Archive - March, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the Muted Voice of the Mainline Church

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing.

When the story of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin broke, I had a conversation with a friend who told me he had repeated “the talk” with his college-age son. My friend said he had been stopped driving while black, he’s had experiences walking while black, even eating while black. He reminded his son about how to act in case he were stopped by the police while engaging in normal activities.

My friend was troubled by the apparent silence of the churches. In fact, this was a misperception born of the lack of visibility of the leaders in the mainline tradition who had spoken out. For example, the Florida Council of Churches had expressed condolences to the Martin family, called the death of Trayvon unwarranted and said deadly force should not be tolerated in Florida. The council called for justice.

On Tuesday, the president and staff of the National Council of Churches also expressed condolences and issued a statement saying “this tragedy has been compounded by unexamined stereotypes on both sides, and especially by the systemic racism that is pervasive throughout the very fabric of our society, infecting our institutions and individuals alike.”

Also on Tuesday, Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, appeared on the Roland Martin show on CNN and expressed concern about the so-called “stand your ground” laws and the need for us to consider the results of these laws. These laws are, in fact, a moral issue. They sanction deadly force by expanding traditional legal constraints on self-defense. Coupled with so-called “right to carry” laws, they represent a clear danger to public safety, in the opinion of many.

During the show, Roland Martin called out white evangelicals for not speaking about the sacredness of life in this case. In contrast, African-American clergy appeared on cable television shows, some defending the shooter and others, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton on his MSNBC program, calling for the resignation of the Sanford, Fla., police chief and for justice for Trayvon Martin’s family.

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing. This was backed by a statement that said, in part, “Youths of color are routinely assumed to be violent criminals, and thus face the constant threat of random acts of violence.”

The importance of media savvy

There are two issues of importance in the muted voice of the mainline groups. The first and most difficult is that because they don’t work in the media landscape in a strategic way, the mainlines are infrequently considered by major media as a source when events of this importance occur.  In contrast, media-savvy speakers were appearing in major media.

The second concern is related to the first and follows from it. Absent media coverage, the mainline groups are left to issue statements and distribute them within their own networks. With the exception of Ms. Butler of Faith in Public Life, the mainline response was very traditional. I applaud the public witness of the mainline groups, but there’s a difference between offering a pronouncement and participating in the ongoing conversation.

The latter requires media savvy and a desire to inject values into the culture. It involves offering interpretation about the underlying values and forces at work in the culture today, forces that are sometimes so subtle or complex that they go unnoticed, such as racism and its multiple coded behaviors.

A tragic absence

I’ve been writing about the absence of the mainline from the media and the tragedy it represents. The mainline denominations are concerned about the moral values that undergird society. They are concerned about race, human dignity and the value of human life. The tragedy is that their concerns are not receiving the attention they deserve, primarily due to this lack of visibility in the communication landscape today.

While Roland Martin was on point, he missed the mark by referring only to white evangelicals. This absence of mainline leaders in the national media is haunting. The nation is having an important conversation, not only on cable television but through newspaper commentary, blogs, radio talk shows and in myriad other ways about fundamental issues of great moral concern (race and justice). An important voice, one that should be helping us come to terms with our understanding of the issues, is missing, and the absence of the mainline churches in the national dialogue is a great loss.

This lack of presence is something that’s been evolving over the past several years, and it renders the conversation less rich, inclusive and substantial. I pray that mainline groups find their place in the media landscape, participate in the conversation, and offer clarifying values and perspective. I believe being present in this landscape today is a necessary part of being faithful.

I also believe it is the media environment in which we do theology. It is the media environment in which we discuss the meaning of faith and its applicability to the hard issues of life that help us discover who we are, whose we are and how we are to live together and flourish as God intends for us all.

And if we are not present, it’s as if we have nothing to say, or worse, don’t care. And that’s not true.

 

Have Mainline Denominations Lost Their Voice?

I was reading Frank Schaeffer’s most recent article on Huffington Post and was stopped in my tracks by these statements:

“Why aren’t the mainline denominations pitching their churches’ tolerant and noble humanistic and enlightened views about individual empowerment, community and spiritual rebirth to the spiritually disenfranchised on a larger scale?”

“If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they’d be bursting at the seams.”

I wanted to shout at my iPad, “Yes, and that is what we are seeing happen in The United Methodist Church when we intentionally reach out to people in our communities.”

If fact, I feel so strongly that mainline denominations have lost their voice in the ongoing media revolution that I recently penned a book called “We Must Speak: Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century”.

Mainline denominations, each for its own reasons, decided to withdraw from the media in the 1980s, at the same time these media were becoming the most influential shapers of attitudes and values in human history.  Amid a revolution in thought and conversation, many of the mainline churches left their place in the discussion to others.

This retreat has caused faith communities to lose their voice in the ongoing conversations that are shaping moral and ethical values.  The result is disastrous.  It is not merely accidental that an image of God is being projected by some religionists that is judgmental, vindictive and the cause of human suffering.

When the church loses its capacity to engage in conversations about faith, it diminishes its capacity to be relevant in an increasingly secular culture. And we’re seeing how harmful this can be.

The irony is that many young adults are seeking a Christianity that is more progressive, less defined by blue state/red state politics and more concerned with the needs of their community, and re-defining who is our neighbor.  They want to hear about healing, hope and redemption. And they want to act on these values, not just talk about them.

The mainline denominations offer that message and the opportunity to act on it, but without a voice in the media landscape, we are destined to obscurity.

In The United Methodist Church, we are reaching out to young adults through a call to Rethink Church, our invitational media campaign.   We are asking young adults to rethink church, not in terms of what it is, but what it could be.  Not just a place to go, or a particular politics, but rather something we do.  By using a variety of media in partnership with local congregations and general church agencies, we are calling young adults to join us in acts of mission.  In 2011, some 4500 churches mobilized more than 500,000 volunteers, serving 4,000,000 people in 16 countries.  Up to 40% of these volunteers were not members of a United Methodist Church, and through this association were more inclined to visit these churches.

Communicating strategically in the global media environment in which we live today is an act of theology. I think we’re answering Schaeffer’s question and a movement is building, but that he is asking the question means we must do more.

For more information on “We Must Speak” and our voice in the culture, click here.

 

White Savior Complex

I think it was 1978 when I first heard African church leaders discuss the “white savior complex” and blame the media for creating images of Africa in perpetual crisis.

We sat in a small, airy, modern building in Dakar, Senegal. It was hot. Dust devils swirled the sand outside. It was my first trip outside the United States and everything seemed noteworthy, even the flat, dry landscape beyond the windows.

This memory was conjured up by the public debate about the “Kony 2012″ campaign and its viral video.

The African church leaders complained to me as if I were representative of the entire journalism profession. They had wanted to unload on someone for a long time, and here I was, so they unloaded. I heard about their frustration that positive stories of Africans solving problems and creating economic progress were of no interest to Western journalists. The journalists only wanted stories of crisis, death, destruction, graft and political corruption, the church leaders said.

They only show up when something goes wrong. They take pictures, shoot video and leave. When they leave, the story goes away until a crisis pops up somewhere else. They don’t get the story accurate. They look only at the things they can see on the surface. They don’t understand the culture or the underlying circumstances that lead to human suffering.

They see drought but ignore longstanding issues that have roots in colonial exploitation, roots that create inequity and injustice and keep Africans in a subservient position in trade relationships, lacking the money to build infrastructure, education and viable businesses to compete globally.

But there was more. The African church leaders were also frustrated with the parade of celebrities who come for a day or two, get their picture taken and speak on behalf of Africans. Then they retreat to the most expensive hotels and leave on the next flight out. I heard about white people who come to Africa with a savior complex, as if Africans don’t have the intelligence or capabilities to solve their own problems.

We lack resources, not resourcefulness,” the Africans told me. We don’t need white saviors telling us how to survive. We’ve been surviving here long before white people came and exploited the people and the land. After they leave, we’ll still be here, they said. I got an earful. Welcome to Africa!

All of these themes have come up in the “Kony 2012″ campaign flap. I was surprised by a blog post by a PR professional in the United States who said Invisible Children had deftly managed the public relations flap. Not from what I have read in reactions of Africans to the film. They raise issues that have been percolating for at least 30 years and the fact that the film steps into these troubled waters and stirs them anew is not a sign of deft PR. It’s a sign of good intentions run aground by lack of historical understanding and context.

In reviewing this criticism, I’m not making a case for ignoring the horrendous human suffering caused by Joseph Kony. The criticism does, however, provide perspective. For as long as I’ve been writing about poverty and its effects globally, which is now going on 30 years, I’ve been concerned about the exploitation of children, especially as child soldiers and through sex trafficking. It’s heartbreaking. It makes me angry. It deserves focused, ongoing attention until we’ve put an end to it.

For me, focus and ongoing attention are key. It’s unfortunate that the “Kony 2012″ campaign’s attention got diverted to the accuracy of its claims and the role the storyteller. 

I’m willing to give great leeway to the young filmmaker and his aspirations to put an end to Kony’s reign of terror. I’m reminded of Ann Lamott’s comment in Bird by Bird, “Reality is unforgivingly complex.” I’m grateful that he’s taken on this terribly important issue. And I’m hoping the attention Invisible Children has brought to the issue creates a sustained effort to put an end to Kony and others who exploit children in merciless ways.

This will require a multi-pronged  effort to empower African human rights advocates to press for action by governments in Africa, public support of the kind Invisible Children is creating in the United States and elsewhere to pressure Western policymakers and governments to pursue Kony and others, and to implement aid programs  that include measurable outcomes to protect human rights and prevent exploitation of children, and women who continue to experience rape and other indignities daily in Africa.

It’s been such a long, long time.

Postscript–March 16, 2012: Nicholas Kristof defends the young filmmaker with a compassionate defense. This BBC coverage contains African reaction to the video. David Reiff critiques the advocacy methodology and its outcome (or lack of it) in this article in Foreign Affairs. A tragic turn of events occurred today with the arrest of the young filmmaker. He is in my prayers.

March 20, 2012: Journalist Angelo Izama provides a lucid overview of the political context in which Joseph Kony operates and discusses how this complex context makes it possible for tyrants like Kony to function as proxies for the various political interests that help them to survive.

This collection of posts gives insight into the white savior complex from different points of view.

When Helping Hurts

The controversy that has been stirred by the Invisible Children organization’s “Kony 2012″ campaign has created public discussion about important issues regarding human rights and humanitarian aid that need to be aired. The campaign is valuable in this way, regardless of its stated outcomes. A Foreign Affairs article on Invisible Children’s call for intervention last November makes one of the most damning critiques. Recently Foreign Affairs guest blogger  Joshua Keating charged that the organization “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) abduction and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony–a brutal man to be sure–as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.”

Over the past 30 years, humanitarian efforts have become entangled with political realities to a dangerous degree because human rights are invariably a part of humanitarian crises. The record on this entanglement is mixed. The Berlin blockade following World War II led to treaties that attempted to protect aid to civilians in conflict areas from the political and military agendas at work. This meant keeping aid itself as neutral as possible.

However, great human need always occurs within a complex political equation. Helping people in these situations is rarely as simple as it appears on the surface. Those most likely to suffer in natural disasters and war are the poorest and most vulnerable in the population. They live in the least substantial housing, lack the resources to flee to safety and are the least influential in the social structure.

A history of brutal leaders

Northern Uganda, where Kony operated before taking refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been in turmoil for longer than young Invisible Children filmmaker Jason Russell has lived. The people of the Karamoja region, home to 1.1 million, have long endured drought and political and social instability. Since its independence as a U.K. protectorate, Uganda has experienced a succession of despotic leaders who plundered the country and ruled by terror. Its first president after independence, Apolo Milton Obote, suspended the constitution and ruled under martial law, creating tribal conflicts and insurgencies that brought the country to ruin.

Obote was overthrown in 1971 by a military coup that implanted the infamous Idi Amin Dada, whose quixotic and deadly leadership has been well-documented in popular culture in the book and movie “The Last King of Scotland.” Civil war erupted and continued from 1979 through 1986. Government troops carried out genocidal raids that terrorized the region known as the Lewuro Triangle.

Obote returned to power in 1981, and some Ugandans say his second term was even bloodier than Amin’s. Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986, and he has brought relative peace and stability, except in northern Uganda. While he instituted progressive programs to combat HIV/AIDS, he is criticized on human rights by many international observers. Uganda is particularly harsh in its rejection of homosexuals today, for example.

A volatile mix

Reliefweb says the Karamoja region has the “lowest human development indices in the country.” The Reliefweb assessment also points out that 80% of the population faces food insecurity exacerbated by drought and lack of sustainable jobs. More than 1.1 million internally displaced people have returned to their homelands or have resettled to new locations after a peace agreement reached with Kony’s insurgency, but their ability to earn a living is still hampered by the broken economy across the region.

It is into this highly volatile mix of historical and contemporary political, economic and environmental currents that Invisible Children has stepped into and is suggesting military intervention. The Obama administration has put military advisers into Uganda to aid in locating Kony. However, their value is also being debated.

Looking past the fact that the assessment by Invisible Children is flawed (which should be enough reason for caution), it is also questionable how introducing yet another military operation in a region plagued by instability for the past 30 years could contribute to stability, especially when it would inevitably involve cross-border operations into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Kony is said to be operating now.

Sometimes doing good is not as simple as it seems from the outside.

From Invisible Children to Viral Video

A young filmmaker’s chance encounter with armed militia in northern Uganda nine years ago has resulted in a media storm that today is capturing attention around the world and reinforcing claims about the power of social media. It’s also created healthy debate about the most effective way for concerned people to affect humanitarian issues half a world away, and whether advocacy and awareness are sufficient responses to a longstanding conflict.

I’m writing of the viral video by Jason Russell, a 24-year-old filmmaker who went to Uganda as a student to discover a story he could tell through film. He found the story. It was about children conscripted against their will into the Lord’s Resistance Army run by the sociopath Joseph Kony.

Russell began telling the stories of children who sought refuge in common places where their numbers gave them strength to resist forced conscription. They would leave their homes to sleep together at night in buildings or other places so they couldn’t be abducted one-by-one at home.

Now a video posted by Russell’s organization, Invisible Children, has millions of viewers and is the subject of debate. The debate asks whether the information presented in the video is accurate. Kony’s militia is no longer operating in Uganda but is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it numbers  hundreds of conscripts, far fewer than the alleged 30,000 implied in the film. And while the militia is still doing great harm, the concern of critics is whether the film’s questionable information is a solid basis for useful action.

Other critics point out that Invisible Children spends only 30 percent of the funds it raises on direct services to children. And still others ask if a misinformed public can have meaningful influence about a situation in which a better solution is to assist local persons to resolve problems on their own doorstep.

The challenge of awareness

Over the years I’ve observed that some organizations are better at marketing development and empowerment than actually doing it. Invisible Children seems unabashed about its role. Russell tells the New York Times no one wants to see another boring documentary about Africa, so he decided to make one that is “pop” and “cool.” His most telling comment is that Invisible Children strives to be the Pixar of human rights storytelling. Which begs the question: To what end? Pixar produces content for entertainment and diversion, not for social change.

This is at root the challenge of awareness created through social media. Does awareness lead to action? What kind of action? Can a campaign built around celebrity, bracelets, pledges and donations lead to meaningful action? A new word, “slacktivism,” has been coined to describe this online activism.

A different approach

In stark contrast, outside the chatter of social media and as the Invisible Children video was going viral, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church was training a group of college students face-to-face in Washington, D.C., about global health issues. The board was preparing the students for visits to legislators to discuss the church’s concern for health programs around the world, specifically focusing on the diseases of poverty and the church’s campaign against malaria known as Imagine No Malaria. The two methods of engagement could hardly be more different.

But both seek to engage young adults in critical issues of consequence in our hyper-connected world. There is hope in this effort. I take hope in the debate about the effectiveness of the method associated with Invisible Children. The questions of how to effectively advocate for human rights, affect government policy and empower local people to solve local problems all deserve wider discussion and action.

Each of us will decide whether Invisible Children’s method of online activism is sufficient and if we support it. I hope it feeds the kind of substantial engagement supported by the Board of Church and Society that will in the long run create skilled, effective influencers who will effect change in the long term.

If the Kony2012 campaign contributes to a meaningful consideration of how we can effectively advocate for a better world, then it is serving a useful purpose. And for lasting change and long-term influence, the model practiced by the Board of Church and Society offers a proven track record of effectiveness.