The Invisible Christians

A big part of the story that is being missed about Invisible Children is that they're firmly rooted in Evangelical Christianity.

Invisible Children founders Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole, and Jason Russell posing with guns in 2008 in Northern Uganda. Image credit Glenna Gordon.

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.”

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.

The new antisemitism?

Stripped of its veneer of nuance, Noah Feldman’s essay in ‘Time’ is another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists.