Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (Matthew 21:23, 45, 46 NIV)
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. (Matthew 22:15 NIV)
By now, the work of Jason Russell and Ben Keesey’s viral video ‘KONY 2012’ has become common topic of discussion at water coolers across the globe. If you have not yet seen the video, you can check it out here. Nonetheless the riveting docudrama detailing the carnage and violence of the longtime Northern Ugandan separatist movement known as the Lord’s Rebel Army (LRA), headed by warlord separatist Joseph Kony. The stated goal of the KONY 2012 video is to “make Jospeh Kony famous” and bring a level of awareness to the world about the violence and destruction that has been wrought by the LRA on Ugandan children and the nation as a whole. The larger non-profit Invisible Children is the brain child of Russell and Keesey to effectuate the larger goal “stopping” Joseph Kony. For more non-partisan information on the LRA and Uganda, click here.
There has been much conversation and debate about the strategy, organization and management of Invisible Children as well as the naiveté of the filmmaker’s method of bringing light to the plight of the victims of the LRA. Some critics are adamant in their rejection of the neocolonial perspectives while others are fiercely opposed to making a warlord ‘famous’. Some critics dislike that a white man (Jason Russell) records the video (along with his son) with naive excitement and very basic language about a complex African civil war. Other critics abhor the tactics of fundraising on the backs of the child victims of the LRA and making war famous. There are competing videos, op-eds, columns, interviews and speeches that use a multi-fold method of attack to undermine the work of Invisible Children and/or the film (or both). The global nature of our communication means that even citizens of Uganda have heard of the movement and stand at odds with the film and filmmakers, for a whole host of reasons. While there are several factual errors in their video (location of Uganda, and the current whereabouts of Joseph Kony to name a few), there is an inherent truth to what the video is attempting to communicate. Nor am I going to take factual cues from a YouTube video……period!
I am in favor of the campaign to bring global attention to the plight of the children of Uganda. (I am in favor of bringing light to any of the dark and hidden places of death and destruction in order to bring change). I think the work of Invisible Children and its video serve a noble cause to make the world a more livable place. This blog post is not about validating or defending the work of Invisible Children (there are plenty of places you can get that information). Instead, I write to offer a parsing of the criticism and opposition that has permeated the world’s response to this movement.
I am awestruck at the vehement opposition to the burgeoning KONY 2012 movement. I am puzzled at the nature and theme of the critics and the nature of their criticism. My sole introduction to the movement came from a college-age member of my congregation messaging me with the video and exaltation to “watch and take action”. They also expressed that they were going to begin a chapter of the movement at their college. A day later, that same member of my congregation was confronted with the critics and exposé of the work of Russell and Keesey. Specifically, a movement that took hold in the last two weeks has now incurred the ire of journalists, governments, politicians and a whole host of citizenry around the globe. The criticisms do not seem to address the merit of what the video seeks to do….. simply inform. Every comment begins with, “while I agree with the idea, the method…”
I see the heart of the criticism as ultimately the critique of an anti-establishment movement by the institutional structures of established-driven societies. That is to say, in many of our societies, credibility is only given to the agency of institutional prerogatives. If a group wants to offer systemic change in the world, they need to use established and generally acceptable means to promote change. Any activity or movement that doesn’t jive with established practices of fairness, reporting, political correctness or narrowly construed definitions of equality is discredited as suspect, flawed and/or downright fraudulent. In religious contexts these movements are unorthodox and blasphemous and cause all sorts of consternation for the practitioners, managers and conveyors of the institutions of societal orthodoxy.
The institutional resistance to this new movement reminds me of similar resistance to the effects of a first century movement in Palestine that was just as anti-establishment as this one is in the 21st century. The gospel of Matthew highlights the direct confrontation with the institutional systems of Jesus’ time and context. In fact, that confrontation lasts until the end of the gospel. The movement that Jesus has started and nourished challenges everything the invested structures of society hold sacred. Jewish Law, Roman law, cultural expectations and traditions, and all of the institutions that manage those structures get challenged in the face of Jesus’ movement. By the time he enters Jerusalem in this 21st chapter, Jesus gets quizzed and cornered at every turn. In many respects Jerusalem is the epitome of the Judean institutions of governance and societal norms. Here, Pharisees and Sadducees, Centurion and Gentile, all commingle to highlight the supremacy of institutional authority in Judea.
Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem comes while every aspect of his being, (his parentage to his motivation to his methods) is questioned in an attempt to discredit his authenticity and his movement. Matthew intentionally portrays this systemic rejection as the culminating acts of Christ’s redemptive work. Using the institutional means of ‘authentication’, the representatives of institutional power (Pharisees, Sadducees, Governor Pilate) are all shown finding ways to debunk and undermine Jesus and his followers.
Yet, there is hope in that this movement is anti-establishment (specifically, counterestablishment). Jesus builds a movement from the institutional ‘rejects’ and the ignored persons in the society. The people who institutions invest in ignoring are the very people who follow The Way. The work of the Christ here creates a new way of being that forces the structures of institutionality to confront the people, issues and challenges they have ignored. Therein is Christ’s Judgement, not that he has to say anything, but our reaction to the moment seals our verdict.
Invisible Children is not a religious movement, but a movement nonetheless. The power of this movement is found in the very thing the institutions of the present age use to move any of us, social media, video, campaigning and word of mouth. The reality is that the movement’s work forces governments, societies, churches, and all of the other structures of institutionality to face their failures. It hurts us to be reminded of the inaction in the genocides of Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and others. It is convicting to be confronted with where you have failed the children Liberia, Sudan, Myanmar and the war-torn countries of the world. The KONY 2012 movement conjures up those images and those emotions all over again.
This 21st century movement has rallied a generation that institutions labeled as ‘lazy’ and ‘ineffectual’. A people, No! A generation is on the move and looking to change the world for the better. And so, like the Pharisees of the Matthean corpus, (and like all other generations that seek counter-establishment ways of changing the world), we too reject this movement. Our rejection is damning more for what it says about us, then what it says about Invisible Children. We use our disdain of the counter-establishment methods of a grassroots movement to justify our inaction and dismiss the willingness of a few to change the world.
The source of my anger lies in the fact that Invisible Children shouldn’t be the group that is ferreting warlords and war criminals out of their hiding places. Non-profits are not theologically equipped to face the suffering humanity in all parts of the world. There has long since been a movement in the world that is the anti-normative and be counter to the status quo in any age. It started in the gospels long ago and flourished to change a world of institutional ways of being into a world of abundant living. The vehicle for social and communal change is the church. It is the Christian church that speaks truth to the powers of the world. It is the Christian church that has the audacity to be hopeful that societies and people can change and justice for the oppressed is still possible.
For far too long, the church has turned a blind eye to oppressive governments and corrupting influences that cause simple situations (food, shelter and protection) to devolve into complex political cultures (civil war, economic stagnancy, famine, and the like). Sadly, the church is the establishment and often partners to exclude and reject the very people who it is called to find and affirm. Many times we the church, and the society, define the truth through the lens of protectionism and past hurts. Out of fear we seek not to speak about the things of the world that need speaking on. From places of hurt we modify our speech to the point of nullifying our prophetic witness in the world.
My vision of truth finds the church and our society willfully seeing the glimpse of truth others see in our world. #THEWAY 2012