Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Joseph Kony and Structural Injustice

A young man told me recently, “I feel that you wouldn’t be so skeptical about the Kony 2012 movement if it weren’t so successful.”

Without question, this is true.  Well said.  As one who has labored for years – with very limited success – to raise awareness of the deadly impacts of global environmental abuse upon the poor and vulnerable of the world, I was amazed at the overnight wildfire that swept away more than 83 million viewers of the Kony video.  I took something of a professional interest in the movement.  How did they do it? What do they got that I ain’t got?

The “Invisible Children” message about Kony is clear and compelling: One evil man and his henchmen have abducted hundreds of boys and girls and turned them into killers and sex slaves; and we can help rescue these children by demanding that American forces assist with his capture.

83 million viewers and counting
That sounds compelling right? For the sake of several hundred people in a distant land, I might expect support from hundreds or even thousands of Americans.  But 83 million viewers? Clearly, I’ve been missing something.

Well, I’m not sure I’ve got it all figured out, but I’m going to suggest an answer. It comes from one of the wisest and most just men I know: Ron Sider, Founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and author of many books on social justice.  I think of Ron as the conscience of the American evangelical church.

At a lunch meeting several months ago, Ron said something like this to me: “American Christians are really generous when it comes to relieving tangible suffering – famine, drought, violence and the like.  But we’re not so good when it comes to structural injustice – those background conditions like discrimination, corruption and illiteracy that inevitably lead to tangible suffering.”

Of course, we all know that Sider is right.  Our hearts are broken at the sight of a starving Somali child or a burning village in Darfur.  We are repulsed by stories of militias using rape as a weapon of terror in Uganda or DRC Congo.  With every fiber, we want to bring the perpetrators of these horrors to justice.  And many of us are quick to write checks to charities that are bringing tangible relief to victims.

But the background conditions that make these horrors possible – or inevitable – these don’t have nearly the power to stir our passions.  Who breaks into tears at the mention of illiteracy?  No one’s pulse quickens at the vestiges of colonial rule that fosters tribal enmity and corruption.  And few of us make the connection between environmental degradation or human-caused climate change, and the related famine, drought and disease suffered by people in distant lands.

Structural injustice just doesn’t have the power to move our hearts, does it?
The problem is this:  In reality, the larger part of injustice is – in fact – structural.

Consider Darfur.

In 2007, the UN called the genocidal Darfur war the first major conflict brought on by human-caused climate change. And they predicted further conflict in South Sudan and in the mountainous Nuba region.

“With rainfall down by up to 30% over 40 years,” reported the UN, “and the Sahara advancing by well over a mile every year, tensions between farmers and herders over disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes threaten to reignite the half-century war between north and south Sudan, held at bay by a precarious 2005 peace accord.

“The southern Nuba tribe, for example, has warned they could ‘restart the war’ because Arab nomads – pushed southwards into their territory by drought – are cutting down trees to feed their camels.”

Of course, the UN predictions in 2007 proved tragically accurate, with an unending stream of massacre reports coming out of Darfur, and the ongoing genocide in the Nuba region.  In the West, we tend to blame Sudan’s iron-fisted dictator, Omar al-Bashir, wanted in The Hague for genocidal crimes. 
But the UN report tells us that we share the blame: The Darfur genocide is at least partly the result of climate change which has parched the region and driven a struggle for survival between nomadic and farming tribes.

Or consider Uganda itself, where Kony committed most of his horrors.

We know that the backdrop for Kony is the pervasive poverty and food insecurity that drive so much tribal strife in Uganda.  We also know that coffee production has been a significant source of subsistence for Ugandans for many decades.  But the warming climate has already destroyed most of Uganda’s coffee industry.  And Oxfam warns: “If average global temperatures rise by two degrees or more, then most of Uganda is likely to cease to be suitable for coffee.  This may happen in 40 years, or perhaps as little as 30.”
Not the stuff of viral videos: The end of coffee in Uganda
Horrible as they are, Kony’s crimes haven’t happened in a vacuum. And as the largest per capita climate-changers in the world, you and I – and all Americans – share in the structural evil that results in Kony and the Darfur genocide.

Now, do our crimes in Uganda and Darfur make you mad?  Is your heart racing at the thought of this injustice?  Are you screaming for carbon emissions to be reduced? Probably not, right? It’s not like someone’s being abducted. Or raped. Or mutilated with sharp steel pangas.

Or is it?

Maybe I should make a catchy video demanding justice.  But something tells me that it would never go viral. The injustice is structural, and you and I are the ones to be arrested.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood


  1. A commnent from the Netherlands ( this blog was pointed out to me by Norman Viss, who lived in the Netherlands for years, and recently has returned to the USA).
    It's not just in America, this issue of structural injustice compared to seeing a Somali starving child, the same is true for people in the Netherlands (and presumably elsewhere in the world).

  2. This morning, I deleted a comment for reasons of coarse language. But the substance of the comment deserves to be heard. It's not very flattering to me, but makes a point that needs to be heard. Here, with only minor revisions, is what the commentator wrote:

    "I'm not a KONY fan. But I understand the thing they've got that you don't. They're selling the issue. And I hate salesmen. Hence, I'm not a KONY fan. My suggestion would be to just wait for KONY to blow over and go back to what you were doing. Anything else just makes you look jealous and stupid.

    "You're trying to do good. They're trying to do good. Shut up and do good.

    "I'm not a Christian, but I can tell you that pissing on another Christian about how they're succeeding at helping people isn't Christian."

    I thank this person for his comments. I regret that I have given the impression that I'm criticizing Invisible Children, rather than trying to provoke thought among Americans about the demands of justice from the perspective of the gospel. And I can't ignore the fact that, despite some simplistic thinking, it would probably be better if Invisible Children succeed in their effort to mobilize the powerful to find a way to arrest Kony.

    Let's call this "the wounds of a friend." Thank you.