Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Reconciling With a Murderer: Joseph Kony

Quick: Who’s the guy 83 million young people around the globe want arrested ASAP?

Of course, you know the answer, because – like everyone else – you’ve watched the “viral video.” Joseph Kony, the Ugandan maniac who controls the horribly-misnamed Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA.   

You know from this site something about the LRA: how for two decades they have kidnapped, raped, tortured and massacred thousands of innocent noncombatants in Uganda, South Sudan and DRC Congo; how Rush Limbaugh pathetically came to their aid, calling them “Christians … fighting Muslims in Sudan;” and how our many friends in Uganda and Sudan have kept an uneasy eye on the news over the years, at the very thought that his murderous forces might be heading their way.

So you might be surprised at the discomfort I felt last week as I sat among hundreds of students in a college lecture hall watching the video and listening to young enthusiasts speak.  They called for mass action to demand that the U.S. keep American soldiers on his trail in the Congo.

First off, let’s affirm the obvious: No one anywhere can prefer Joseph Kony on the loose over Joseph Kony on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity. That’s not even controversial.

So what was my problem? It took me a while to put my finger on it.  Of course, much has been said by thoughtful commentators already: The simplistic “get-the-bad-guy” mantra that largely ignores the context of tribal violence, corruption, hunger and illiteracy in post-colonial East Africa, much of which is the product of Western interference in the first place; the tricky little fact that Kony has already been marginalized and on the run for many years now, but just might be reinvigorated by a high-profile military campaign against him; the “white-man’s-burden” assumption that Americans – and even their little children – know what’s best for Africans; and the stark reality that relieving Majority World suffering is the work of many lifetimes, and ill-suited to catchy films and social media campaigns.

But yesterday, something came to my attention that brought it all into focus. It turns out that Kony film creator and central character Jason Russell was arrested in San Diego.  The circumstances appear tragic, and we hope the best for Russell and his organization, Invisible Children. Without going into detail, the police apparently struggled to determine whether Mr. Russell needed to be imprisoned for lewd conduct, or hospitalized for mental problems.

After the event, Russell’s wife Danica did her best to explain the reasons for his conduct: Russell’s misconduct wasn’t due to drugs or criminal intent. Rather, he “did some irrational things brought on by extreme exhaustion and dehydration," she explained. "We thought a few thousand people would see the film, but in less than a week, millions of people around the world saw it," she said.  "While that attention was great for raising awareness about Joseph Kony, it also brought a lot of attention to Jason and, because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.”

Okay. So there’s more to the story than I knew. It’s complicated. Maybe if we took the time to understand, we’d be cautious about leaping to conclusions. Maybe we shouldn’t be making snap judgments about others.  Maybe we should remember that extreme circumstances sometimes drive “irrational things.” 

I’m talking about Jason Russell, of course.

Now let’s talk about Joseph Kony. Is there any more to the story?  Maybe it’s complicated?  Maybe we should know something about the backdrop for his crimes?  Is it possible that acting in ignorance might do more harm than good?

I knew a little, but I asked for more from Dr. Jennifer Myhre, a pediatric missionary who has spent decades in East Africa caring for the very poorest. Jennifer watched the Kony2012 video, and offered a mixture of praise and concern.

“Eight million children die in the world every year,” she said. “Four million of those deaths occur in Africa, invisible to most of the rest of the world…. So when talented, passionate young people with resources pour their lives into making the invisible visible, that is a step towards change.” So far, so good. A clear note of praise for Russell.

But then comes the sober wisdom of one who has saved thousands of poor children, and lost more than almost any of us could bear: “One ‘bad guy’ is not the root cause of the problem,” said Dr. Myhre. “Kony only continues to survive, and perhaps thrive, because the issues he feeds on are broader and deeper.
Dr. Myhre & HIV-infected mothers
“Africans kill each other because they believe they have to for the survival of their own children.... I suspect many of us would be willing to fight against a group (another tribe, etc.) if we believed it was a choice between them or our kids.
“Adults join rebel movements when they are desperate.  You don't find the well-off taking those risks.  It's easier to believe the ‘other’ tribe is a danger to your survival when your survival hangs by a thread.  Poverty and fear are the context for [Kony and] the LRA, and those are complex problems that require life-long investment.  Perhaps life-ending investment.  Jesus defeated evil by laying down his life.  Christians today cannot defeat evil by pushing a share button or attending a fundraiser.”
Many Americans are becoming aware that Kony and the LRA are comparatively small problems relative to the issues African children face.  Dr. Myhre lists a few: “Poor care for pregnant women, unsafe deliveries.  Preventable infections.  Malaria.  HIV-AIDS.  Malnutrition.  Abysmal schooling.  These are killing 3,990,000 of the 4 million.”

And how does the gospel affect the way we look at a palpable evil like Kony?  Principally like this: We are always tempted to see evil as something outside of ourselves; something to be suppressed, arrested or even killed.  Something in them. Something out there. But Dr. Myhre reminds us: “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.  Kony's heart and mine.
“Do I believe this man is redeemable?" asks Myhre.  "Am I?  Well, is there any evil too great for God to forgive?  Kony is a human being, not a virus.  As are his victims.  We can learn from our brothers and sisters in Rwanda and South Africa, and from those who are attempting peace and reconciliation in Northern Uganda, and South Sudan.  Africans lead the world in forgiveness.”

 “Africans lead the world in forgiveness.”

What do I think about that? Could I ever seek reconciliation with a man like Kony? It seems impossible. And yet, somehow Africans have done it.  They’ve done it after the genocide in Rwanda. They’ve done it after apartheid in South Africa. I wouldn’t bet against them doing it here. 
And for followers of Jesus, the call to reconciliation has no bounds.  “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Reconcile with all things?  Even Kony?

God is reconciling all things to himself. Africans seem to get this better than we do in the West.

So what do I have to say to my young friends who’ve joined the millions in the “Kony2012” movement?  Here's my first shot: I’m so glad you care about suffering and injustice in Africa. You’ve seen and rejected the narrow self-interest practiced by my generation and shouted in virtually every political forum these days.  This is good. I'm proud of you.

But I hope you’ll examine carefully the core message you’re delivering, which rests firmly on the idea that finding and arresting – or killing – one man is the solution to virtually anything in the Developing World.
And remember, if we “get him” in 2012, four million African children will again die in 2013, unless you and I broaden and deepen our idea of justice for the poor of the world. And without a change in the background conditions, new "Konys" are sure to emerge faster than you can ever hope to arrest them.

Lastly, if you’d like to follow Dr. Myhre’s daily pursuit of  justice for the poor, take a look here, and follow her blog. You might never be the same.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Jesus of Nazareth, quoted in Luke 4.)

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