Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Lesson of Kony 2012 for Mission Outreach: Sometimes, "Doing Nothing" is Better

Oh, my dear, idealists are the cruelest monsters of them all.”
-Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation

In her various books on American history, Sarah Vowell repeatedly reveals a complex relationship with idealism and the can-do spirit, which parallels her relationship with the United States in general. In The Wordy Shipmates and Unfamiliar Fishes, she paints a dark picture of what happens when brave and noble souls give up their homes and comforts in order to be a light unto the world, bringing aid and salvation to those living in far-off lands. The Puritans, self-professed “city on a hill,” brutally massacred the Pequot Indians. The children of missionaries to Hawaii eventually took over the country and orchestrated its annexation against the will of most of its people. Yet despite the deep cynicism of her assessment that these and other idealists are among the most damaging forces on Earth, one can sense in her writing a fascination bordering on admiration for the sheer chutzpah of these people. The Puritans’ daring and idealism form an integral part of American culture; it is part of who Sarah Vowell is, I think, and it certainly is a part of who I am. My humanitarian sensibilities come from my belief that God wants me to be an agent in the transformation of the world. These are the same instincts that have motivated missionaries throughout the centuries. Despite the secular world’s criticism of missionary movements, the same spirit of going out and making things better forms the basis of most global humanitarian efforts. The combination of daring and idealism that feeds this spirit is wonderful, powerful, and terrifying.

I am again reminded about the profound unease surrounding the relationship between the desire to change the world and colonialism as I read about the Invisible Children “Kony 2012” campaign, initiated by American Jason Russell to bring Ugandan guerrilla leader indicted for war crimes to justice. Plenty of criticism has been leveled against this movement for misrepresenting and oversimplifying the situation in Uganda. I’m not interested in adding to this criticism or defending the movement. What interests me most is the passionate argument raised by those speaking out to defend Kony 2012, which says, What have you done for the world lately? Isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?

No. No, it isn’t.

The idea of doing nothing in the face of injustices goes against every fiber of my deeply American sense that I have power in the form of economic and racial privilege, and I must use it to help those who have no power. The irony is that by having this privilege, I am also less able to understand the situation of those without it. I may have the power to change things, but that doesn’t make me qualified to do so. And the fact is that no matter how good my intentions, using my power to interfere with the lives of others will often cause more harm than good.

The example of colonial conquest of Hawaii is a worst case. Another common result that arises from the efforts of Americans to help others can be simple inconvenience and annoyance. While I was working in Nicaragua, I had a colleague in Peru who commented on the short-term volunteers coming through the boarding school for at-risk boys where she worked. The volunteers had limited language and technical skill, and as a result the boys had the dorm walls repainted every other week.

The lesson in the criticism of the Kony 2012 video needs to be taken to heart in the churches that offer social outreach ministries. Justice is not a one-way enterprise. If the church is not being consciously transformed by those it purports to transform, its work is not just.

In a wonderfully insightful response to the Kony 2012 video, Rosebell Kagumire’s critique points to a different way of doing justice work: listening to the story, listening well, and telling it right. As she puts it, “if you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless… you shouldn’t be telling my story.” In my 18-month volunteer stint in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua (fueled undoubtedly by some of that same idealism that inspired Jason Russell, the Peruvian volunteers, and the missionaries), I discovered the power of story as an instrument of justice. Being open to hearing the experiences of those in another country, letting those stories change me, daring to be vulnerable and share my own stories with them: this ministry accomplished far more than any lesson plan I developed or class I taught. Even a year and a half of listening does not qualify me to try to fix the many problems of Nicaragua's economic and political situation. That's why it angers me to hear an American claim solidarity with the Sandinistas, while having no knowledge of how the political party has both helped and hurt its country in the 30 years since the civil war. The most effective thing I can do now is continue to tell the story as truly as I know it, and hope that my telling it will change others as it has changed me.

In American culture, listening does not count as doing. Taking the time to hear someone out is time that could be better spent fixing them. Speaking with others who have spent substantial time abroad, I find that so many of us have drastically reevaluated what we think “doing something” means. In our impatience to make things better in a way that makes sense to us, we fail to see the work that we actually need to do. If we do not take the time to get the story right, and recognize the power of the story and the honor of receiving it, how can we hope to play a positive role in the story’s next chapter?

Image courtesy of Bill Woodrow. Listening to History, 1995 Bronze By Bill Woodrow, originally posted to Flickr as Listening to History.

Cross-posted on www.stateofformation.org

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fomenting Repentance: A Vision of the 100%

Originally posted at http://www.stateofformation.org/2012/01/fomenting-repentance-a-vision-of-the-100-2/

Christianity has manifold resources for individuals who feel mired in sin who seek to repent and live a new life. As Kaari Aanestad pointed out in a wonderful article, this is not without problems, as it can keep individuals trapped in cycles of depression. But what about societies that are mired in sin, which as mass entities are unable to feel as individuals feel? And what about individuals within an unjust system who perpetuate it and benefit from the injustice, even though they did not create the system and by themselves are powerless to stop it? Is the language of sin and repentance effective for transforming societal sins? The works of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. suggest to me that it is not effective to indict large groups of people for sins they may perpetuate, but did not engender.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr states that

"Individuals are never as immoral as the social situation in which they are involved and which they symbolize. If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation…An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt. But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so." (p. 248-49)

To support this assertion, he points to William Lloyd Garrison, whose fierce criticism of the evil of slaveowning merely “solidified the south in support of slavery.” (p. 248)

Martin Luther King, Jr, seemed to follow Niebuhr’s advice (with both men drawing also on the work of Gandhi). In “Give Us the Ballot,” he stresses that “our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man…We must respond to every [court] decision with… an appreciation of the difficult adjustments that the court orders pose for them.”

Rather than calling on white moderates to lament their role in a racist system, he prays for them to have the courage to be strong leaders. The distinction is perhaps subtle, because strong leadership is the ultimate goal of repentance. The difference is that King focused on rallying to the correct way rather than criticizing the incorrect way.

The priests in Nehemiah 8 also take this strategy in orchestrating mass repentance:

“This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching. He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks…Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.”’

In Nehemiah, discovering the right way to live was not cause for contrition, but for celebration and action.

Fomenting transformation on a wide scale means calling people to their highest values, rather than excoriating their sins. Excoriating sins tends to alienate folk, and alienation does not create political will. Movements that build political will are not humble and contrite; they are strong because they are joyous. They are, in Heschel’s words, “spiritually audacious and morally grandiose.”

Religious leaders would do well to take the model of Niebuhr and King into consideration when participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The call of the 99% may be able to unite a vast array of folks, but it is predicated on calling the 1% to repent of their sins. As long as the 1% are made to be a sinful other, they can never have a place in the mission of the 99%. President Obama recognized this in his State of the Union address when he called on his fellow wealthy Americans to participate in a fairer economic system as one of the 1%. We need to imagine a vision of the 100%.

Niebuhr also recognized that those with privilege would not cede it unless forced to do so. To some extent, it is unrealistic to create a vision of social change in the hopes that it would appeal to the privileged. Nevertheless, the only way to approach a world of the 100%--in which common good is taken seriously by all, and giving to the poor is once again a shared virtue--is by having the imagination to conceive of it.

It is the duty of religion to provide such vision. The call of the 99% follows the Christian model of admonishing sinners to repent. We need to explode the limitations of that movement and provide a Nehemian vision, in which the community celebrates because together they have found a new way to live.


Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).
Martin Luther King, Jr, “Give Us the Ballot,” in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (New York, NY: Warner Books, 2001), pp. 43-56.