Early this week, the media-based activist organization Invisible Children launched a campaign to popularize the name of the ruthless Ugandan leader of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony. Kony is an international criminal, and under his leadership the LRA has abducted thousands of children and forced them into his army. Invisible Children released a video online in which their founder Jason Russell explains that by bringing attention to Kony, he hopes that Americans will pressure celebrities and, in turn, politicians, to insure that the United States assists in securing Kony’s capture. Certainly it seems that Invisible Children has excellent and honest intentions, and yet a major controversy has arisen related to a number of issues from Invisible Children’s finances to their proposed methodology for dealing with Kony.
As I watched Invisible Children’s video, and then read about the controversy, I, like many people, felt torn. I said as much on Twitter this morning and asked my social network for help interpreting the situation. The first to respond was James W. McCarty, III, Director of the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program at Oxford College of Emory University and a PhD student in religion. McCarty’s response strikes all the right chords — it is thoughtful and charitable, and yet critical and prescriptive. With his permission, I happily share his post (which originally appeared on his personal blog) with you in full:
Christian Ethics, Invisible Children, Kony 2012, and International Advocacy
By James W. McCarty, III
I owe much of my activist history to Invisible Children. I saw their first documentary as an undergraduate student and, inspired by their story, got in touch with an organization and went to Uganda in the summer of 2006. My intention was to work in northern Uganda working on behalf of those “invisible children.” However, upon arrival I was informed that, due to contextual developments, northern Uganda was not where I was needed or necessarily wanted. Rather, I spent my time in Kampala working with refugees from multiple countries (DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan) as they restitched their torn lives in Uganda.
I am quite grateful to Invisible Children for this early push into a life pursuing justice for the world’s most vulnerable. I’ve supported them financially in the past and promoted them by wearing their bracelets and telling their story. I am a living testimony that they are unbelievably skilled at telling stories and motivating young people to action.
However, because of life situations that led me to concentrate my energies on other social issues, I have only been an observer and supporter of the cause for justice and peace in Uganda from a distance. I have tried to stay informed about the situation, however, and have remained in serious conversation with activists on the complexities of the issue.
And I’ve heard two stories.
The first is that there must be international military intervention to capture Kony, bring him to justice, and begin moving towards a sustainable peace.
The second is that international efforts at demonizing Kony has made the LRA more intractable, spread their influence throughout other parts of central Africa, and tramples upon local efforts at justice-seeking and peacebuilding. There is quite a debate going on about whether the International Criminal Court has made matters better or worse re: the LRA.
Well, yesterday and today my twitter feed has erupted with people promoting this new video from Invisible Children.
My feed has also erupted with the “Africa people” I follow roundly criticizing (primarily) the campaign and (secondarily) the organization. For examples, see here and here and here and here and here and here and hereand especially HERE.
The most common critiques are that the narrative told by IC is too simple, that things have improved in Uganda in recent years, that the activism of IC denies agency to Ugandans to solve their own problems, that such advocacy is a new form of colonialism, that the simplistic representation of the complex realities on the ground in Uganda and the rest of central Africa perpetuates problematic stereotypes about Africa and Africans, that their suggestions won’t work, that the organization isn’t a good steward of their resources and allocates their funds in problematic ways, and that what the organization achieves more than anything is making white people feel good about “taking action” no matter whether that action is an appropriate one or not.
As noted above, IC makes a strong case for their work. In addition, there are multiple critiques already available that touch upon political, ethical, and practical problems some see in the “Kony 2012″ campaign. So, I won’t add anything necessarily new on those fronts. Rather, I’d like to enter the conversation by raising some things that I think are important for Christians to consider when thinking about partnering with the campaign.
The first is that Kony 2012 seems to be single-mindedly pursuing a military intervention. Problems with this are multiple: first, the war’s been going on for over 25 years, so there’s a good possibility a violent response to the LRA will be ineffective in ending the conflict; second, IC seems quite comfortable partnering with the Ugandan government to pursue this action, but this is problematic because the Ugandan military has been accused of its own, equally troubling, human rights violations – let alone the fact that Pres. Museveni is a really bad guy himself; and third, this action would likely result in the death of many people across multiple nations, many of whom would be children.
The fourth reason this is problematic for Christians, however, is a theological one. How does one justify the international use of force against a non-state backed army? Again, how does one live with the responsibility of attempting to push national and international government institutions towards the use of force? Drawing on recent developments in just war theory and international human rights law one can make an argument (see “responsibility to protect”), but it would be quite a new one in the history of Christian theology (and one that should be made only with the most careful consideration). Plus, there is a case to be made that the nonviolent responses of concerned Ugandans has been more effective in decreasing violence than any military response, Ugandan or international, to date. I know of several Christians who prefer the path of Christian nonviolence who are ready to justify the use of force in this situation. I urge them to take this consideration quite seriously. In addition to questions of faithfulness to the way of Jesus, there are only shaky reasons to think the likelihood of success is worth the risk to innocent human life (a core criterion of just war theory).
Plus, a military action against the LRA will entail the harming, and probable killing, of LRA victims – namely, the abducted children conscripted into Kony’s army. In loving some neighbors we must do all we can to avoid harming other neighbors, especially those that are the least of them.
Also, I have heard of multiple voices on the ground calling for forms of traditional justice and reconciliation rather than the single-minded pursuit of retributive justice because those who are in the LRA, willingly or unwillingly, are family members of those still in the affected communities. Christians must always keep the goals of reconciliation in mind in the pursuit of retributive justice. We don’t believe in a justice that is fulfilled with punishment. We believe in areconciling and restorative justice.
This is an important point because “Kony 2012″ has painted Joseph Kony as a monster. He has undoubtedly done horrible things that deserve punishment, but the narrative of IC ignores his early support in Uganda. His actions have not always been frowned upon by the people of northern Uganda. He didn’t arise out of nowhere. He was viewed as a freedom-fighter before becoming known primarily as a terrorist. As Christians we believe that terrorists, like the apostle Paul, are not to be vilified even as we hold them to the standards of justice. According to IC Kony is “the bad guy,” not unlike Darth Vader in Star Wars (according to a young child). This justifies his destruction, and it’s highly likely he would meet a similar fate as Osama bin Laden if IC’s recommendations are pursued. We remember the joy in another of God’s creatures killing after that event and Kony 2012 may be laying the seeds for another moment of raucous celebration at a tragic event.
I think IC is an organization that listens to the pain of vulnerable people and commits itself to working on their behalf to end their suffering. This is a wholly Christian action. However, I worry that this step in their work marks a shift toward a mistaken faith in the power of violence and the effectiveness of the ICC in Africa. I encourage Christians who have learned about the destruction of the LRA and the suffering of its victims to commit themselves to partnering with those organizations on the ground making practical moves towards restoring broken communities (Concerned Parents Association-Lira, Concerned Children and Youth Association, Friends of Orphans-Uganda, Art for Children-Uganda, and Mennonite Central Committee Uganda). If, upon much prayerful reflection, one comes to the tragic conclusion that an international military intervention is necessary both to capture Kony and to move toward peace and a justice that is restorative, please take each step in that direction carefully and with continual reflection.
Let’s just say the history of western intervention into the political affairs of African peoples has created the world in which the LRA was possible. Be very sure your advocacy of another such action won’t do the same…
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