and their body language to detect whether they are sad or in good spirits. In these instances, technology affords me the opportunity to witness their growth as young ladies, and in doing so, it brings me a great deal of joy.
We need to be honest about the impact technology has on our lives. As amazing as technological advances have been and as convenient as they have made certain aspects of our day-to-day lives, it is necessary to examine their pros and cons. On one hand, as with the teens in the coffee shop, it can disconnect (dis-member) us. But on the other hand, like with my nieces, technology connects (re-members) us to one another.
The Apostle Paul’s insights are helpful in this regard, especially when he talks about Christian community in terms of the body. He reminds the church in Ephesus that they are the body of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23). In Ephesians alone, there are a total of 14 direct references and allusions to the church as the body of Christ—a body connected, functioning, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Generally speaking, Paul’s thematic development of the body metaphor focuses on the idea of unity, interconnectedness, and the value of each member that makes up the body (1 Cor 12:12–31). Though there are many individuals who serve as members, or body parts, the church is ideally called to function in synergy, just as human body parts work in synergy for optimal functioning. Even if one is not a Christian, Christ’s death was for all (John 3:16), and the mission of the church is to invite, through our witness, all people to be a part of his body (Matt 28:19; Acts 1:8), to unite with those who would accept that invitation to participate in Christ through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Any unity, giftedness, or fellowship with God that is realized in the church, God desires for all of humanity (1 Tim 2:4).
When a part of the human body experiences physical trauma or injury, there is strenuous overcompensation by other body parts until that particular part of the body is healed. The human body will not function as it was originally designed when trauma disrupts the natural interconnectivity of body parts. In addition, the resulting bruising disrupts the blood flow necessary to transfer “life” to that part of the body. It’s not just the trauma, it is also the lack of blood flow to the traumatized body parts that is the issue. When we think about the relationship between our (individual and collective) bodies and technology, we need to take seriously the ways in which certain technologies can and often do disrupt the body of Christ, the ways in which they dis-member this embodied community by stifling the transfer of life from one person to another.
Technology’s capacity to dis-member our individual and collective body is not always obvious or even visible. Like an athlete’s dislocated shoulder, the source of the pain is largely imperceptible. His or her arm is still attached to the body, but the joint is not securely in its place, which means the arm and the rest of the body cannot function as they should. Similarly, technology can give us a false sense of what it means to be genuinely related to others. Technology can encourage people to mistake constant access with connectedness. The result is that our relationships with others, with God, and with the past are at risk of becoming or remaining superficial because of the relative ease in which we can enter into and exit from these relationships through technological assistance. As Sherry Turkle warns, technology creates conditions in which we are “alone together.”1
However, when placed in the right hands and deployed in the right context, technology can be the opposite of trauma; it actually can be a tool for post-traumatic growth. At the 2019 Sundance Film Festival I attended a screening of the documentary Always in Season. This film tells the story of an African American teenage boy from Bladenboro, North Carolina, whose body was found early one morning hanging from a swing set in the local park. His death was quickly determined to be a suicide, but it was eventually discovered that he was in a relationship with a white woman in her 30s with a drug addiction. She lived about 100 yards away from the young man, in the mobile home of a known racist couple. This and other suspicious evidence surrounded the boy’s death and presented a case for homicide that law enforcement refused to investigate. In the film, the director, Jacqueline Olive, drew upon the history of lynching that Black people had to endure so that she could make real-time connections between the past and present-day events. The film’s title, Always in Season, comes from a phrase made popular during those Jim Crow days of white terror upon Black bodies.
As I watched the film I became slightly distracted by how much the details resembled the events surrounding my maternal great-grandfather’s death in 1933 and my paternal grandfather’s death in 1953, both at the hands of racism. My grandfather, a veteran of the US Navy, was killed by the gun of a white man he knew and worked for. His body was later found with a bullet hole in his neck, yet his death certificate contains the false statement “accidental drowning.” There were three types of racism that played out in this case: the active racism/bigotry of his murderer, the passive racism of the witness who said nothing to the authorities, and the systemic racism of the man who signed the death certificate validating the lie of “accidental drowning” that would go unchallenged to this day, even when my grandmother attempted to reopen the case. My grandfather lived a few doors down from his murderer, like the boy in the film; like the case in Always in Season, there was no investigation. The mother in the film and my grandmother were both left with hopelessness and despair following the reality that these cases had been closed and justice for their loved ones had not been served.
The power of the film is that it reconnected me both to my family’s traumatic past and to the traumatic past of countless other families just like my own. In other words, the film didn’t simply provide me with a technological means for remembering a series of events. Rather, in a very real sense it “re-membered” me.
It was as if my grandfather’s story was being told vicariously through this more recent tragic event. Although an open wound persists, the film was not only somewhat therapeutic for me, it also re-membered an entire generation of both white and Black attendees to the mistold history of this country. Those who have been historically disconnected from the legacy of thousands of lynched Black bodies had now entered into a space where they would be baptized into the painful reality of being Black in America. It is in this baptism that true cleansing, reckoning, repentance, and forward progress toward racial solidarity can be realized. Significantly, it was a baptism made possible by the technological medium of film—a technology with the potential to re-member a dis-membered community, connecting our common past and our shared present to our potential paths forward.
In stark contrast to my joyful experience of connecting with my nieces via video calls on my smartphone, the re-membering facilitated by the documentary is a painful one. The pain inherent to telling this kind of story is what causes many people to avoid or intentionally forget particular aspects of our/their history. When one generation disconnects, the likelihood of subsequent generations continuing the disconnect is high as they will often inherit the habits, practices, engagements, and avoidances of their predecessors. Yet, as unpleasant or disruptive as they may be for some viewers, documentaries such as Always in Season are necessary for authentic progress. They are like the initial disgusting taste of medicine that brings the body back to wholeness, or the sting of an antiseptic that precedes the healing of fresh cuts on the skin. As painful as it may be, there is hope that technology used in this way can, like medicine, initiate awakening and healing for individuals and communities.
To be disconnected from our past is to be rendered incapable of understanding who we are, where we came from, and ultimately where we are headed. My father recently shared with me that when he was 37 years old, he finally asked my grandmother to tell him about his father. Up until that point, the memory of his death had made it too painful for her to speak about him, even to her own children. My father made a tearful confession to her on that day, acknowledging that he didn’t know anything about his father other than stories from people in the community. As a result, he said, “I don’t know who I am.” He was disconnected from a primary source of shaping his own identity. And if my father didn’t know who he was, how could he impart any sense of a shared identity to his children? How could he convey a sense of self to me, his son?
Yet at Sundance, there I was, watching a story about the murder of another Black man, remembering and reconnecting with my father’s story, his father’s story, and my great-grandfather’s story. In that moment, I became painfully aware of the ways in which the technology of film can serve as a device for re-membering fractured parts of our nation, our communities, and ourselves, even if only vicariously through the lives and stories of particular “others.” Indeed, I encountered the redemptive and restorative potential hidden within this technologically mediated form of re-membering.
Films like Always in Season are necessary because they keep us from succumbing to a collective amnesia born of a more fundamental dis-memberment. In John Hanvey’s contribution to Understanding Human Dignity he writes, “Where that imago remains degraded or humiliated, then so do we all; society itself remains unhealed, and it must bear the legacies of unreconciled [dismembered] histories. When forgetfulness or silence is accepted, the relationality of our being in the present is weakened and we are rendered ontologically insecure.”2 Amnesia—dis-memberment—leaves all of us insecure about our beingness, in large part because the whole of our existence is interrelated, as Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote.3
Many find it difficult to comprehend how there can still be so much racial division today. But what they fail to understand is that the continued deaths and violent treatment of black and brown bodies is the legacy of a dis-membered past that too many have forgotten. And as my experience at Sundance made crystal clear, the time has come for us to set down the technologies that disconnect us from the body, and take up the technologies that help us re-member.