A Failure of Storytelling: Kony 2012 and the Social Imagination

After watching the massive controversy over Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign develop, I asked my friend Jake Meador to write about it.  Jake writes frequently about Africa and our relationship to it.  He writes regularly at Notes from a Small Place

In a private security meeting in 1960 with President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained that the soon-to-be-independent Congo was a diplomatic quagmire for the United States. The nation possessed enormous mineral wealth and if the United States didn’t find a way to create healthy trading relationships with the Congolese, the Soviet Union would.

Adding to the complexity, Congo was an amalgamated country comprised of a number of different regions with no minimal historical, linguistic or political alliances. As a result, the country had 80 political parties, but little of the modern infrastructure needed to make even the most simple of democratic political systems work. At this point, Eisenhower expressed surprise, “80 political parties? I’m surprised they have 80 people who can read!”

In the 52 years since that meeting, American attitudes toward Africa have shifted tremendously. Eisenhower saw Africa purely as a token on the international game board on which the United States competed against the Soviets. In contrast, many today have adopted a more altruistic view of the world’s second largest continent, actively seeking out ways to learn more about it and to help make it a better place.

There is, of course, something inherently commendable about such an attempt. And so as we consider the Kony 2012 campaign and the larger work of Invisible Children, we shouldn’t forget how preferable the well-intended charity of a group like Invisible Chlidren is to the cold-hearted machinations of most every American president prior to George W. Bush (who, on Africa at least, actually had a rather good record).

Yet, while we shouldn’t ignore the positive change, we also shouldn’t mistake it for a deep, systemic change. The shift from 1960 to today hasn’t been essential, but cosmetic. The most important point isn’t the surface-level change from the cynical maneuverings of Eisenhower to the altruistic campaigning of Invisible Children. Rather, it’s the fact that the underlying story behind both approaches is remarkably similar.

One of the hallmarks of the modern west has been the desire to achieve an ever-increasing degree of control over all areas of life. One of the sections where Matt’s Earthen Vessels really sings is when he discusses the notion of the technocratic body, the idea that the body is a tool for self-expression that can be created through the use of various techniques.

A slightly different view predominates in our thinking about the body politic. In a telling scene in the Kony 2012 video Invisible Children founder Jason Russell tells a group of young people “You might think, ‘who am I to stop a war?’ But who are you not to?”  It makes for nice-sounding rhetoric, but the notion that a group of young Americans utterly disconnected from Uganda, save through the giving of small sums and a general feeling of sentimentality toward Africa, can stop a war there is laughable.

Yet in the technocratic world, everything can be brought under human (or perhaps more accurately “American”) control through the use of techniques. So we view a tragedy like the Lord Resistance Army’s abduction of children and subsequently turning them into child soldiers (through the use of unspeakably appalling means) as a problem that we in the United States have the ability to solve.

Of course, another point that can’t be ignored in this particular conversation is the appropriate project-fatigue of many Africans. For all the superficial changes in western policy in Africa since the 19th century, one point that has remained largely unchanged is the conviction of westerners that they absolutely know what is best for Africa and that the Africans don’t.

Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire pithily summed up the problem: “You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe I can change what is going on.” Another African writer, Teju Cole, puts it more bluntly: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”

There is a deep-seated fear in much of Africa about American involvement in Africa. And it’s not misplaced. American “advisers” were sent to the Congo in 1960 with orders to assassinate democratically-elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Only months after their arrival, Lumumba was dead. Six years later, more advisers went to Accra and, as best we’re able to piece together based on the limited documents that have been released by the American government, aided in the coup that overthrew President Kwame Nkrumah.

In the 1980s, the murderous tyrant Joseph Mobuto Sese Siko (best understood as Idi Amin minus the cannibalism) was welcomed to the White House by Ronald Reagan. Like many presidents before him, Reagan was quite happy to shake hands and adopt positive diplomatic relationships with a tyrannical butcher, provided he was a right wing tyrannical butcher. In the 1990s, President Clinton attempted an “intervention” in Somalia that failed and then sat idly by and watched 800,000 Rwandans get killed in less than three months – ironically, the one case in which American intervention would have been welcomed.

In recent years, Americans have taken a greater interest in Darfur, yet as many African critics have pointed out, the human rights interest in Darfur only developed after China began reaping the considerable benefits of a trade relationship with the Sudanese government. Before Sudan was selling oil to China no one in the United States cared about Bashir’s brutality, which took the exact same form in southern Sudan throughout the 80s and 90s that it took in Darfur in the 2000s.

So all of this is to say, besides the larger problem westerners have with control and technique more generally, there’s a particularly thorny history between the United States and Africa that calls for a special kind of caution and reluctance to assume roles that will look like another manifestation of the “White Savior Industrial Complex,” as Cole dubbed it.

Of course, such a comprehensive criticism demands an equally comprehensive alternative. Thankfully, many in the church are now envisioning what such an alternative might be. In his book The Sacrifice of Africa – which should be mandatory reading for every American Christian interested in Africa – Emmanuel Katongole explores the role of narrative in shaping a people’s social imagination.

Katongole makes the crucial point that the very structure of the African nation state is predisposed to creating autocrats. When the west established the colonial boundaries of modern Africa, they were establishing a system of government designed to enrich a relatively small group of elites through the exploitation of a much larger group. It wasn’t simply that vicious individuals took positions of authority and used the political community in that way. It’s that the nature of the African nation-state cannot do anything other than produce autocratic leaders who enrich themselves by exploiting the masses.

This makes sense when you consider the origins of African nation-states. They are not the product of centuries of internal discussion amongst their citizens and careful negotiations with their neighbors. Rather, European delegates at the Conference of Berlin haphazardly drew them on an incomplete map of the continent in 1885. When he returned to London from Berlin, Lord Salisbury told the British public “We have been engaged in the act of dividing up rivers and savannahs with the lone impediment being that we don’t know precisely where they are.”

The purpose of drawing the boundaries in the ways that they did was to enhance the commercial prospects of European leaders, in short to enrich a few at the expense of the many. Political independence therefore became a kind of Pyrrhic victory.  Africans now ruled, but they did so within a structure guaranteed to produce the same result as before, only now with African autocrats instead of western. Katongole puts it provocatively: The African nation state has not failed; it’s done exactly what it was designed to do, enrich a few and oppress the many.

Viewed this way, the attempt to use American intervention to take down a single warlord isn’t just reflective of modern ideas of technocratic control or Americans clumsily relating to Africa, though it is that. It’s also a Sisyphean task – take down Kony and someone else will replace him. (Frankly, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has been in office over 20 years, has a questionable human rights record himself and doesn’t show any sign of being open to democratic elections anytime soon.) They may not be as bad as Kony, but they may just as well be worse. 40 years ago many Ugandans couldn’t imagine anyone worse than Milton Obote. But what they got to replace him was the aforementioned cannibalistic mad man Idi Amin.

The difficulty, then, with Kony 2012 has very little to do with the pragmatic objections raised by some. Yes, it is problematic that we don’t know where Kony actually is or that we don’t really know what IC does with all their donations. Those are problems, but minor ones. When the house is on fire you don’t really care that a window is cracked or that there’s a hole in the ceiling of the master bedroom.

The deepest problems are less a matter of pragmatic difficulties and much more a question of the underlying social imaginations of Americans and many Africans. It’s a failure of story telling, in other words.

In the United States, the formative stories of our social imagination are all predicated on achieving control through the use of innovation and enthusiasm culminating in a technique. In Africa, the dominant social narrative is one of various groups always fighting over positions of leadership with the goal of enriching themselves through the exploitation of the masses. Again, remembering Katongole: The African nation-state has not failed, at least not if failure is measured by whether or not something has done what it was designed to do. In both the American and African cases, the remedy is a new formative story producing a redeemed social imagination.

In The Sacrifice of Africa, Katongole highlights briefly how core Christian teaching, such as the Trinity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection provide the basis for a different story and a different imagination. In the Trinity, human beings see a healthy answer to the problem of the one and the many. We see how it is that beings can exist in relationship with each other without consuming each other.

Likewise, in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, we see a model of leadership premised on service and self-sacrifice rather than enriching one’s self. And at the resurrection we are reminded that ultimately the final victory is God’s and must be accomplished by God – a firm chastening of any aspirations we might have toward control.

In short, Christianity when it functions as the foundational social narrative – and not simply in some narrowly-defined sphere of “religion” – offers us resources that can reshape our social imaginations and in so doing reshape our societies for the good of all. The beginning of our response to Kony 2012, then, like our response to all other areas of life, is repentance of the ways we fail to live out that story.

Then we begin the work of living as baptized Christians in the already, not yet, seeking the health of the nations through a deepening understanding and applying of these core Christian teachings. And as Matt has written elsewhere that work will look like a cheerful, whistling walk in a radically different direction from the one we’ve known thus far.

Christianity and Globalization: A Unity in Diversity

The Judeo-Christian religion has always experienced a tension between expansion and isolation, universality and particularity. From the beginning of the history of the world as outlined in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, we are confronted with a view of mankind that has unity in diversity at its very core. The story of humanity opens in Eden with two (very different) human beings joined together in a dissoluble union as man and wife; the family is at the center of man’s world. However, the story of the unity of mankind quickly devolves into combative tension and difference, dramatically beginning with the Fratricide and rushing forward towards the rise and fall of Babel and finally beings swept away in a great deluge of wrath, to say nothing of water.

As God began to work in history with specific people something like a polarization came about. The Jews understood themselves as a group of people in contrast to Others, the Gentile or the nations. They were a particular group, different and separate from all others, complete with a new sort of religion, a totally different God, and rites, rituals and customs that all created barriers between the Jews and the rest of the world. However, running alongside this radical separation together and underneath it, is the continual reminder that God is not only the God of the Jews but is the God of all mankind, the God who has created all things, established a universal moral order, rules over the nations, and will hold all men accountable for their rebellion, pride, and sin. The Old Testament prophets were consistent and repetitive in their dennoucement of Israelite sin along with pronouncements that God would one day glorify Himself in all the peoples of the world.

These two truths, that God is the God of a particular people and is also the God of all people provides a unique foundation for a Christian theory of globalization. Perhaps most unique, or at least most helpful, given the current reactions to colonialism, imperialism, and cultural hegemony—real and perceived—aspect of a Christian approach to globalization is this dual approach to human diversity. Christianity does not demand a homogenization of culture, although it does place priority on the unifying aspects of human nature and God’s law. By recognizing that there are certain universal aspects to human nature, things like rationality, creativity, communality, and that there also are universal laws with moral import Christianity provides a framework under which diverse communities and societies can be united with a common understanding of themselves, their purpose, and the meaning of their lives, endeavors, and actions. At the same time, this framework is not so restrictive or demanding that is will squelch or destroy the various individual and localized expressions of human nature.

While there are numerous prudential considerations to be made with regard to various global issues and the forms and roles governing interaction between diverse people groups, Christianity, with its universal claims about God and man is able to avoid the human tendency to devolve into sectarian disputes and conflict that pits one local expression of universal truth against another. The Christian context gives usch conflicts access to a higher and more universal vocabulary that makes sense of the differences while still uniting them in fundamental ways.

HT: Reflections on Dr. Samuel Gregg’s morning lecture on Theology and the History of Globalization at Acton University.

"Advances In Global Health" Symposium: A Response

I’m still reeling from my exposure to a full two hours of rhetoric without substance at the symposium on “Advances in Global Health by Non-Governmental Organizations.” The radical difference between the conference keynote speaker’s view of the world and my own makes it difficult to find much good in a speech that majored on conclusions drawn from undefended assumptions. Nevertheless, rather than fall into the error I so heartily condemned I offer the following as an attempt to interact with the main thrust of the rhetoric and plea of the contemporary social democrat.

Ideology cannot be addressed by merely practical means. Stephen Lewis, symposium keynote speaker and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, gave morbid and shocking details about the various ways some African men exploit women—men who even think of rape as a legitimate strategy of war. The ideology that undergirds the strategic implementation of these horrific actions to achieve political or personal ends is hideous and deserves all the censure and indignation we can muster.

However, to ask in futile exasperation (my paraphrase), “What in God’s name is wrong with this world that preconceived notions exist which permit men to allow this sort of behavior to go unpunished?” and then suggest that an increase of Western funding of food and water projects and public health and education programs in Sub-Saharan Africa is the primary solution is radically short-sighted. Continue reading

"Advances in Global Health" Symposium: Less Thought, More Rhetoric

The air was full of excitement and promise as the hundreds of people attending Pacific Lutheran University’s “Advances in Global Health by Non-Governmental Organizations” symposium last evening, jauntily swagger and glide into the main ballroom of the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center; students and affluent community members alike meld together, their ideological similarities strikingly visible in their dress

The only way to tell the difference between the two groups is by the slight difference in the cut and quality of their otherwise similar vintage (or vintage-lite) threads. The predominant hairstyle is long—on both men and women—with curls and waves seeming most fashionable among society’s self-proclaimed altruists and activists. Scarves and brightly colored accessories highlight the multi-ethnic sympathies of most of the attendees here.

The conference coordinators orchestrated the symposium with mastery. From the ethnic up-scale appetizers and refreshments to the sign language translator in a prominent position next to the keynote stage, nothing was missed in an attempt to accommodate guests of every tongue, tribe, and nation.

The foyer is full of tables offering brightly colored pictures and brochures showing the human face of suffering in the developing world. Next to the slick appeals of the well-funded NGOs stand homemade displays with handwritten or Kinkos produced signs and pamphlets highlighting the plight of those who do not have a voice of their own among the wealthy.

We are here, I am told by the conference leader and provost of Pacific Lutheran University, because we know the role that global health plays in our future and the future of our world. The Pacific Northwest is a center for seeking solutions and shaping policies in global health. Our goal is to engage the world. Continue reading

Jihad and Justice: Western Pluralism and Islamic Exclusivity

In the foregoing discussion of similarities and differences between Christian and Islamic political and just war theory there is one distinction that should immediately appear to be in conflict with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the presuppositions its claims and authority rest upon.  As demonstrated in Augustine’s distinction between the city of God and the city of man, there is room within the Christian religion for a separation between church and state.  While any student of the American Revolution would be quick to point out that this distinction was a main feature in the new American government, it is important to note that the distinction has been made even during the formative stages of Christianity.  The examination of the roots of Islam and following interpretations of the Qur’an and the life of Mohammed reveal a very different principle—one that seems to directly conflict with the presuppositions found in the U.N.’s human rights declaration.  From the beginning, it seems that the religious realm cannot, or should not, be separated from the political realm in Islam.  The end towards which Islam is striving is a unification of the umma, the community of Muslim believers, in which the entire world will eventually be brought into submission to God.  This contrast between Islamic political theory and modern Western presuppositions is significant. Continue reading

Jihad and Justice: Pluralism and Western Values

Both Christianity and Islam are large and powerful religious forces in today’s world—forces powerful enough that they have caught the attention of the current ruling class, Western society. Both Christianity and Islam have certain ideals and goals, both have an end towards which they are striving, and both have serious implications for political and military theory. Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, the Western eye has been turned towards Islam, looking for an explanation for the attack and any hints of future possibilities. Debate has raged over the true nature of Islam, whether or not it is a peaceful religion at its core, and what can be expected in the coming days, months, and years from the community of Muslim believers.

I’ve spent the last few weeks examining the similarities and differences between Christian and Islamic theories of just war. I’ve attempted to trace out the connection between theology and politics, as well as each religions conception of justice as applied to temporal or worldly affairs. It remains to be seen if and how these two religions relate to current Western political views. I set out, at the beginning of this series, to show that Christian just war theory still has, while Islamic just war theory does not have, the possibility of influencing the West as it makes decisions regarding its policy with Muslim nations. The reason for this has to do with each of these religions conceptions of the relationship between religious and political authority, and the compatibility of these conceptions with the Western value of religious pluralism. Continue reading

Jihad And Justice: Contrasting Views

The primary difference between Christian and Islamic theories of statehood lies in the relationship between temporal and spiritual duties and by extension, temporal and spiritual authorities. Christian political theory has left open the possibility for separation between these two authorities, based on an understanding of the primary end of the Christian and his temporal and spiritual duties. As Augustine points out, Christians are pilgrims while they are on earth and, as such, they should be primarily concerned with glorifying God and preparing to be with Him for eternity; they must be careful lest the pleasures of the world distract them from worshipping God. The primary function of the Christian is not to redeem the world or to correct its failings. There certainly is room for the Christian to be involved in the power structures of the world, striving for just government and seeking for society to be run by laws that reflect the divine order; nevertheless, there is a recognition that society cannot be perfected until all men are either removed from society (eternally punished in hell) or else redeemed and made new by God’s grace.

Islamic political theory on the other hand leaves little or no room for separation between temporal and spiritual authority, at least in the ideal Muslim community (umma). As mentioned earlier, unity is a key concept in Islam—specifically the unity of the believers. The umma is a single community that is separated from the rest of world by its identification as the people who are submitted to God; the umma are the believers mentioned in the Qur’an, the ones who obey God and look forward to receiving His blessings. The ideal Islamic society is one in which all men are willingly submitted to God.

The theory of statehood with the khalifa at its head is the ideal towards which Muslims strive. This ideal state is ruled by the deputy of God who ensures that the society operates within the guidelines laid out in Islamic law (shari’a) and that its citizens fulfill all their duties and obligations. The umma has the duty of bringing glory to God and to His Word. That this duty includes bringing men into dar al-islam and may involve war is found among the collected sayings of Mohammed, or hadith, stating, “He who fights that Allah’s word (i.e. Allah’s religion of Islamic monotheism) be superior, fights in Allah’s cause” and, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they say: ‘There is no God but Allah.’” The duty of the umma is both temporal and spiritual; in fact it is difficult to even understand this distinction within Islam. The religious duty of Muslims is combined with their identity as a community or state. In order for this duty to be fulfilled, the state must spread its control until the world is brought into submission to God and His shari’a (law).

If you’ve stuck with me this far, the payoff is just around the corner.  Check back next week to see why Islamic just war theory is incompatible with Western values.

Other posts in the Jihad and Justice series:

Islamic and Christian Theories of War

Christian Just War Theory, Part 1

Christian Just War Theory, Part 2

The Islamic Conception

The Islamic Context

Islamic Just War Theory, Part 1

Islamic Just War Theory, Part 2

The Two Cities

Augustine’s Citizens

The Two Territories

Jihad and Justice: The Two Territories

Islamic theology and political theory makes use of a distinction comparable to Augustine’s city of God and city of man. In Islam, this is the distinction between dar al-islam and dar al-harb. These two terms mean the house (or territory) of submission and the house (or territory) of war, respectively. Specifically, dar al-islam refers to all the territory that is under Islamic control—where, at least in theory, the ruler upholds shari’a (Islamic law) and enables the umma to live in accordance with God’s laws. Dar al-harb refers to all territory that is not under Islamic rule. This land is opposed to God and His ways and must eventually be made to submit to Him. Dar al-harb must not be left alone, but must be actively brought into submission to God. The Qur’an states, “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them” and, “And fight them [disbelievers] until persecution is no more, and religion is all for Allah” and again, “Now when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when you have routed them, then making fast of bonds.”

The justification for entering into war with dar al-harb is because the unbelievers possess God’s land, and by extension the land of His people. The Qur’an unequivocally states that the earth belongs to God, “Unto Allah belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth.” Further, the earth is promised to believers as their reward for believing in God and being obedient to Him. Thus, ultimately the entire world will be brought into submission to God’s will and dar al-harb will have no boundaries.

The fundamental contrast between Christian and Islamic theories of state…just around the daily corner.

Other posts in the Jihad and Justice series:

Islamic and Christian Theories of War

Christian Just War Theory, Part 1

Christian Just War Theory, Part 2

The Islamic Conception

The Islamic Context

Islamic Just War Theory, Part 1

Islamic Just War Theory, Part 2

The Two Cities

Augustine’s Citizens

Jihad and Justice: Augustine's Citizens

Besides distinguishing between two cities: the city of God and the city of man, Augustine also pays close attention to the differences between the members of these two cities. By examining the nature of the populace once can gain a clearer view of the ends towards which each of these two cities strive.

Augustine refers to those citizens of the city of God who are currently living on earth as pilgrims, highlighting the fact that they are looking forward to something other than the current state of affairs in which they find themselves. Nevertheless, while they are living on earth, the goods and pursuits of the citizens of both cities are intricately related. Both cities desire certain types of peace and harmony. The city of man strives after “earthly peace in the goods and advantages which belong to this temporal life.” The citizens of the city of God who are on pilgrimage on earth “[look] forward to the blessings which are promises as eternal in the life to come.”

Further, the pilgrims make use of the same goods and advantages as the city of men, only they do so to the end of achieving a lasting and eternal peace. The earthly city establishes civil law with the aim of maintaining concord among the citizens so that they might go about pursing their happiness in earthly goods. Continue reading

Jihad and Justice: The Two Cities

The conception of just war and its relationship to the state is indispensable in both Christian and Islamic political thought. Since both Christians and Muslims set up right authority as a condition for just war, and further, they take this authority from the hands of the individual and locate it in the ruling power of the community, it is important to understand what the aims and purpose of the community are conceived to be if we are to understand the end towards which war might be applied. It is precisely in the purpose of the state that Christianity and Islam take drastically different directions. While there are many differences that are worth examining, the most important difference lies in the relationship between the temporal and spiritual powers or authorities. At first glance, it seems possible that Christian and Islamic theories may have a lot of commonalities; both recognize a distinction between the secular and religious realms. However, the difference between the two systems of thought lies in the relationship between these realms as well as in their final ends.

Augustine famously distinguished between the city of God and the city of man. This distinction carried over into the medieval period, although the meaning of the two cities and their ends often fluctuated according to the current political and religious climate. At times this distinction was taken to be that between church and state, and at times between saved and unsaved men. It is important to understand exactly what Augustine meant by his distinction and whether or not this distinction can still be made.

Augustine distinguishes between the two cities by examining the objects of their love. The cities are made up of a body of men that share a common object of love. He says,

Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending to contempt of self. The one, therefore, glories in itself, the other in the Lord; the one seeks glory from men, the other finds its highest glory in God.” Continue reading