Think #BringBackOurGirls is the new #Kony2012? Here are 3 reasons to reconsider.

Michelle-obama-bringbackourgirls

I wasn’t a fan of #Kony2012.

I thought the filmmakers oversimplified the real story in Uganda, leaving key details on the cutting room floor. They should have considered how their goal of “making Kony famous” would play to a Ugandan audience — the very people they wanted to help.

Most of all, they perpetuated an unfortuante stereotype of Africans as voiceless, hopeless, powerless without us. #Kony2012 did a great deal to help white people feel better about themselves and arguably not enough to elevate the voices of those directly impacted by events in Northern Uganda.

As of this writing, Joseph Kony remains at large, despite the film’s stated goal of having him brought to justice by the end of 2012. The campaign’s most lingering effect seems to be the #Kony2012 graffiti still visible in my neighborhood park.

So I get why the latest example of hashtag activitism, #BringBackOurGirls, has met with skepticism in some corners. There are similarities to #Kony2012. But there are also at least three key differences to consider.

1. #BringBackOurGirls started in Nigeria.

As Megan Gibson wrote for Time, #Kony 2012 was a case of “outsiders looking in.” To its critics, Invisible Children has always struggled with a brand that depicts white people coming to Africa’s rescue. (As have other western NGOs.)

#BringBackOurGirls was, by contrast, a Nigerian response to a Nigerian tragedy. The hashtag started trending in Nigeria in late April — well before it made headlines in the West. Its first known use was in a tweet by Ibrahim M Abdullahi, a Nigerian solicitor. Check out this geotagged map to see how it spread from there.

#BringBackOurGirls reverses the typical direction of global activism. This change is long overdue. No matter how good our intentions, when we come rushing in with our own solutions, we are bound to get it wrong. Good activism is about listening and responding to those we aim to serve. They ought to lead the conversation. They get to say what their future should look like. It’s not our place to decide that for them.

2. #BringBackOurGirls shamed the mainstream media into covering something that matters.

Remember when the missing flight MH370 was the only thing happening in the world according to CNN? Remember when they were treating every far-fetched theory as if it were plausible news and torturing passengers’ families with banal questions like, “How does this make you feel?”

American news outlets largely ignored the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian girls at first. (You can bet they would’ve been more interested had the kidnapping taken place in Europe or America.)

Of course, our favorite media outlets were only giving us what we wanted, chasing after the most sensational and facile stories in order to pander to their core demographic. That’s the problem when you run your newsroom according to a corporate business model.

#BringBackOurGirls shamed the mainstream media and its enablers. (Hint: that would be us.) It put 276 kidnapped girls on the radar by making their story trend on Twitter days before CNN and its competitors could be bothered to look up from their usual tabloid drivel.

3. #BringBackOurGirls forced the Nigerian government to respond.

The Nigerian government was painfully slow to address the kidnapping. There’s even some evidence to suggest they could’ve prevented the tragedy but failed to act. Nigeria’s president, Jonathan Goodluck, took weeks to even comment on the abduction. (Imagine the backlash if President Obama waited so long to address a similar incident here.)

Nigerian voices sounded in protest, caught the world’s attention, and then that of their own government. No, a hashtag will not, in fact, bring back our girls. But those who lump all examples of hashtag activism into the same bag and dismiss them as ineffective miss the point. To goal of #BringBackOurGirls was not to frighten Boko Haram into surrender through a mere Twitter campaign. The goal was to get people’s attention, to force those who CAN act to do so. As Matt Collins wrote for the Guardian:

Selfies and hashtags are unlikely to lead to social change on their own – only real governmental pressure and action can do that. But world governments listen, and act, when enough people speak. Social media is the most shareable, durable and global collection of voices the world has ever seen, one which is increasingly difficult to ignore.

There are valid criticisms to be made. Not everything with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag plastered on it has been helpful. (For example, the BBC using a 14-year-old photo of a girl who isn’t Nigerian to represent the kidnapped school girls.) There are legitimate concerns being voiced in some parts of Africa about what else all the international attention might lead to — in particular, an expanded US military footprint in the region.

And there is a real danger that hashtag activism will, as Caitlin Dewey wrote for the Washington Post, oversimplify and sentimentalize the issues in Nigeria without actually achieving anything.

All these are legitimate concerns well worth taking into account. We are being naïve if we think hashtag activism will solve anything on its own, or if we equate posting socially conscious selfies with actually doing something. But in the case of #BringBackOurGirls, hashtag activism has amplified the voices of those we should’ve been listening to from the start. It forced a conversation. And conversation can be a powerful force for change.

A Palestinian Christian’s view of the occupation

This is part 2 of a series on rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Christian, inspired by the most recent assault on Gaza. Part 1 can be read here.  

When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy carrying an Israeli flag, trailed by Woodstock marching with an American flag. The caption below read, “America is right behind you.”

So yeah, I guess you could say I was pro-Israel. After all, how could you be an evangelical and not be a supporter of the Israeli state?

The dominant narrative of the American evangelical subculture says the Holy Land belongs to Israel alone. It’s an everlasting inheritance rooted in an irrevocable, unchanging covenant with God himself. (More on that in another post perhaps.)

The establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 is looked on not just as an important event in the life of the Jewish people, but as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, inaugurating the beginning of the end times.

Israel’s defense, then, is America’s sacred responsibility, our first and greatest foreign policy commitment. (That was something both candidates in the recent presidential campaign actually agreed on.) As such, no criticism of Israel will be brooked. Palestinians are, at best, squatters with no rightful claim to the land — and at worst, terrorists who would ignite a second Holocaust, given the chance.

Add to the mix our present-day worries about “radical Islam” and our tendency to paint all Arabs with the same brush, and it becomes far too easy for us to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simple terms of good guys vs. bad guys. Christians and Jews together on one side, presumably, and Palestinian Islamists on the other.

That is, until cracks begin to appear in the façade we’ve created to help ourselves sleep at night.

Like the fact that many of those working hardest for peace among Jews and Palestinians are members of the Jewish community. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace belie the supposition, popular in evangelical circles, that Jews and Palestinians are destined to be forever at war.

Or the fact that not all Palestinians fit the radical-jihadist-with-a-bomb-strapped-to-his-chest caricature. Not by a long shot. Not only are most Palestinians nonviolent (whatever their religion); many happen to be Christian. My spiritual brothers and sisters, united by a common faith.

For some reason, in my church we never talked about Palestinian Christians. Oh, we discussed at length the persecution of Christians in other part of the world, but never the suffering of our fellow believers in Palestine. We were oblivious to their existence.

For me, that changed four years ago, during what until this month had been the last major assault on the Gaza Strip. One of my colleagues at the time was a Palestinian Christian who grew up in the West Bank and later moved to America.

One day, she told me about her experience in the West Bank.

A Palestinian child injured in an airstrike on Gaza

She and her family had no freedom of movement, thanks to the 430-mile barrier the Israeli government began building in the mid-1990s. The barrier is rationalized as keeping would-be suicide bombers out of Israel. Yet it doesn’t just separate Israel from the West Bank; it cuts into the West Bank at several points, isolating Palestinian villages from each other.

For my colleague, this meant being cut off from her family in the next village over. Going to church meant risking arrest because there were just too many checkpoints. She wasn’t just deprived of her freedom of movement; she was deprived of her freedom to worship.

Freedom of movement is considered a fundamental human right, as is the freedom to worship. Both are enshrined in our Constitution. If these violations happened anywhere else, we would protest that freedom itself was under attack. We would call it persecution.

My colleague also described the experience of Palestinian children who have to walk past Israeli settlements on their way to and from school, subjected to taunts and physical violence from other children who’ve been taught by their parents to hate the Palestinians. Imagine if this were your daughter’s walk to school:

My colleague told me of Palestinian friends — particularly in East Jerusalem — whose homes were demolished by the Israeli government, usually on the pretext of not having the proper permits. (Never mind the homes and their occupants have been there for years.) In many cases, families have just minutes to gather what belongings they can carry before the bulldozers close in. They have no recourse, no due process.

Finally, my colleague revealed that she had no idea whether she’d ever get to see her family again. You see, if you’re Palestinian and you leave your homeland, the Israeli government (which controls who comes and goes in the West Bank) may not let you back in. Consider this example, reported in the Baltimore Sun a few years ago:

Abdelhakeem Itayem, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was counting on a simple overnight stay when he traveled from the West Bank to Jordan on a business trip. Six months later, he is still there, trapped in bureaucratic limbo.

Itayem, 41, said the long delay has kept him away from his wife, Lisa, and their seven children, who remain in the family’s home near Ramallah. It has also cost him his job as a manager for a Palestinian distributor of foreign consumer goods. “It’s breaking my heart,” he said.

Activists say scores of Palestinians who carry foreign passports, mostly American, have been denied entry this year after Israel moved to close a loophole that once allowed residents to enter repeatedly on renewable Israeli tourist visas.

The policy has created a quandary for the Palestinian Americans who remain: If they leave to get a new three-month stamp, they might not be allowed back. If they stay, their current Israeli visas will expire. Many say their past applications for formal residency in the Palestinian territories were rejected by Israel or never acted upon.

These and other tactics are part of a concerted effort to make life as unbearable as possible for the Palestinians. Then, when they leave, the Israeli government locks the door behind them.

Similar measures have been taken against people in Gaza, arguably the world’s largest refugee camp. Israel controls everything that goes in and out of that tiny, arid strip of land; Gaza’s fishermen can’t even fish their own waters on the Mediterranean coast without fear of being shelled by Israeli warships. In 2006, one advisor to the Israeli prime minister revealed that his country was deliberately trying to impoverish the people of Gaza. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet,” he said, “but not to make them die of hunger.”

Imagine if a vastly superior military power had brought you and your community to the brink of starvation in order to teach you a lesson. How would you feel? How would you react? Would you be tempted to fight back?

And even if you believe modern-day Israel is one and the same with the Israel of the Bible …

Even if you believe the biblical covenant that promised the land to ancient Israel is somehow still in force today…

Even if you think Palestinians are outsiders with no rightful claim to the land (despite the fact they’ve been living there for hundreds of years)…

If that’s how you rationalize what’s going on in Palestine today, then surely you accept that Israel is duty-bound to follow the whole covenant, not just the part that supposedly gives them the land?

So what about Leviticus 19?

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

What about Deuteronomy 10?

You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Ancient Israel knew what it felt like to be a refugee population at the mercy of a far more powerful nation. They were told by their God never to forget — and never to repeat — the hostility which they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians.

So can it be said the Israeli government truly loves the Palestinians in their midst? Can they claim to have treated the Palestinians as they treat their own? Or have they already forgotten what it feels like to be a refugee?

Because if they have forgotten, then they have broken the very covenant that promised the land to their ancestors.

Global voices of nonviolence (including mine)

Global Voices of Nonviolence (GVON) is a new initiative to share stories and perspectives on nonviolence from around the world. It was started by EthnoGraphic Media (EGM), the film company behind the documentary Little Town of Bethlehem.


This week they republished an old post of mine called “People of the third way,” in which I share how Jesus practiced (and taught) nonviolence against a political backdrop every bit as volatile as the modern Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rejecting both violent uprising and docile acquiescence, Jesus offers a third way: confronting the oppressor without fighting back. Refusing the be enemies. Subverting evil with love.

I hope to contribute more to GVON in the future. I tend to write a lot about “love your neighbor” and how this idea is central to the way of Jesus. GVON and EGM are putting these words in action, calling the church to recover its rich heritage of nonviolence.

I don’t do many shameless promotions on this blog, but here’s one. Support GVON. Follow their blog. Connect with them on Facebook. Listen to their stories of nonviolence and maybe share some of your own.

On the imminent demise of the Episcopal Church…

I hate it when the wrecking ball arrives just as I’m settling into a new home.

A little over a year ago, my wife and I joined the Episcopal Church. We were confirmed on a Saturday. Our daughter was baptized the following day, Pentecost Sunday.

Last week, Episcopalians wrapped up their triennial convention, and the big story was our denomination’s impending demise.

Over the last three years, nearly 200,000 people have fled the Episcopal Church. The long-term picture is even more depressing. One in four regular worshippers have disappeared from our pews during the past decade.

You can feel it in our more-than-half-empty churches. If this pace continues (and it probably will), in 20 years the Episcopal Church will be half its already-diminished size.

Episcopalianism has been a part of this country for over 400 years. At this rate, we won’t make it another 400. We won’t even come close.

Enter conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who blames the decline on the extreme liberalism he sees in mainline denominations like mine. In a recent New York Times editorial, he asked whether “liberal Christianity can be saved.”

Despite some of the reaction to his piece, I think Douthat asks some important questions. His article  was thought-provoking and nuanced. We should listen, for example, when he urges liberal Christians to come out of their denial:

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.

Yet Douthat sees no cause for celebration in the demise of liberal Christianity. He warns conservatives — many of whom left denominations like mine years ago — against triumphalism:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

Douthat encourages liberal Christians to remember why they exist in the first place — and what sets them apart from their secular counterparts. He laments that most “leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

There are days when I worry about that too. In my tradition, we’ve devoted plenty of time and energy to the ways in which Christianity needs to evolve. But at the end of the day, is there anything left of “historic Christianity” which, to quote Douthat again, we would “defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world”?

I think it’s a valid question.

I believe that historic, orthodox Christianity offers a compelling foundation for many of the “progressive” causes taken up by my denomination (and many other Christians as well). But is our engagement consciously rooted in the reality of the resurrected Christ and his kingdom? Would anyone even know if it was?

For example, are we advocating for the Millennium Development Goals (a subject on which our Presiding Bishop has spoken eloquently a number of times) simply because it’s the cause du jour of the industrialized world? Or is it because the resurrected Christ compels us to labor so that everyone can experience life “to the full” now and in the future?

Are we demanding diversity and equality outside the church only? Or do we also practice it in our churches, acting from the conviction that God is making a new, worldwide family — one where the old barriers are rendered meaningless?

Are we just welcoming gays and lesbians into our congregations, or are we also inviting them (and everyone else, for that matter) to make Christ the center of their lives?

These are questions we ought to be asking as we take stock of our diminishment. If what we have to offer the world is indistinguishable from secular liberalism — if it is not at its core a vibrant, Christ-centered faith that compels us to embrace causes like caring for the poor and the planet — then, well, who needs us?

Or as the apostle Paul put it once, if the tomb is not empty, then what’s the point?

That being said, I think there were a few other factors which Douthat didn’t address. (To be fair, Douthat only had about 800 words to work with). Here are some other lessons I think we should take from the Episcopal Church’s decline.

1. All Christians, liberal and conservative, are in the same boat.

Last week, Gallup revealed that public confidence in organized religion has reached an all-time low. Just 4 in 10 Americans have much faith in the church, down from 60 percent as recently as September 2001.

It’s not just liberal Christianity that’s in decline. We may have been hit with it first, but now others are joining the party. The Southern Baptist Convention, a stalwart of evangelical conservatism, has been declining five years in a row. Their rate of decline increased more than 600 percent from 2009 to 2011. (In fairness, they still have a long way to go before they catch up to us.)

Pundits will offer competing theories to explain Christianity’s decline in the West. Whatever you make of it, though, it’s no longer confined to one ideological corner of the church.

2. You can’t have it both ways.

It’s fascinating to hear some Christians interpret the mainline church’s decline as proof of God’s disapproval. Mark Driscoll, for example, is fond of comparing the growth rate at his church with that of other groups with whom he disagrees.

There are, of course, a couple problems with this approach. First, if numbers are the clearest sign of God’s (dis)approval, then we should all drop what we’re doing and start imitating Joel Osteen. (Mark, you’re gonna need a new hairdo.)

Second, let’s be honest. Most of us only apply this logic when it works in our favor. How many Southern Baptists would countenance the notion that their decline is punishment for some doctrinal error or apostasy? When it’s some other group who’s hurting, we tend to assume it’s because they’ve lost their way. Yet when we’re the ones facing decline, either we go into denial (it’s just a fluke!) or we nurse a martyrdom complex (being right has a cost!), as Douthat rightly points out.

Speaking of martyrdom complexes…

3. Sometimes the right course is the unpopular one.

Within two years of ordaining its first openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church lost 115,000 members. No one questions why they left. And the debate over that decision is a long way from being resolved.

But when was the last time Episcopalians experienced a comparable exodus? 1967 to 1969.

During that two-year period, the church lost an almost identical number of people — in part because it started speaking out against racial discrimination.

Was the fallout from that decision a sign of God’s displeasure? Was the Episcopal Church capitulating to culture, or was it leading prophetically? (Bear in mind it would be another 25 years before Southern Baptists apologized for their support of slavery and segregation.)

Doing the right thing is no guarantee of success. Nor are skyrocketing numbers always proof you’re doing the right thing.

4. Maybe all our fighting is driving people away.

There’s no question many have left the Episcopal Church because of the national body’s more controversial decisions in recent years. Heck, we’ve lost entire dioceses. So in one sense, the commentators are right. This fight is costing us.

But that’s the point. What if it’s the fight (more than the underlying issues) that’s turning people away?

Most people who’ve left the Episcopal Church have done so because their conscience compels them — not because they’re hateful or mean-spiritied. But in the process, both sides have engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight — including, among other things, taking each other to court. (Didn’t Paul have something to say about that?) I haven’t followed every sordid detail, but it seems likely to me that both sides have escalated this fight in ways it didn’t need to be escalated.

So what if it’s not just the Episcopal Church (or the congregations who’ve left) that people are staying away from, but Christianity as a whole?

Today, most outsiders define the church according to its worst characteristics: anti-gay (91% say this), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and too political (75%). Meanwhile, most major denominations are experiencing (or are about to experience) some form of decline.

Is it possible these two facts are related?

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that how we — and I mean all of us, liberal and conservative — handle conflict is driving people away.

_______________________

Related: 

That’s democracy for you . . .

Yesterday’s vote in North Carolina has been followed by all the usual (and predictable) punditry, from outrage to triumphalism. Supporters of Amendment 1 have rightly pointed out that in every state where it’s been put to a vote (31 and counting), a clear majority have voted to ban gay marriage. Whereas the eight states which have legalized gay marriage have all done so by judicial or legislative fiat.

The argument being that when democracy is allowed to run its course, gay marriage loses. Yay for democracy . . . right?

Regardless of which side you take in the gay marriage debate, let me propose that this fight-by-popular-vote is dangerous, self-serving, and profoundly misinformed. Especially for those who revere the founding fathers and the Constitution.

The United States is not a democracy. Nor was it ever meant to be one. To be sure, politicians on both sides have exploited and contributed to our national ignorance by hailing the virtues of “democracy” every time they’re in front of the cameras. Which is why we all need a history refresher.

The Constitution, revisited

In the late 1780s, after America’s first attempt at governance under the Articles of Confederation proved a disaster, the founding fathers returned to the drawing board and wrote the Constitution of the United States.

It was a bold, unprecedented, and highly controversial vision of government. In order to sell it to the public, three of the Constitution’s framers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay — anonymously wrote the Federalist Papers. Their aim was to explain and defend this new form of government, which they insisted was neither monarchy nor democracy but a republic — a system of representative government.

Why is this important? And what does it have to do with a marriage amendment in North Carolina?

It matters because the kind of “majority rule” currently (and, in all likelihood, temporarily) embraced by opponents of gay marriage just so happens to be the exact opposite of what the founding fathers intended for this country.

Consider these excerpts on the perils of democracy from Federalist No. 10, written by James Madison, who is also known as the “Father of the Constitution.”

Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.

To secure the public good and the private rights against the danger of [majority rule] is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.

Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority . . . must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.

Pure democracy . . . can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

In Federalist No. 51 —famous for its exploration of the doctrine of checks and balances, or “separation of powers” — Madison also addressed the importance of protecting minority rights against the tyranny of majority rule:

It is of great importance in a republic . . . to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.

Justice is the end [i.e. goal] of government. It is the end of civil society. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature.

Whereas under the form of government laid out by Madison’s Constitution . . .

Even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so . . . will the more powerful factions or parties be induced to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.

In other words, direct democracy or “majority rule” was not what the founders had in mind because they knew that left to its own devices, the majority would invariably oppress and deprive the minority of its rights.

Traditional marriage advocates celebrate their string of ballot victories, including the latest in North Carolina, as if a simple majority vote is all the proof needed that gay marriage is bad for society.

But there’s a reason things like slavery, civil rights, and women’s suffrage weren’t put to a popular vote. There’s a reason why the U.S. Senate is structured so a minority of senators can thwart the legislative agenda of a simple majority. (There’s also a reason why senators weren’t directly elected by the public until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913.)

In all likelihood, the founding fathers would have been horrified at the prospect of gay marriage.

But they would have been equally horrified at the way in which gay marriage opponents have advanced their agenda. “That’s democracy for you,” such opponents might say after their 31st ballot victory.

To which Madison and the other framers of the Constitution would say: “But that’s exactly why we didn’t give you direct democracy.”

What goes around . . .

There’s an even bigger consideration, to which Madison alludes near the end of Federalist No. 51. Majority rule is a fickle thing, as Republicans learned in 2006 and Democrats in 2010.

It’s in the majority’s best interest not to use their power to oppress the minority — if not for more virtuous reasons, then for the simple fact that they may not always be the majority.

Public opinion is shifting on gay marriage. Maybe not everywhere at the same pace, but it’s shifting all the same — and not in favor of “traditional marriage,” despite some overconfident claims to the contrary.

Today, the country is evenly split on gay marriage, with 50% in favor and 48% against. The National Organization for Marriage makes much of the fact that support is down three points from a year ago. But the larger trend is clearly not in their favor. Fifteen years ago, only a quarter of Americans supported gay marriage. That number has doubled in half a generation.

Opposition to gay marriage will almost certainly become a minority view by the end of this decade, if not sooner. Which should give pause to traditional marriage advocates who are currently using the brute force of majority rule to impose their will.

Someday, opponents of gay rights will be a distinct minority in this country, and they may suddenly find the tables turned. They may find their views (and their right to hold them) being put to a referendum.

Which, let me be clear, would be every bit as much a trampling of the Constitution as what they’re currently doing.

The Constitution was designed to protect the rights of the minority — whether it’s the gay couple who just wants to have access to the same rights and benefits as heterosexuals, or the evangelical who believes homosexuality is a sin against God and nature.

Either way, this “battle by referendum” is a lose-lose proposition.

_________________

Side note #1: I believe the Federalist Papers should be required reading for every American student. I’m grateful to my political science advisor in college, Philip Loy (who’s retiring this year), for making us read these important founding documents.

Side note #2: Another perspectives worth reading can be found here: “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation” by Rachel Held Evans.

How KONY 2012 is playing in Northern Uganda

Kony 2012 screening in Lira (credit: Reuters)

In my critique of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012, I said if we want to help vulnerable populations like those featured in the video, we should tell their story on their terms, not ours. We shouldn’t portray them as voiceless or hopeless. Our job is to stand alongside the poor, to regard them as equals. It’s not to “come to their rescue.”

Yesterday, CNN covered a screening of KONY 2012 in Lira, a city of 100,000 in Northern Uganda. This is the region where Kony used to wreak havoc — raiding villages, kidnapping children, and committing unspeakable acts of violence. This was ground zero for the LRA war.

The screening was hosted by AYINET (African Youth Initiative Network), a Ugandan NGO working to support those affected by the war. Several thousand people showed up.

Many of the children, women, and men in attendance lived through Kony’s reign of terror.

So what did they think of how Invisible Children presented their story to the world?

Today, AYINET issued a press release announcing that they’re suspending further screenings of KONY 2012, because:

At the Lira screening, the film produced such outrage, anger and hurt that AYINET decided that in order not to further harm victims or provoke any violent response that it is better to halt any further screenings for now.

According to AYINET, those in attendance share Invisible Children’s desire to see Kony and other LRA commanders brought to justice. But viewers were deeply disturbed by the main goal of KONY 2012: to make Joseph Kony famous.

It was very hurtful for victims and their families to see posters, bracelets and t-shirts, all looking like a slick marketing campaign, promoting the person most responsible for their shattered lives.

After the screening, one viewer was applauded when he stood up and said:

If you care for us the victims, you will respect our feelings and acknowledge how hurting it is for us to see you mobilizing the world to make Kony famous.

According to AYINET:

There was also a strong sense from the audience that the video was insensitive to African and Ugandan audiences, and that it did not accurately portray the conflict or the victims.

It’s time we started listening to those we claim to serve. If KONY 2012 is really about making a difference and not just making us feel better about ourselves, then we should listen long and hard to how the people of Northern Uganda feel about how their story has been told.

They’re the ones who bore the brunt of Kony’s evil. They should be the ones to decide how best to recover and rebuild. And it seems to me they’re saying that KONY 2012 isn’t the way to go.

For more on reaction to KONY 2012 in Northern Uganda, see:

>> KONY 2012 screening met with anger in northern Uganda (The Guardian)

>> KONY 2012: Ugandans speak (ONE)

Also well worth reading is this statement from AYINET director Victor Ochen, whose brother and cousin were abducted by the LRA:

>> A war victim’s opinion on Invisible Children’s KONY 2012

The #Kony2012 bandwagon: to jump or not to jump?

The problem with Invisible Children’s new documentary, KONY 2012, isn’t how it depicts Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. They hit that nail on the head.

Kony has made a career of kidnapping children, forcing them to kill their own relatives, and conscripting them into his violent (and pointless) crusade. Kony has long since abandoned whatever shred of humanity was left in him and become a monster.

Invisible Children is right to demand Kony’s arrest and trial before the International Criminal Court.

The problem with #Kony2012 isn’t its relentless optimism, either. Far too many people have resigned themselves to the seeming inevitability of injustice. Invisible Children is defiant in its belief that we can do more than observe history; we can shape it. That’s something else they got right.

And the problem isn’t, as some have charged, that Invisible Children spends most of its money on advocacy rather than direct aid. To be sure, I think they gave the wrong impression in #Kony2012 when they characterized their work in Northern Uganda as follows:

We were committed to stop Kony and rebuild what he had destroyed. And because we couldn’t wait for institutions and governments to step in, we did it ourselves with our time, talent, and money. So we rebuilt schools. We created jobs.

That’s unfair to the many humanitarian groups who were active in Northern Uganda long before Invisible Children existed. And yes, Invisible Children should have been clearer up front that direct aid is a relatively small part of their work. Still, there’s nothing wrong with being an advocacy group. We need organizations that provide critical services to the poor, but we also need groups who speak out against the systemic causes of poverty and injustice.

The problem isn’t even that #Kony2012 oversimplifies the story, as its director Jason Russell acknowledged this week. The problem with #Kony2012 is fourfold:

1. It oversimplifies to the point of being misleading.

2. It arguably diverts attention from more pressing issues.

3. It could undermine Invisible Children’s stated goal of seeing Kony brought to justice.

4. Most of all, #Kony2012 inadvertently perpetuates the stereotype of impoverished Africans as voiceless, hapless victims who need us to come to their rescue.

Several thoughtful reactions to #Kony2012 have been written already — for example, this post from Matthew Paul Turner and this from Rachel Held Evans. For me, one of the best is this video from Ugandan journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire (which I found thanks to my friend Nina, a former colleague at World Vision UK):

From watching #Kony2012, you might get the idea that Kony’s fighters, the LRA, are as big a threat today as they were eight years ago, when Invisible Children first started shining a light on Kony’s crimes.

But that just isn’t the case. Kony and his forces left Northern Uganda in 2006. Since then, life has been returning to normal for the region. World Vision, which has rehabilitated more than 14,000 of Kony’s child soldiers since 1995, reports that the number of kids coming through its Children of War Rehabilitation Center has “dropped dramatically.”

#Kony2012 alludes to this fact when the narrator mentions that “the LRA began to move into other countries.” But take a good look at the image that comes onscreen at this point…

Screen capture from Kony 2012

To me (and I think most casual viewers), this looks a lot like a map showing the extent of territory under someone’s control or influence. Which is misleading. Kony doesn’t control any territory. The LRA is a shadow of its former self, something Invisible Children fails to mention in its video. Most experts believe Kony has only a few hundred fighters left.

True, that’s still enough to cause mayhem. (And they have.) But the main narrative of #Kony2012 is about six years out of date.

In Kony’s absence, most of Northern Uganda has focused on rebuilding and reconciliation. So why is Invisible Children stuck in the past? Why aren’t they listening to thoughtful African voices who are warning against the danger of elevating Kony to celebrity status?

Some worry that #Kony2012 will backfire, sending Kony into hiding just as he might otherwise have been tempted to lower his guard. One advisor to the U.S. military command working with the Ugandan government to apprehend Kony said the video “couldn’t have happened at a more unhelpful moment.”

Night commuters in Gulu, 2006 (credit: World Vision)

I wonder if this is the danger of focusing your organization on a single issue. Your whole reason for existence becomes tied up with the continued relevance of that issue. The infamous “night commutes” that put Invisible Children on the map have long since stopped. There is much to be done in Northern Uganda, but the focus on Kony is misplaced. Maybe Invisible Children needs to move on or expand their focus, harnessing their enormous potential for other worthy causes.

There’s also the question of working with the Ugandan military, the UPDF, to fight the LRA, something Invisible Children seems to advocate. The UPDF has used child soldiers, just like Kony. They’ve helped Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, maintain an increasingly repressive grip on power. Can they really be trusted to protect the Acholi people of Northern Uganda, whom they’ve targeted for persecution in the past?

Sure, Kony makes a compelling villain. He is unambiguously evil. But there are bigger fish to fry in Uganda, much less other parts of the world. I wonder how much more could be accomplished if people like Jason Russell used their talents (and he has plenty to spare) to mobilize our generation to combat climate change or address some of the deeper structural issues that keep so many people in poverty.

Joseph Kony is an easy target — particularly because he’s so heinous. But because of Invisible Children’s video, he’s drawing attention away from far more deserving causes.

Finally, #Kony2012 inadvertently perpetuates an unfortunate stereotype of impoverished Africans as voiceless. While I think some of the criticism of #Kony2012 goes too far in painting it as yet another example of the “white man’s burden,” the film does appear to be driven by the assumption that Africans need us Westerners to give them a voice.

Which is a problem, because as Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire put it:

If you’re showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no place telling my story. You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what is going on.

It’s not our job to be a voice for the voiceless, because we shouldn’t think of anyone as “voiceless” in the first place. There are times when we can use our voice to amplify the voices of others, but we should always tell their story on their terms, not ours.

There’s more to justice than caring. There’s more to it than even caring about the right things. KONY 2012 makes for a compelling emotional drama, but it falls well short of the hard work, careful thought, and — above all — respect for those we’re all trying to help that ought to characterize advocacy initiatives like this.

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Update: Earlier this week, #Kony2012 premiered in Northern Uganda to an audience of thousands, many of whom are survivors of Kony’s terror. According to reports, their reaction was overwhelmingly negative — specifically, to the strategy of turning Kony into a celebrity and to the portrayal (or lack thereof) of Ugandans in the film. I believe it’s important to listen to what Ugandans are saying about a film and a movement that is largely supposed to be about them. Read more here.

Ordo creatio (or, why every Christian should be a radical environmentalist)

Sunday’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary was Mark 1:9-15, the story of Jesus’ baptism and testing. Mark includes one detail about Jesus’ wilderness sojourn not found in the other Gospels: Jesus “was with the wild animals.”

Our priest made this the focus of his homily on Sunday. He argued it’s not (as widely assumed) a foreboding statement, as if to portray the animals as a threat to Jesus. Instead, it points to the whole-earth implications of Jesus’ redemptive mission. He didn’t come simply to “save souls.”

Jesus “dwells harmoniously with the wild animals,” signaling the restoration of our relationship not just with God, but with God’s creation. “There is no getting right with the world without getting right with God,” our priest said. “But there is also no getting right with God without getting right with the world he made.”

Tree hugger and proud

Environmentalists often meet their fiercest opposition within certain corners of the church, even when environmentalism is rebranded as “creation care.”

This is partly a reflection of an impoverished eschatology — the belief, fueled in part by the wildly popular Left Behind books, that God will dispose of this world in the end and evacuate the faithful to a spiritual realm. The world is going to burn someday, so why bother saving it? It’s funny how we’ve reimagined God to imitate our compulsive habit of throwing stuff away.

But it’s also reflective of an impoverished creation theology. It’s said we were made to “have dominion” over the earth — to “subdue” it. It’s said that in the order of creation, we are the apex — God’s final creative act in a story where the created elements are introduced in order of importance. We humans top the list.

Except that we don’t.

The problem is, we stop reading at the end of Genesis 1. But the first three verses of Genesis 2 are actually part of the story from the previous chapter. The very first chapter division in the Bible is a perfect example of why chapter and verse divisions are such a bad idea. The interrupt the story at random intervals.

When we read the first creation story in its entirety (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3), we see the making of humanity is not the apex of creation. God’s act of resting is the high point.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the first creation story envisions the cosmos as one giant temple. In ancient Near Eastern mythology, temples are where deities went to rest. The earth is God’s intended dwelling place.

We are not the apex of creation. We are not the point of it all. The earth is not ours to exploit and do with as we see fit. The earth is not first and foremost our dwelling place. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

Because he’s a generous God, he invites us to share it with him, to dwell here with him. He invites us to rule on his behalf. That’s what it means to “have dominion” over the earth. We are tending it on behalf of God. We are caretakers. Tenants. Stewards.

Once we see our proper place in the creation story, there is no good reason why Christians shouldn’t be the most impassioned environmentalists of all.

Foreigners among foreigners: Israel’s journey out of Egypt

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the second from Exodus, covering the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt and one of the more distinctive features of the covenant law they’re given… 

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God has led his people out of Egypt, but he’s got some unfinished business with Pharaoh. Shortly after the Hebrews’ escape, he tells them to turn back. God baits Pharaoh into going after his former slaves. By downing Pharaoh’s army in the sea, God asserts his supremacy over the watery abyss so widely feared in the ancient Near East.

After dealing with the Egyptian army, God closes the waters behind the Hebrews. There’s no going back to Egypt.

Emigration, immigration, or all of the above?

There’s something surprising about the people who leave Egypt. They’re not all Hebrews. According to the text, “many other people went up with them.”

From the beginning, there were “foreigners” in Israel’s midst. Which might explain why the Torah repeatedly addresses how they are to be treated.

The first of many regulations concerning foreigners comes right on the heels of the exodus. Foreign households are to be included in the Passover — as long as their males are willing to be circumcised.

In addition, foreigners are not to be deprived of justice. They are not to be mistreated or oppressed. They are to enjoy the benefits of a Sabbath rest, just like their Hebrew neighbors.

The Hebrews are told to remember what it felt like to be foreigners living in a foreign land. They’re forbidden to treat others how they were treated in Egypt.

Even in the embryonic stages of Israel’s existence, we get a glimpse of how God wants to use them to bless “all nations.”

The Torah’s mandated compassion toward foreigners should be kept in mind when we come to the conquest passages later in the story. They might also be worth meditating on before we as Christians speak into the modern-day immigration debate.

An open letter to my friends in the pro-life movement

Dear friends (yes, I count you as friends),

I deeply admire your commitment to being a voice for those who don’t have a voice of their own.

Christians have long taken it upon themselves to stand up for the marginalized and vulnerable in our midst, and this is precisely what you seek to do. One doesn’t have to read the Bible very long to see where this idea comes from.

William Wilberforce

You’ve often compared yourselves to some of the great emancipatory movements of the past — namely, William Wilberforce’s long battle to abolish slavery. And the parallels are justified. The pro-life campaign can arguably be characterized as a social justice movement, even though the term might send Glenn Beck into a conspiratorial fit.

At times I wish you showed the same zeal for other marginalized populations at home and abroad, but that’s not what I’m writing today.

Your commitment to the unborn is something to admire, period. As someone who believes Christian discipleship is a call to promote justice and defend life in all its forms, I have some advice for my friends in the pro-life movement. Please take it in the spirit it’s intended: from a friend.

You’ve won some important legal victories in the years since Roe v. Wade. The abortion rate actually fell in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even though the economy was arguably the strongest correlating factor, that’s still something to celebrate, even as we mourn those whose lives are ended prematurely.

Still, you’re not much closer to achieving your ultimate goal. You’ve yet to persuade a majority of Americans of the rightness of your cause. With this in mind, I’d like to offer two suggestions:

1. Don’t forsake the power of persuasion for the power of legislation.

Like many contentious issues, the abortion debate is often reduced to a naked power grab — a no-holds-barred effort by both sides to rack up the most legislative victories and favorable court rulings.

Yet in the never-ending battle to score the next political win, it’s easy to forget that while a slim majority of Americans now call themselves “pro-life,” 3 in 4 still believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances.

You haven’t convinced the public that your position is the right one. To be honest, I’m not sure you’ve tried hard enough. Waging a political battle without adequately engaging the public conversation is like putting the cart before the horse.

Since you see yourselves as heirs to Wilberforce’s legacy (and with good reason, as I said before), it would be wise to remember his example. The anti-slavery movement in Great Britain was first and foremost a campaign of persuasion, not a forcible imposition of political will. The abolitionists spent the better part of five decades raising awareness, informing the public about the evils of slavery and demonstrating that, contrary to popular opinion at the time, blacks were not inferior to other human beings.

The abolitionists were, generally speaking, not adversarial. They engaged in civil discourse with friend and foe alike, inviting the public to imagine a reality different from the only one they had ever known. In the end, the abolitionists won the battle for public opinion, which led to victory in parliament. The turnaround was stunning. The first time Wilberforce introduced his bill to end the slave trade, it was defeated 2-to-1. Twenty-seven years later, it passed by a 17-to-1 margin.

Ask yourselves: have you done all you can to articulate the most winsome, compelling case possible for your position? Have you engaged in spirited but civil debate — respecting your audience regardless of their political views, seeking to persuade rather than demonize or score rhetorical points at someone else’s expense?

If, like some (though by no means all) in the pro-life movement, you think the best way forward is to inflict gruesome images of aborted fetuses on unsuspecting Super Bowl viewers this weekend, then the answer is probably no.

Still, you have reason for optimism. You have compelling arguments to make. There are many of us who wonder, for example, how a 7-inch journey down a birth canal earns someone a “right to life” they didn’t already have. Surely even those who reluctantly favor abortion in some cases can see the absurdity of such an arbitrary distinction.

Plus, for the first time since Gallup started measuring attitudes on abortion, a majority of Americans are calling themselves “pro-life.” As I said previously, this turn of events probably indicates the rhetorical appeal of the term “pro-life” more than anything else (since a strong majority still believe abortion should be legal in at least some cases). But hey, it’s a start. You can build on small starts.

Plus, there’s some indication that younger Americans — though they are more liberal on a host of social issues, from the environment to gay marriage — are also more likely to be pro-life than other age groups.

So make the case.

2. Put the “pro” back in “pro-life.”

When I was growing up, there was a heated argument over what to call each side in the abortion debate. You bristled at the term “anti-abortion,” preferring “pro-life” instead. The other side rallied around the “pro-choice” moniker, though you preferred to label them “pro-abortion.”

Names carry a lot of weight, so this debate was hardly an arbitrary one. But surely “pro-life” means more than opposing a procedure that terminates pregnancy.

All of us should take a page from Gabe Lyons’ book. (Literally. He’s the author of The Next Christians.)

Ten years ago, Gabe and his wife found themselves parents of a child with Down Syndrome. Gabe was rightfully bothered by the fact that approximately 90% of Down Syndrome pregnancies end in abortion. But rather than picket or protest, he chose to help others in his shoes envision an alternative to abortion.

He teamed up with a group of writers and photographers to create a booklet called Understanding a Down Syndrome Diagnosis, highlighting the positive aspects of raising a child with this condition. A major doctors’ association now plans to distribute the book to every OB/GYN office in the country.

“Create instead of criticize,” as Gabe likes to say. Help others imagine another reality, as the abolitionists did. And be prepared to walk alongside those who make the difficult but courageous choice to carry an unplanned or unexpectedly complicated pregnancy to term.

As I said in another post, 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade represents a significant tragedy. But it would have taken more than a modest token of personal goodwill to care for these children — many of whom would have been born into abject poverty — had they not been tragically aborted.

If we are serious about preventing the next 50 million abortions, then we need to be just as serious about the sanctity of life outside the womb.

You have the opportunity to change the conversation about abortion. You have the opportunity to make an even more persuasive case and show with more than just words what it really means to be “pro-life.”

I hope you’ll take it.