Further thoughts on World Vision

There is much more that can be said about the recent turn of events with World Vision, who has now reversed course.  I took to Twitter last night at the goading of Sarah Posner to say a few things about it.  Sarah and I don’t agree on much (we learned we have 72% cacao chocolate in common!), but I enjoy disagreeing with her so much that I yielded.

And, let’s face it, I’m just a sucker for long-winded rants about anything.

And all the people said “amen” to that last one, no doubt.

You can see all the other tweets and conversation that went on after that.  I’m grateful for the kind words that many people gave the verbal ramble.

Finally, at the risk of overstaying my own welcome at my own blog, I want to excerpt a bit from a comment I wrote in the previous discussion.  I think it’s important for understanding some of the broader issues at stake in the conservative concerns about World Vision’s original decisions.  It by no means captures every nuance of the decision, but hopefully clarifies my thinking about this a little more.

“It’s not at all obvious to me that the decision to withdraw funding from World Vision entails that there is *more* concern for opposing homosexuality than for helping children. I bet we could find lots of reasons to think that’s just not the case among conservative Christians. For one, if we compared the aggregate donations that go to World Vision and other poverty-based organizations to those set up to deliberate oppose “gay marriage,” I suspect we’d see conservatives give FAR more toward poverty services.

Second, let’s remember that World Vision is as large as it is in part because the very people who now have qualms about continuing to give gave for years. That is, if nothing else, a prima facie sign of a serious commitment to ending poverty. To claim that conscientiously withdrawing support is a sign of no longer caring about children, etc. seems to single out one particular moment in their relationship with the organization and ignore that past history.

But thirdly, and probably most importantly, I think your claim about them caring more about gay marriage rather than children only goes through if they were to give up funding poverty relief COMPLETELY rather than transfer it to a different organization that does equivalent, even if not identical work. There may be reasons why people who started a funding relationship with WV should continue: but if they move to (say) Compassion, that is not a sign that they no longer care about the children they once supported.

In a hypothetical case, suppose that a person decided that Compassion was more effective than World and so transferred their funding. No one could possibly accuse that person of not caring about poverty relief. So the sheer fact that people are ending sponsorships with WV does not entail that they care *more* about stopping gay marriage than they do about poverty at all. I think, to be honest, the claim [that conservatives care more about doctrine than children] only goes through if World Vision is the only sort of organization that does what it does. But it isn’t.  world vision

The better understanding is, I think, the one I gave in the original post. People give to World Vision because they care about ending poverty *and* contributing to evangelistic work. The disagreement with WV is on the latter half of that formula, not the first half. And so switching organizations on grounds that they have reasons to believe that other organizations will meet both aims better than World Vision simply has no bearing on their commitment to the first half.

I would note that all of this means that I think if a person simply stopped giving money altogether rather than changing the recipient that would be a reason to think that [the interpretation that they care more about doctrine than people] is right. But given that these are people who have (in many cases) given freely and willingly for years, I’m highly dubious that people are going to give up their charitable contributions toward children in need altogether, rather than transfer them.

You can see the whole conversation here (including a rejoinder that I haven’t had a chance to respond to yet).  I’d also note that this comment was not meant to contradict my argument that conservatives can and in most cases should keep up support for the individual child they have forged a relationship with.  Rather, it is simply trying to show that the abstract claim that stopping support for a child entailed a prioritization of doctrine over children is faulty.

Again, that is by no means a comprehensive analysis.  I probably won’t put that together…ever.  But it’s a start toward clarity…I hope.

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On whether Christians should keep supporting World Vision

World Vision USA has altered their employee handbook to allow them to hire members of committed same-sex unions.  As I noted on Twitter, I find their rationale incoherent, but not terribly surprising.

Of the various threads I could take up, though, I want to focus on the decision which many conscientious Christians who deeply disagree with World Vision USA’s decision now face:  should they continue on supporting the child that they had been, or should they send their donations elsewhere?  world vision

It’s important to note that the question is not strictly financial.  As with many organizations, the funds an individual contributes in support of a child do not go to that child directly.  They are “pooled” and sent to support the community which the child lives in.  Similarly, the contributions are used to justify additional grant money from governments that are thrown into the various pools as well, all of which provides help for the community and from which the child benefits indirectly.  This is not uncommon:  it allows World Vision to maximize the impact of the money by focusing on the structural issues within a community that contribute to everyone’s flourishing.

Obviously, the careful structure would make the “child support” rhetoric less punchy and useful for raising donors. But it also means that when an individual withdraws support, the community which had been the recipient incurs some financial loss, but that loss is spread across the whole of the community (rather than, say, a particular child no longer receiving a $35 check every month).  Of course, if individuals withdrew their support en masse a significant impact would be felt. But the effect of pooling funds means that responsibility is pooled as well.

I mention all that only so we are clear on what the decision is at stake.  There are other factors that matter, too, though. Most importantly, supporting a child frequently means establishing some kind of relationship with them through letters, gifts, and other communications that are meant to support a child’s well-being directly.  Sometimes these are quite robust, and can provide important emotional and spiritual levels of support to the child who is the recipient of them.  It is also here where many people will feel the dilemma the strongest:  regardless of whether the child might suffer any serious material loss (because of the pooling effect), there may be a serious loss and confusion that withdrawing support would introduce. And there may be a genuine loss of relationship and of instruction within the donor’s own home with one’s own children, and so on.  There may, in some cases, be a real loss of possibilities of evangelism:  the harvest may have been ripened due to years of sowing and watering, and walking away may remove one significant factor which may contribute to the eventual reaping.

It’s important to underscore how important this is for the decision:  to ignore it would be to reduce every bit of giving that had gone on to a strictly financial transaction.  But charity ought not be purely monetary.  To view it as such is to corrode the practice of giving for the giver, not just the organization who receives it.  It would undermine the entire logic, and would do harm to whatever organization the donations were transferred to, as the new relationship between the donor and the organization would be established on strictly monetary and utilitarian grounds.  Prioritizing the relationship with the child in the decision about whether to withdraw support or not locates the financial considerations in their appropriate position:  as important, but by no means all-important.

All this could be mitigated, of course, if World Vision USA opened up pathways for people to continue to correspond and send packages to children without sending money to World Vision USA itself.  Such a possibility would allow for many people to keep up the kind of support they prefer to give directly, without necessarily entangling them in supporting a ministry that they (rightly) think has made a decision that is deeply inconsistent with the Gospel it has taken upon itself to proclaim.  If made available, I would commend such a possibility without hesitation or reservation.  The loss of funding for particular communities might still leave them with fewer resources than otherwise–but directly supporting the child might offset some of the lack they experience.

But presuming that option is not available, there are other complicating factors for the decision.  Jonathan Chan pointed out to me on Twitter that WorldVision’s local support teams are dependent upon the country for their leadership, which means they have no structural relationship with the decision that WorldVision USA has made.  So World Vision USA’s decision may not have any material or substantive impact on the work they do elsewhere, or World Vision’s other branches faithfulness to the Gospel.

All this makes for a relatively thorny problem.  But one possibility that Christians should avoid, it seems to me, is simply ignoring the difficulties altogether on the pure grounds that World Vision USA saves lives.  Many organizations save lives, and the Christian who gives money to World Vision USA is unquestionably committed to doing so.  But they are committed to more than that, which is why they have chosen to give to World Vision rather than some other organization.  Indeed, it may be those additional motivations that prompts in some cases the giving to be genuinely sacrificial:  removing them alters the entire character of the giving for many Christians.  World Vision USA is good at what they do:  but they are not the only organization that is good at what they do.

Even if a Christian decides that it is right to continue giving, they ought do so cognizant of the changes that have gone on and the potentially altered character of the organization which they are supporting.  And if they decide it wrong to continue giving (even for a temporary season), then their decision should not be construed as one that is necessarily unsupportive of children.  Publicizing the end of that giving seems to me both noxious and wrong:  but so then does publicizing the beginning of such a relationship as well.  We cannot take too seriously the danger that by broadcasting the goodness of our deeds we have our reward in full.  There is no harm in pursuing a good with sobriety, modesty, and quietness.

None of that, of course, answers the question of what a Christian should do given the competing claims and goods at stake.  There is a sense in which a pure claim to fidelity to the Gospel might impel them to quit giving immediately:  I think that response is understandable, but given the substantive conditions I’ve outlined above, not entirely warranted in every case.  If a person has only two months ago started sending money and corresponding, ending it would not nearly be as significant as someone who has corresponded with a child for six or seven years.

What, then, should a Christian who thinks World Vision USA has made a grave organizational error do?

The first thing to do is, of course, inform World Vision USA of your conclusion and the difficulty they have subsequently thrown you into.  Angry, belligerent emails and phone calls are not a Christian mode of response. But level-headed, patient, and clear reasoning can be.  It would be prudent to ask for World Vision to set up pathways for people who have decided they can no longer give to continue corresponding and supporting their child directly, as a sign of their willingness to help those who disagree with their new vision carry on those modes of communication that first and foremost make World Vision a Christian organization, even if it costs the organization a great deal of money and time to ensure that it can happen.  Opening up such pathways would convey World Vision’s commitment to unity of the right sort, namely that which respects and seeks to maintain lines of communication within and across real and substantive disagreements that it recognizes must be maintained.

Second, it seems to me that continuing to give in a situation where there has been a substantive relationship established with a child would be appropriate, at least for a season.  Given that education and formation happens at the local level, and that the other branches of World Vision are not beholden to World Vision USA’s decision, there is nothing substantive lost by maintaining support temporarily. The boundaries of a “substantive relationship” are, of course, somewhat fuzzy.  In the abstract, what sort of relationship qualifies is impossible to discern.  But some sort of differences are obvious, as I noted above, and those differences introduce genuine and substantive reasons for acting that must be accounted for in this case.

But I would add a qualification to this, if support continues:  I would notify World Vision USA that the continuing of support is for the purposes of the child alone, and that when the financial-support relationship comes to an end (as it does automatically at age 21, and at other ages for a variety of reasons) it will not be renewed or transferred to another child, but will be taken to another organization.  There would be two ways to look at this sort of communication:  either it could be seen as ‘holding World Vision hostage’ by threatening to remove financial contributions, or it could be a form of ‘informing World Vision USA of a decision so they can make alternate arrangements’.  Which description belongs may depend entirely on how the communication is given:  non-profits need to know how to project their finances, and giving them some advance warning that support would be withdrawn at least allows them to seek alternative means of funding in the interim.

But the effects of these sorts of organizational decisions are often slower moving than internet responses or commentary.  The  logic of the traditional marriage case depends upon a commitment to something like a “moral ecology”, but that means that the effects of certain decisions are not often known until several generations later.  Analogically, this sort of symbolic move will have a substantive effect on the moral ethos of World Vision USA, but the fruit in its own organizational life and in its relationship to the broader World Vision organization (the structure of which is not entirely clear to me) may not grow for a while. For those who are committed to supporting particular children, that delay is a benefit, as it allows support to continue while still expressing a fundamental disagreement and communicating to World Vision USA the reasons for such a disagreement and the end-point of any future support or help.  It’s a slow withdrawal, to be sure, but we are to be patient in doing good, even when doing good demands changing the recipients of our support.

Third, I would begin any new contributions with another organization and encourage those who ask to do the same.  Food for the Hungry, Compassion International, and others do similarly good work to World Vision.  Best of all may be your own denominational support structures, which presumably are accountable to the body where you worship.

There are doubtlessly other paths through, and unquestionably many people will object to various elements of what I have written above.  Some may claim I am either making too much of a trivial issue or compromising my fidelity to the Gospel.  But what we ought not do is ignore the various and complex issues at stake for many Christians.  Seeking the right here means remaining attentive not only to our sense of moral integrity, but to the good of World Vision USA, the child that we may have folded in some way into our lives, and the communities where they live.  Any counsel that does not attempt to bring coherence and unity toward those aspects is too stunted to be useful.

Affirmative Action: Too Little, Too Much, and on the Wrong Track

The recent debate in the Supreme Court is reinvigorating analysis of affirmative action; Justices Sotomayor and Thomas have both weighed in on the extent to which they felt their achievements were invalidated by others’ assumptions of unfair advantage. What remains, among other sobering statistics, is an enormous gap in wealth between whites and blacks. In part because of the housing crisis, the median net worth of white households is 20 times that of black households. (The mean net worth of whites is 3.7 times that of blacks.)

That ratio, 20 to 1, has stuck with me. Partly because I currently receive a scholarship that pays all the tuition costs of four years of seminary. I am thankful for what this scholarship allows me to do: I can study long hours without the distraction of needing to find a part-time job, I can preach on Sundays at a nursing home for free, and I can find encouragement in the fact that someone I don’t know supports my goal of becoming a pastor. At my seminary, there are 20 other students receiving this scholarship. All of them are white. 20 to 0.

I’m no expert on the subject, but the broad principles of political liberty and subsidiarity make me suspicious of aggressive governmental intervention on matters of race. At the same time, the heinous and enduring effects of racism in America endure. The most vivid for me are the exploitation of black Chicago homebuyers in 1950-1970 described here, the enduring inability of members of all races to associate the word “good” with images of blacks as compared to whites described here, and the perception toddlers grasp of beauty-as-whiteness portrayed here. Christians, who recognize that every person is made in God’s dignifying image, know that things should be different. Even more than mere acknowledgement of the problem, Christians believe that before any federal and state agency, we ought to be on the vanguard of helping the poor and the marginalized. Many in fact are, bearing living witness to the fact that we were all exiles, far from God, and that we have no attachment to this world beyond its reflection of the one to come—this is not our home. But how to bring about change on more systemic levels? Is affirmative action useful? Is it a dead end?

It’s a small lesson, but while working at Teach For America, I observed an approach I found helpful, at least with respect to staffing. Interviewers and managers were trained to ignore race in hiring decisions. Unconscious bias was acknowledged and actively avoided, but black or Latino candidates received no special advantage in the application process. At the same time, the organization knew that candidates who identified with the background of the students we taught had a unique opportunity for impact, both with their students and as spokespersons for the movement as a whole. More than many other groups, the long-term health of the organization genuinely depended on a diverse staff from top to bottom. So, to increase the likelihood of a diverse team, TFA talent recruiters proactively sought out candidates of color. They devoted resources to finding and attracting them, and they developed promising candidates who weren’t yet ready for a position. For every white candidate considered for a role, at least one candidate of color was also interviewed. And once on staff, TFA monitored each employee’s satisfaction to ensure that retention of employees of color was as high as white employees.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this approach. It eliminates the general suspicion of an unequal standard as well as any temptation to think this or that employee isn’t really qualified for the job. At the same time, this policy takes the fact of inequality of opportunity seriously. Could something like this be instituted by the committee that awards the scholarship I receive? Probably not, given the limited scope and capacity of such a body. For all I know they earnestly wish they could do something like this but can’t.

Whatever the feasibility of individual implementation, for the broader Church to take such an intentional orientation toward race would require a steady and sincere recognition of its importance. I think to get there, it can’t just be about diversity, which can remain quite superficial—the agenda has to be driven by reconciliation.

David Brooks, Social Justice, and the Quality of Compassion

David Brooks lands an important critique of how many young social entrepreneurs talk about development:

There’s little social progress without political progress. Unfortunately, many of today’s young activists are really good at thinking locally and globally, but not as good at thinking nationally and regionally.

Second, the prevailing service religion underestimates the problem of disorder. Many of the activists talk as if the world can be healed if we could only insert more care, compassion and resources into it.

History is not kind to this assumption. Most poverty and suffering — whether in a country, a family or a person — flows from disorganization. A stable social order is an artificial accomplishment, the result of an accumulation of habits, hectoring, moral stricture and physical coercion. Once order is dissolved, it takes hard measures to restore it.

Yet one rarely hears social entrepreneurs talk about professional policing, honest courts or strict standards of behavior; it’s more uplifting to talk about microloans and sustainable agriculture.

Brooks’ critique of a certain softness, a lack of “moral realism” from the social entrepreneurship crowd is certainly a strong one.   Offhand, I can think of a couple exceptions to this that might muddy up things.  My friends Tyler Wigg Stevenson and Peter Greer both come to mind, as does the International Justice Mission.  In fact, that last one has always caused no little perplexity for me:  on the one hand, folks in the younger evangelical set adore the work they are doing.  On the other hand, we run around saying that laws and their enforcement don’t change anything.  Make of the discrepancy what you will.

Yet there is, I think, something to the broad strokes that Brooks is forced to paint with in all his 800 words.

I offer two tentative suggestions as to the sources for this lack of moral realism among the younger evangelical activists.

First, the pervasive anti-institutionalism of evangelicalism means that our first love and affection is working with individuals rather than those foundational structures of society.  A personalist approach to social transformation raises a lot of funds, as it’s instantly humanized and obviously helpful.  But in terms of engendering the conditions that allow for long term change, well, that is another story altogether.

Second, I wonder whether the lack of focus on social order that Brooks detects has to do with the generally white, upper-middle class status of many younger evangelical activists.  Personally, my experience of the police growing up was almost non-existant.  They pulled me over every now and then and occasionally broke up a party (I heard, at least, the following Monday morning).  But more often, the signs of decay were hidden from public site.  It is easy in such an environment to begin thinking of the state’s role as primarily administrative, as its other functions are largely hidden from view.

A third thought, however, comes to mind:  the virtue of compassion, which is the operative virtue of the social entrepreneurs movement, is a distinctly modern virtue that sits uneasily with the need for order of both the social and moral varieties.  So Oliver O’Donovan, in one of his characteristically insightful moments:

Compassion is the virtue of being moved to action by the sight of suffering….It is a virtue that circumvents thought, since it prompts us immediately to action.  It is a virtue that presupposes that an answer has already been found to the question, ‘What needs to be done?’, a virtue of motivation rather than reasoning.  As such, it is the appropriate virtue for a liberal revolution, which requires no independent thinking about the object of morality, only a very strong motivation to its practice.

 

We ought not jettison compassion, of course.  Like any of the human sentiments, however, it needs to be cultivated and constrained by reflective deliberation about the world and our obligations within it.

A Brief Kony Reading List

I’ve been keeping one eye on articles on Joseph Kony and the 2012 brouhaha, so I thought I’d pull them all into one post with excerpts.  I’ve read more than this, and there are plenty of others out there.  But these are the ones that I think are the most insightful and helpful.

The best background piece:

Until the underlying problem — the region’s poor governance — is adequately dealt with, there will be no sustainable peace. Seriously addressing the suffering of central Africans would require engagement of a much larger order. A huge deployment of peacekeeping troops with a clearly recognized legal mandate would have to be part of it. Those forces would need to be highly trained, have an effective command structure, be closely monitored, and be appropriately equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment and helicopters, among other things. It would require a long-term commitment and would be targeted not only at chasing the LRA. Moreover, it would make the protection of the local populations a key priority. Finally, the deployment of such a force would need to have emerged from concerted efforts in international diplomacy — including with the African Union, the United Nations, the ICC, and governments in the region — not as a knee-jerk reaction to the most recent media splash.

The Christian non-violent critique

This is an important point because “Kony 2012″ has painted Joseph Kony as a monster. He has undoubtedly done horrible things that deserve punishment, but the narrative of IC ignores his early support in Uganda. His actions have not always been frowned upon by the people of northern Uganda. He didn’t arise out of nowhere. He was viewed as a freedom-fighter before becoming known primarily as a terrorist. As Christians we believe that terrorists, like the apostle Paul, are not to be vilified even as we hold them to the standards of justice. According to IC Kony is “the bad guy,” not unlike Darth Vader in Star Wars (according to a young child). This justifies his destruction, and it’s highly likely he would meet a similar fate as Osama bin Laden if IC’s recommendations are pursued. We remember the joy in another of God’s creatures killing after that event and Kony 2012 may be laying the seeds for another moment of raucous celebration at a tragic event.

The Invisible Children strategy for getting Kony

First, we encourage you to sustain the deployment of U.S. advisors until the LRA no longer poses a serious threat to civilians. While regional governments are primarily responsible for the protection of their own citizens, the presence of U.S. advisors in the region is enhancing cross-border information flows, providing valuable guidance for regional military operations, and provoking an unprecedented level of political interest in what has historically been a neglected crisis. Though no serious gains have been made in reducing the LRA’s threat to civilians in the months since the advisors were deployed, reports from LRA defectors – and data showing a marked decrease in LRA attacks in the second half of 2011 – indicate that heightened U.S. and international interest may nonetheless be deterring the group from committing large-scale attacks.

The rebuttal of Invisible Children’s strategy

The reason I’m writing this all out is that these are the sort of nuts and bolts questions that need to be asked around any military deployment. War kills people, and the use of the military should be a matter of necessity. IC appear to perceive military force as some sort of silver bullet – pull the trigger, solve the problem, walk away like Clint Eastwood. It never has been, and it never will be. If IC want to see the expansion of US military activity, then they should say so. That should be the debate – “Dear Obama, please spend $X million dollars on these activities…”, if not, then they’re selling their supporters the idea that their campaign can change things that it can’t. More than that, if they are serious about selling a military intervention, then they need to be upfront about the risks as well as the possibilities. If they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to military matters then they should remember their medical ethics before arguing for military action – “First, do no harm.”

The critique of crowdsourcing intervention:

Third, and perhaps most important: Crowdsourcing intervention. Russell has picked an easy target: Joseph Kony. Why stop there? More to the point, if this works, will it ever stop? Will simplistic explanations of long-running wars, delivered in a Facebook-friendly manner become the future of foreign policy? If the opinion of Rihanna and George Clooney is going to dislodge ‘technocrats’ who do things like read the Military Balance, then what’s to stop intervention in Syria? Pretty much everyone with a passing interest in military affairs says “that is a very bad idea and lots of people will die” but I’m pretty sure that a bright person with access to youtube can come up with a better argument for a brighter world in which taking Assad down is an expression of democratic empowerment. The point about war and military affairs is that at some point, it requires restraint. That restraint is entirely arbitrary (and unfair) but it stops people getting killed. If Angelina Jolie in combination with Condoleeza Rice are to dictate American strategy, then restraints to force will disappear into a blur of “Let’s go get the bad guy” activism that is almost entirely ignorant of the second and third order effects of those decisions.

 

Kony 2012 and the Ignorance of Critics: A Guest Post

Jake Meador’s critique of Invisible Children’s video prompted quite a bit of discussion, much of which was rather passionately pursued.   Dan Parris wrote the below, and I thought it appropriate to air both sides and let readers judge accordingly.  Dan is a filmmaker and creator of Give a Damn and Hit Man to Hero.  

Jake’s article breaks my heart.

As I read it and other critiques of Invisible Children, I can’t help thinking “God forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” But then Kony2012, the viral phenomenon, was probably their first introduction to Invisible Children (IC).  They probably haven’t followed their progress for the past 7 years, seen all their films, or interviewed the founders and CEO, getting to know the hearts and minds behind this revolutionary non-profit. It is hard for me to see past the fact that I have been immersed in what IC has been doing since 2005 and have been radically changed because of it.

Before offering my critiques, I want to applaud Jake’s article on its very important and easily digestible bits on Africa’s history and the impact of the Berlin Conference of 1885. I think everyone who wants to tackle African issues must know about this history.

What bothered me the most in Jake’s article was this line: “…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.”

As a fellow Christian, I feel this comment is judgmental and uninformed toward IC’s audience and followers, and I would even go to argue it borders on heresy and a myopic view of God’s strategies for spreading his Kingdom .

The Truth about Invisible Children’s Core Audience

People surely said to Elisabeth Elliot that it was “laughable” they she thought she could convert the killers of her husband. We know people thought it was “laughable” when Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream of equality. All throughout history there have been impossible stories of insignificant people changing the world.

Why can’t American “kids” be just a few more of those how Margaret Mead was talking about when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”?

These “kids” have loads of dispensable income they are spending on entertainment, and a group comes along that is going to give them something bigger to live for, and yet we mock it.  $20 can give someone clean water for 20 years. You can change the world, there is no doubt about that.

Invisible Children and the young people that support it have proven the naysayers wrong with their accomplishments. They were a major part in ending the night commuting and in forcing Joseph Kony leaving Uganda. They were the leaders in getting the most co-sponsored Bill concerning Africa in United States history passed, which is a difficult process when only 3% of bills ever pass.

What’s more, the founders of Invisible Children most of their staff are Christians. They have changed the national conversation into something positive, and they deserve more than being attacked.   I truly believe IC is one of the ways God is working right now on Earth. Their video is one of most viral videos in history; it inspires hope, challenges young people to get involved in something bigger than themselves, and seeks justice for the top international criminal in the world. That is something we should be proud of.

Seeing their first film in 2005 made me go out and research Africa and learn. Similarly, this Kony2012 video is a small seed that will doubtlessly lead young people to do their own research. IC’s campaigns have moved young people to dig deeper into social justice issues and to make their careers part of loving and serving their neighbors. There are dozens and dozens of thriving organizations that owe a lot to the inspiration of IC, including my own.

Also, it’s unfounded to think their organization and the people working with them don’t have a strong pulse on what is going on in Central and East Africa. C.S. Lewis, a fellow Christian artist, was able to write both Mere Christianity and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Is it not possible that they know the best way to communicate to the young but still understand how to effectively act and communicate with the learned and experts?

If you watch their previous films, you will see that their are many in Uganda that appreciate and desire the partnership of IC and young Americans. People around the world watch our politics–it’s a fact. What we do in America affects the whole world. These young people who it’s “laughable” that they can affect the war in Uganda are some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. Their families consist of CEO’s, senators and scholars. When they are ignited, it affects their families and those around them.

Missing out on God’s Big Stories

I have a strong feeling the time will come when these young people, with the help of locals, will play a major part in ending this war. At that point we will see that God was actually using these Christian brothers of ours to tell an incredible story, a story that shows we can do our part to make it “on earth as it is in Heaven”, that “love hopeth all things”, and that we shouldn’t “let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Tim 4:12)

These young people are often the most depressed and lost in our culture, and as Shane Claiborne has said, we need to “stop entertaining them and start daring them.”

From what I see in the Gospels and the history of the Church, God used a rag-tag group to enact his mission of spreading the good news. That what these men did seemed impossible at first. They were ignored, beaten, and ridiculed as they dreamed that God’s love could extend to the ends of the earth. To me, IC’s message has always been that everyone person on this earth matters, that the idea of neighbor is changing, so to love your neighbor as yourself means something broader. It means loving the kid in Uganda you are friends with on Facebook because IC brought him to speak at your school.

Finally, God has a heart for justice. No one doubts that. In a recent TV interview, where one of IC’s founders, Jason Russell was handling critiques, the reporter ended the conversation praising the “movement.”  Jason corrected them saying its not about the movement–it’s about justice.

Now, no organization is perfect.  I am sure IC often gets sidetracked and loses sight of their goal.  But by and large their focus is on their objective “That where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live.” And as Gary Haugen, founder of IJM and supporter of IC says, “Nothing presents a more compelling and authentic witness of Christian faith in this era than the struggle for justice”

I am happy to be a part of the story that God is writing through IC and Kony2012.

American Power and Millenial Social Activism

My friend Dan Parris makes an astute point about the nature of activism:

If you watch [Invisible Children's] past films (or spend significant time in that part of Africa), you will see there are many in Uganda that appreciate and desire the partnership of IC and young Americans. People around the world watch our politics–it’s a fact. What we do in America affects the whole world, there is no way around that. These young people who it’s “laughable” that they can affect the war in Uganda are some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. Their families consist of CEO’s, senators and scholars. When they are ignited, it affects their families and those around them.

That’s a perceptive point, but Dan draws the boundary a little too narrowly.  The premise behind campaigns like this one isn’t simply that a lot of elite millenials are going to use their status and connections for the sake of good, though they might go about things that way.

Kony 2012 is first and foremost a social media campaign, a realm where ‘status’ is determined by categories that the traditional meritocracy often doesn’t map on to.  It’s a populist approach, with hopes that millions of millenials will be motivated to call their Congressman and chime in with their proverbial two cents.

But we should back up a step and revisit Dan’s point about the reality of American influence.  American power is, in this case, the presupposition for the pursuit of justice.  And while Dan is brave enough to own the point, it’s worth double-underlining.  As a friend wrote me today via email:

If we were a bunch of socially active young Swedes, we could launch Kony 2012 and it wouldn’t matter a wit — we could all call our Swedish Parlimentarian, and even if all the Swedish MPs were moved to action, they’d have no power to act in a way that matters.  But if Kony 2012 gets a bunch of young Americans to call their members of congress, and gets them to get all their friends to call their members, and to show up at town hall meetings, etc., then it can make a difference because the US Congress matters.  Even what individual senators say on the world stage can matter. But only because America matters on the world stage.  Kony 2012 can only exist in a superpower with a big enough military to either send in ourselves or to make the locals listen.

This level of power and influence is part of Jake’s concern.  And he is right to be worried.

But the pursuit of justice in a case like this raises a tricky problem for all of us:  is it possible to advocate in a meaningful way without borrowing American political capital, and thereby reminding everyone of just how central America is to world affairs?

To put the paradox on the table for millenials directly, younger conservatives tend to be rather dubious about community organizing on an international scale, even though movements like Kony 2012 both potentially create democratic engagement and tacitly reinforce notions of American exceptionalism and greatness.  And many of Invisible Children’s most vocal defenders are content to use American influence when it serves their ends, while remaining resolutely wary of conceptions of American greatness.

Except for Bono, who despite his age remains an icon for many of the (quickly aging) millenial crowd. While I’ve got my own criticisms of some of his projects, he is at least consistent on this score.

But the above paradox is precisely what makes Kony 2012 so controversial and such a fascinating study.

Self-deception is the inevitable corollary of an emphasis on authenticity, and if ever there was a generation attached to the idea it’s we millenials.  In moments like Kony 2012, it becomes clear that we tend to privilege earnestness:  Good intentions are sacrosanct, especially when married to the intuitive pragmatism of “doing something.”

And yet, within such an environment the critical reaction that goes on at blogs and on Facebook walls plays an indispensable role.  As Steven Boone put it:

It seems that Russell’s priority was to spur a self-absorbed ADHD generation into action first, fill in the blanks later. That’s the way Internet learning and social-media sharing work. How much do we now learn new things by stumbling across links and re-tweets, then fleshing out our understanding with further reading? Russell was careful to dramatize his own initial boyish ignorance in Uganda video chronicles like The Rescue, where he confessed that he and his collaborators were just some silly Southern California boys touring Africa for kicks when they discovered the Uganda crisis firsthand, fleeing a guerilla raid.

There is something okay with all that.  Public reflection, where we inquire about what has gone on behind us, is an indispensable part of knowing how we shall face the future.  And that is, by and large, what the opposition to Invisible Children’s video has engendered:  a sort of loyal opposition that wants the same end, but is uncertain about the means that have been deployed to bring it about.

To return full circle, then, social media campaigns like Kony 2012 don’t simply “raise awareness” for a noble and good end.  They are far more complicated, as any sort of robust communication ought be if it is to be anything more than mindless propaganda.  The praiseworthiness of the creator’s intentions obscures the reality that such campaigns depend upon certain beliefs and attitudes for their existence and effectiveness, and that such beliefs are subsequently deepened when the campaign succeeds.  In the case of Kony, American power is the presupposition on which the campaign depends for its success, and which will inevitably be reaffirmed.

Which is why the counter-reaction of questioning is indispensable, even if in its worst forms it is merely reactionary and dismissive.  Without it, the feedback loop will be officially closed, and the messages that are conveyed will be only reinforcing of what we already claim to know.

 

Joel Osteen and Reality TV

On November 29th, TMZ reported that “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett will be teaming with Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s largest church, for a primetime network show in 2012. Burnett told TMZ, “The premise of the show is that ordinary people will give up several days or longer to go on a mission with Joel Osteen, one of the most popular pastors in the world. All of the missions will be in the confines of US soil to “start fixing things.”

And that’s when I started feeling scared.

Turns out, this is not the first time the Osteens (Osteen’s wife Victoria is co-pastor of their Lakewood Church in Houston) have been approached about a reality show, but according to their spokesman, Don Iloff, this was the first premise that fit their mission. “We do these projects without the cameras rolling,” Iloff told the Houston Chronicle. “But Jesus said, ‘Let your light shine. Don’t hide it under a bushel.'”

Osteen seems in no danger of being accused of hiding under a bushel. His white smile and thick shock of wavy hair is already emblazoned across several bestselling books, such as Your Best Life Now (which I could have sworn was the title of Oprah’s personal trainer’s products), Become a Better You, It’s Your Time, and his latest, Every Day a Friday: How to be Happier 7 Days a Week. According to Osteen’s website his sermon broadcast reaches over 100 million homes in the US alone, and his podcasts are listened to by over 1 million people a week, but it seems he feels he can do more. Or at least, be on more TV screens.

As a native Southern Californian, I am no stranger to mega-churches and star pastors; Orange County’s own Rick Warren might be one of the few pastors in America who is more recognizable than Osteen. Friends of mine working at Saddleback and Mariner’s Church in Irvine told me that the pastors of these behemoths have been approached about reality shows as well, but turned the opportunity down. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that producers are interested in pastors. With reality shows littered across networks focusing on everything from state troopers, modern day polygamists or jousting knights, moms of multiples and people who fish with their bare hands, it seems it was just a matter of time before Christian ministries entered the fray.

But, but, but, does this have to happen? I mean, I like the Duggars just fine, but I don’t think I’m wrong to say that reality TV hasn’t proven to be the best medium for communicating the depth and intricacies of the Christian faith. A personality based show like Osteen’s soon to be named American Fix-It Project just seems doomed to failure. If the show itself isn’t completely embarrassing, it seems only a matter of time before Osteen and his wife are. Am I being too skeptical (it wouldn’t be the first time)?

As much as I’d like to think that my cynicism is misplaced and all will be well, it turns out I’m not the only one who’s worried. USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s Richard Flory is skeptical of Osteen’s project. He told the Houston Chronicle, “It turns (mission trips) into an entertainment model, where you feel good watching it, people feel good doing it and Joel Osteen gets exposure. In an era where media exposure is the Holy Grail, this is to be expected.”

Though exposure of the every day lives and ministries of Christian men and women couldn’t be considered a necessarily bad thing, the potential for sensationalism and artifice seems all too possible. As Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research told the Christian Post, “I see no problem with a pastor in a reality show if it shows pastors as real people, the church on a real mission, and the pastor can point to the real Gospel.” I guess if I were to pick one guy in America to show the rest how real Christians can be, and what the real Gospel is made of, I don’t think I’d have picked the permanently be-suited and smiling happiness guru that is Osteen.

I suppose we can only wait and see if he’s is able to helm a reality show that keeps anything particularly real.

Wearing Social Justice on our Sleeves

Just in time for Christmas, I thought I would finally excerpt this piece that I wrote earlier this year for the good folks at Boundless:

Yet at the same time, even where our “compassionate consumerism” is not the whole of our charitable activity (and it never should be), tying relief for the poor, widow and orphan to acquiring material comforts and creating more wealth through profits risks corroding our charitable efforts by tying them to the benefits we receive. The philosophy of doing good to others through consumption that undergirds the union is, from one standpoint, a subtle variation of prosperity theology. The benefits we receive from doing good are not “crowns in heaven,” but immediate and tangible goods (that really are goods!) that we can enjoy here and now.

Yet the legitimacy of Christian charity should not always be measured by its immediate consequences. “One sows but another reaps” may have a different context (John 4:37), but the principle is true here as well. For Christians, doing justice and evangelism are community projects. The benefits and fruits of any one individual’s efforts may not be readily apparent. Yet the individualistic assumptions of “compassionate consumerism” and the immediately tangible benefits or our purchasing both breed a focus on the short-term results, potentially eroding our long-term will to do good, turning it into a fad that prompts businesses to move on once profits dry up.

I have been encouraged that many of my friends in the non-profit world are wrestling with the same tensions.  And the practical aspects of this are really difficult.  Most non-profits, for instance, hold auctions as fundraisers because they raise more money if people get something tangible in return.

Is there a solution?  I’m not sure, but it’s an issue that I think consumers should be cognizant of in our purchasing practices.

 

The Christian Post and Sojourners

Apologies for returning to this theme yet again, but this is what happens when discussions occur and I have words to say.

At any rate, The Christian Post took a gander at Mere-O today and provided  a reasonably accurate overview of my position on the matter.  One quibble, though, with my friend Tim King’s statement:

However, [Anderson] warns that Christians must express this belief with caution.

“When speaking against the homelessness of young people who are at risk because of their sexual orientation, Christians must do so on grounds that do not rest upon and reinforce the problematic presuppositions that sometimes stand beneath the advocacy work,” Anderson cautioned.

Those problematic presuppositions would include any belief that the Bible, God, His son Jesus or the Christian Church sanction either homosexuality or gay marriage.

[Tim] King says he believes that Christians can stand up for the rights and protections of homosexual men, women and teens without compromising the Bible.

“I don’t think there is any contradiction with the Bible to say people deserve equal protection under the law. I think that is very consistent with our understanding of each individual being created in the image of God.”

This is framed as disagreeing with my position on the matter, and it’s easy to see why.  I’ve no interest in filling the dance card around this issue, so let me simply point out that “equal protection under the law” is indeed what all Christians can and should defend.  Tim and I can stand on the same ground and proclaim that message.

Where we differ, though, is which rights gays and lesbian couples should have, and hence what “equal protection” actually means.  No reason to hash that out here, of course.  We’ve done it before and will doubtlessly try again.  But just to point out that the quote is in the context of young people who are homeless, a problem that both Tim and I would agree is wrong, and would (I suspect) agree for the same reasons.

I have other thoughts on this and might make other attempts at clarification at some point as well, if there’s interest.  The distinctions I’m trying to draw are relatively fine, but that’s largely because I think the issue is extraordinarily complex.  These are, after all, people and their lives that we are discussing and interacting with, not even “communities” or “demographics.”