The Invisible Christians of #Kony2012


In the last few days every journalist (or outraged blogger) covering #Kony2012 has been so busy reporting on what the bloggers have been saying and putting together salad after salad of African (and therefore authentic, true etc) opinion, that they have utterly failed to actually do any journalism. That’s right: reporting. Finding out what this thing is actually about. So far as I can tell there hasn’t been much of this. As a result the conversation has either taken the form of handwringing over What Is To Be Done in Northern Uganda (we all think we know more about this than six-year-old Gavin and so we can all speak with great confidence on such matters) or else gawping blankly at the colossal, though suspiciously self-pronounced, power of social media. A big part of the story that is being missed is that Invisible Children and their project are firmly rooted in evangelical Christianity.

“We view ourselves as the Pixar of human rights stories”, Jason Russell told the New York Times last week. But when he spoke last year at convocation at Liberty University (founder: Reverend Jerry Falwell, current chancellor: Jerry Falwell Jr.) he offered a wholly different model: “We believe that Jesus Christ was the best storyteller”, he said. (Other luminaries on the Liberty convocation roster last year included Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Warren, who obediently tweeted his support for Kony2012 having been picked out as one of IC’s key “Culture-Makers”.)

In a terrific report, B.E. Wilson at Alternet looked at IC’s tax filings and found that the group has been funded by a host of hard right Christian groups, including the National Christian Foundation and the Caster Family Foundation, one of the biggest backers of the campaign for the anti-gay Proposition 8 in California. (Although it is not straightforward: Wilson might also have pointed out that Rich McCullen, who sits on the IC’s all-white-male board of directors, is an openly gay pastor at Mission Gathering Christian Church in San Diego.)

#Kony2012 could turn out to be a big thing in the young history of the internet or it might just blow over and go away. In either case it constitutes a major development in the very much longer history of Western missionary activities in Africa, and that is the frame in which #Kony2012 needs to be understood.

Invisible Children are not at all a break away from old modes of Western engagement with the African continent towards something new-because-social-media-driven; rather they come directly out of a missionary tradition of American evangelicalism that has been growing more and more obsessed with Uganda for years. When the most successful missionaries in the world are Nigerians in the vein of Redeemed Church’s Gulfstream-riding phenomenon Enoch Adeboye, and when someone like Adeboye is busy setting up churches all over America, any would-be American missionaries who fancy themselves as adventurers need to find new kinds of mission work, new ways of making themselves relevant to African societies like Uganda when converting people no longer makes sense as a primary goal.

One option has been to foment homophobia. Another, it emerges, is to make manipulative documentaries about yourself in which you urge young people to campaign for America to have another war. Maybe if technology-infatuated but proudly secularist outlets like the Guardian had looked into this, they might come up with with less mealy-mouthed (and even mealier-mouthed) coverage.

But Jason Russell knows that presenting Invisible Children as an evangelical group will be bad for business. Like New Labour during the Blair years, Invisible Children have decided that for the purposes of their mass branding they “don’t do God.” During his address at Liberty University Russell explained:

A lot of people fear Christians, they fear Liberty University, they fear Invisible Children – because they feel like we have an agenda. They see us and they go, “You want me to sign up for something, you want my money. You want, you want me to believe in your God.” And it freaks them out.

You can watch that video of his Liberty University comments here.

And he’s been pretty good at keeping a lid on it, though anyone who saw his bizarre “interview” with the fawning Piers Moron must have been struck by Russell’s sudden slippage into highly-charged apocalyptic rhetoric as he indulged his delusions (the main one being the notion that Kony spends his evenings twiddling his thumbs in front of the Piers Morgan Show):

To recap: “Here’s the beauty of the times we are living in,” said Russell, “we are living in dramatic times and so the world is waking up to the fact that Joseph Kony right now is listening to the world. And what we want the world to know and to start hashtagging right now is “Kony Surrender”, because he can hear us, he knows, he’s watching.”

Among the weirdest of Russell’s sayings is certainly his classic claim that, “We can have fun while we end genocide. It’s an adventure.” This accounts for the Invisible Children’s mysterious commitment to being fundamentally unserious, and while in the various responses to critiques that IC has issued they have argued that being serious is just far too boring for them, when he spoke at Liberty, Russell explained himself rather differently:

We’re going to have a blast doing it because we feel like God calls us to be joyful in the work that we’re doing, no matter what we’re doing, and so that’s really what we’re about.

My point is not at all to suggest that people of faith have any less legitimacy than anyone else to engage with these kinds of issues. Pointing out the Christian basis of Invisible Children is no kind of exposé. Rather I’m saying that faith should not be excluded from the discussion of #Kony2012 just because people want to talk about how amazing they think Twitter is. It’s a crucial part of all of the histories that are in play here and mustn’t be ignored. Popular discussion in the US should not be about Northern Uganda (about which most of us know very little) but about our own culture. (If you haven’t figured it out by now #Kony2012 is not Africa.) Why are we so susceptible to this kind of emotional manipulation and why are we incapable of engaging with the African continent in anything but the most manic fashion? The evangelical basis for the whole project needs to be reckoned with in answering these questions.

Footnote: Jason Russell Miscellany

There’s a super-weird bit in the Liberty speech where Russell discusses the connection he feels with Jacob, the young Ugandan whose brother was killed by the LRA and who features heavily in the Kony2012 video.

When Jacob, who was 14, said “I want to kill myself because i have nothing to live for”, I actually resonated with that because when I was 16 I wanted to kill myself because being raised in musical theater wasn’t cool.

Not to make light of a teenage Russell wanting to commit suicide, but comparing your suburban fate with that of a homeless child fleeing a war zone… He can’t be serious.

For those who just can’t get enough of the cringe, a must-read is a toe-curling Q&A by the photographer Patrick McMullan with Jason Russell from last year.

Selected highlights:

My middle name is Radical.

I am from San Diego, California, with an upbringing in musical theater. I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested & redefine international justice. Then I am going to direct a Hollywood musical.

If Oprah, Steven Spielberg and Bono had a baby, I would be that baby.

Comments

comments

Elliot Ross

Elliot Ross is senior editor at Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry

31 Comments
  1. To say that Jason is self-absorbed would be an understatement. When asked about who his hero is, he starts talking about himself again.

  2. What a wonderful illustration of the disconnect between the American peep-hole onto the ‘outside world’ and the brutal force of reality. Just because you see pictures on your television screen, it does not mean that you are automatically able to correctly interpret those realities. You make up your own stories to fill the gaps, and Mr Russell demonstrates that beautifully.

  3. This was absolutely useful. This should be a template for online commentary– insightful, clear about your point-of-view, nuanced and obviously written from an informed perspective. I think it was particularly astute to point out how, despite IC’s utilization of various media platforms, this was old school, interventionist missionary thinking to the core. Thank you very much for this– I will post it everywhere.

  4. If Jason really is an evangelical Christian on a ‘mission’ we all should be made aware of this but your facts are not facts at all, they are speculation and it’s irresponsible to publish such an assertive article on hear say. If he’s a Jesus freak we, the 100,000,000 youtube viewers deserve to know but don’t point until you do more solid research.

    1. Phil it’s a done deal. It’s out there and well known. Instead of demanding evidence, why don’t you satisfy yourself through a couple of quick google searches. I have, and I don’t feel the need to “demand more solid research”. I’ve done my solid research.
      Try: google “Jason Russell evangelical” . No shortage there…

  5. Very useful article. Elliott, maybe you could also turn your investigative journalism for a look at the alternative views in Northern Uganda, particularly the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI). They are not very good at internet publicity, but they have a long track record of representing the dominant views in Northern Uganda and in working for peace. See two videos from two of their leaders http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ew4bp_b4JQI (watch the video to the end, where he gets more personal) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u83VeMZzsek I’m sure you can find other sources.

  6. “Popular discussion in the US should not be about Northern Uganda (about which most of us know very little) but about our own culture. (If you haven’t figured it out by now #Kony2012 is not Africa.) Why are we so susceptible to this kind of emotional manipulation and why are we incapable of engaging with the African continent in anything but the most manic fashion?”

    Superb.

  7. Interesting article “The Invisible Christians of #Kony2012” indeed! The Kony 2012 campaign is sure the most viral and talked about article of the 21st century. Only within days!

  8. I love your blog. I discovered it while researching this Kony nonsense the other day. I’ve only touched on Konymania slightly on my own blog but I think it’s great that you are seriously addressing the matter. I think what you’re doing is probably the best analysis and should be required reading for anyone wanting to dig deeper on this topic. :)

  9. I guess my response to this would be: who cares? Who cares if it is backed by evangelicals? Who cares if Christian groups aren’t jumping up and down, as long as somebody is. Who cares if it took this long to get the message out? Who cares if Invisible Children is inefficient with their use of money.

    If Kony is as bad as they say he is, and if he’s still at large, then an effort to create awareness with the tools we have available to us today should be applauded. I never told my 11 year old about Kony or the youtube video but he and his friends think of him as the Boogie Man and actually freaked out about him. That again is a good thing.

    1. Completely agree with this comment. We should support this effort to bring attention to the Invisible Children, the LRA and the history of the region. We can acknowledge it isn’t the most precise documentary or historically accurate narrative. Russell himself openly admits these points and positions the film as an entry point for the issues, not an exhaustive review. The film’s purpose is to get viewers more involved and in that regard it has been massively successful. All of the tools of the story-telling – using his son’s perspective, flashy cuts and the “white-man’s superiority” – that have been criticized can be seen as narrative techniques that were chosen with the goal of impacting viewers. PBS, the BBC, etc can put together hours of analytic and objective footage on the topic that will be a much deeper and more historically thorough review. They will also garner a few thousand views and no action. Much like this blog.

      The question was asked – why are we the west only able to engage with the continent in the most manic of ways. Yet I see no answer to this (understandably frustrated) question. I doubt very few will disagree with the observation. So where does that leave us. Resign yourself to inaction, anxious blogging and hand-wringing? Simply have your government write a check to make up for previous generations’ colonial transgressions? What is your pragmatic answer?

      Mr. Ross, your criticism seems to presuppose that we all have infinite abilities at our disposal to create impact in this world. As if any one of us could choose any forum by which to express ourselves and do it well. I can’t imagine you actually believe that though. You have chosen to write. I imagine if I told you to act or sing or create a business, you would perhaps not be able to find success, as this is not how you create value in this world. Mr. Russell creates value through his art. This is his lens. At times it has perhaps not been the most effective lens to create impact, as with that clearly hokey high school film, but today it is. This video has resulted in more views and momentum than anything of it’s kind ever before. It is sui generis. And Mr. Russell’s unique skills and perspective are to be credited for that massive accomplishment.

      The story is yet to be written because we shall see to what use 100,000,000 views goes. But it is damn impressive. And I wish Mr. Russell a speedy recovery and the best of luck.

  10. Kony is a huge embarrassment to evangelical Christians, after all he is one of them and all his butchery and cruelty is done in the name of the Holy Spirit and the Ten Commandments that they hold so dear. He is thus proof that their faith does not make people better. I can thus imagine that they want to get rid of him and his horror-show which serves as a visible example of the final consequences of their own delusional worldview.

    1. Completely agree with this comment. We should support this effort to bring attention to the Invisible Children, the LRA and the history of the region. We can acknowledge it isn’t the most precise documentary or historically accurate narrative. Russell himself openly admits these points and positions the film as an entry point for the issues, not an exhaustive review. The film’s purpose is to get viewers more involved and in that regard it has been massively successful. All of the tools of the story-telling – using his son’s perspective, flashy cuts and the “white-man’s superiority” – that have been criticized can be seen as narrative techniques that were chosen with the goal of impacting viewers. PBS, the BBC, etc can put together hours of analytic and objective footage on the topic that will be a much deeper and more historically thorough review. They will also garner a few thousand views and no action. Much like this blog.

      The question was asked – why are we the west only able to engage with the continent in the most manic of ways. Yet I see no answer to this (understandably frustrated) question. I doubt very few will disagree with the observation. So where does that leave us. Resign yourself to inaction, anxious blogging and hand-wringing? Simply have your government write a check to make up for previous generations’ colonial transgressions? What is your pragmatic answer?

      Mr. Ross, your criticism seems to presuppose that we all have infinite abilities at our disposal to create impact in this world. As if any one of us could choose any forum by which to express ourselves and do it well. I can’t imagine you actually believe that though. You have chosen to write. I imagine if I told you to act or sing or create a business, you would perhaps not be able to find success, as this is not how you create value in this world. Mr. Russell creates value through his art. This is his lens. At times it has perhaps not been the most effective lens to create impact, as with that clearly hokey high school film, but today it is. This video has resulted in more views and momentum than anything of it’s kind ever before. It is sui generis. And Mr. Russell’s unique skills and perspective are to be credited for that massive accomplishment.

      The story is yet to be written because we shall see to what use 100,000,000 views goes. But it is damn impressive. And I wish Mr. Russell a speedy recovery and the best of luck.

      1. Good points made Mat. We are easily distracted by the sidebar conversations and not focused on the main story.

        The main story is that abducting children and making them kill their parents is bad, and that people committing atrocities should be stopped and brought to justice. That Kony is bad does not say that others are not bad. That others are bad too, should not imply that Kony should not be brought to justice. And that Kony should be stopped and brought in does not imply that this should primarily be done by muzungu’s (white faces), neither does it imply that the judge should be the international community only instead of the Acholi elders council (not to be confused by the ARLPI).

        One of the discussion points in the side-stories that draws a lot of attention is why JR does this, including the point by Van Stokkom on why we are incapable of engaging in anything but the most manic fashion. That is a really important and potentially powerful question.

        As I understand a bit of this from my own personal experience, I would like to give a perspective here that might be helpful.
        When situations are that incomprehesible and atrocities that unspeakable, there is a fair chance that people like you and me become irrational and do strange things.
        And to those that are not close to the actual situations, ordinary information about these situations does only get the slightest bit of attention. Media becomes our filter and war looks boring. Look up “death toll” and “DRC” (5 million – most deadly since WWII?) or “hunger crimes” and “DPRK” (killing babies? pig food?) and you are instantly savant on some of the other situations that we were once not aware of.
        And those personally touched by these atrocities might become manic but might remain powerless. Until someone found the power plug. And media is key.

        Some personal evidence here: I have personally experienced what it is to be in an IDP camp and be attacked by the LRA. (I am a pretty reasonable guy, also having worked in the league of the self-proclaimed top 1% most rational people in the world :-) and yet I have considered walking off in the bush and tracking one of the guys now in center stage and shooting him through the head. That’s crazy. By God’s grace I have been protected from losing it altogether and executing this crazy idea… But feeling powerless while standing by as your worst nightmares happening front of you ignites a fire that is difficult to control.

        Again, let’s be clear on what is the main story here and what are the side stories. This is not about me. And it is not about JR or Uganda either, not even only about Kony.
        But this is about life, not only ours, but that of others too, and what we do when we know stuff and stand by while we have the chance to do something about it.

        Arjen

        PS. there are still significant numbers of children at risk in DRC, CAR and South Sudan, currently even some 300.000-400.000 people displaced by the LRA (yep, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/map_1044.pdf , and that’s significantly more solid research than IC). So you can still do something now to change our tomorrow’s yesterday…

  11. Btw.: Rush Limbaugh last year didn’t like at all that “Obama invades Uganda, targets Christians”. And the ICC is the devil anyway, for right-wing as well as left-wing conspiracy nuts. I thus think we should make more of the Kony-Limbaugh link. Now that the rednecks know who Kony is.

    http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2011/10/14/obama_invades_uganda_targets_christians

    http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/10/15/rush_limbaugh_on_lords_resistance_army_obama_invades_uganda_targets_christians

  12. I think too often people believe Christians have an agenda because history has shown that to be the case. Modern Christians are too focused on segregation (from gays and other faiths and denominations) and people see that.

    Christ’s message was one of love. He called on his followers to go into the world and make disciples of all men. He came to be a unifier and St. Paul furthered that unifying message. Unfortuently, today’s Christians are too divisive for most people to accept. It’s that divisive and ‘holier than thou’ perception that turns people off.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. http://www.thinkablogit.com

  13. i mean its an indictment on the western left that it had to take Evangelical Christians to make us all talk about Central Africa, its wars, the resources that drive those wars. if we are the beautiful souls where were we when Kony was killing and abducting thousands of people some years ago. Did we talk about it…..NO. Personally i hate the Kony 2012 but i hate the criticism more. In fact, this is the real first time that young adults in the world are talking about something serious and blogging it. And finding a some common humanity.

    1. It’s good that people are talking, and blogging. But it’s tragic that they’re being horribly mis-informed by the video. Hopefully this common dialogue will allow people to move onto more factual understanding and action before the Kony2012 phenomena burns out, but I’ve certainly found that it’s greatest dis-service has been to convince everyone that all of the focus needs to go on getting to Kony himself – so wrong it’s tragic, and the clever spin means that the thousands of people talking are hostile to anything other than IC’s Kony2012 version of reality.

  14. Thank goodness there are people who take time to do research instead of just accepting some random video on U tube as the truth. The criticisms are on point. I also would like to add that many people have noticed that the area is rich in resources like oil. All of the details you mentioned are valid and useful in evaluating whether or not this is a movement I should get behind. From what I have seen so far, it is a nice piece of propoganda. There are many Christian organizations that do good work. So why they should chose to hide that fact is suspicious.

  15. I find myself literally shaking my head and sucking my teeth at a lot of the comments I just read, but I don’t feel the need to type out a long, aggressive defense for this article and for Elliot Ross’s writing style. The people who agree will agree and those who disagree will continue to do so.

    I’d just like to say as a first generation African American who has been spending the past two years living in Turkey, a country that has a youth that is quite possibly more ignorant than the United States’ (yes, I know that seems hard to believe), I love reading the Kony articles Elliot puts up. And I really do hope that Jason Russell, Invisible Children, and the Kony 2012 campaign can do as much good as possible for as long as possible. However, I will never try to mask how utterly disgusted I am with the sudden increase in panic about Africa and spreading disdain and ignorance this has ultimately caused.

    Since Africa is still a country in the eyes of the rest of the world, a few countries at a time tend to be the face of it–usually just general regions in countries, actually. Right now Northern Uganda is to Africa what New York City is to the US. Those who know nothing about it think that it’s all the continent is about. I have felt thoroughly insulted by everything that has happened since the Kony 2012 video came out earlier this month.

    1. What a small world we live in, I’m currently in Turkey & I had a conversation about Turkish youth last night. Oh boy, they are an interesting case indeed. Anyway I completely agree with you on this article as well.

  16. Insightful article, thank you very much. Perhaps what it highlights the most is that the Mr Russell’s role in the Kony 2021 campaign (as evidenced from IC’s mini-documentary) is more about himself rather than Uganda, child soldiers, and Joseph Kony.

  17. Congratulations to the most bizarre blog of all time. Talk about misdirected energy. I think you need to set your “special focus” straight.. And your sympathies, most likely.

Mailing List

Sign up for email updates!

 

Not the continent with 54 countries







©Africa is a Country, 2016