The Lesson of Kony 2012 for Mission Outreach: Sometimes “Doing Nothing” is Better

“Oh, my dear, idealists are the cruelest monsters of them all.”
-Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation

In her various books on American history, Sarah Vowell repeatedly reveals a complex relationship with idealism and the can-do spirit, which parallels her relationship with the United States in general.

In The Wordy Shipmates and Unfamiliar Fishes, she paints a dark picture of what happens when brave and noble souls give up their homes and comforts in order to be a light unto the world, bringing aid and salvation to those living in far-off lands. The Puritans, self-professed “city on a hill,” brutally massacred the Pequot Indians. The children of missionaries to Hawaii eventually took over the country and orchestrated its annexation against the will of most of its people. Yet despite the deep cynicism of her assessment that these and other idealists are among the most damaging forces on Earth, one can sense in her writing a fascination bordering on admiration for the sheer chutzpah of these people. The Puritans’ daring and idealism form an integral part of American culture; it is part of who Sarah Vowell is, I think, and it certainly is a part of who I am.

My humanitarian sensibilities come from my belief that God wants me to be an agent in the transformation of the world. These are the same instincts that have motivated missionaries throughout the centuries. Despite the secular world’s criticism of missionary movements, the same spirit of going out and making things better forms the basis of most global humanitarian efforts. The combination of daring and idealism that feeds this spirit is wonderful, powerful, and terrifying.

I am again reminded about the profound unease surrounding the relationship between the desire to change the world and colonialism as I read about the Invisible Children “Kony 2012” campaign, initiated by American Jason Russell to bring Ugandan guerrilla leader indicted for war crimes to justice. Plenty of criticism has been leveled against this movement for misrepresenting and oversimplifying the situation in Uganda. I’m not interested in adding to this criticism or defending the movement. What interests me most is the passionate argument raised by those speaking out to defend Kony 2012, which says, “What have you done for the world lately? Isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?”

No. No, it isn’t.

The idea of doing nothing in the face of injustices goes against every fiber of my deeply American sense that I have power in the form of economic and racial privilege, and I must use it to help those who have no power. The irony is that by having this privilege, I am also less able to understand the situation of those without it. I may have the power to change things, but that doesn’t make me qualified to do so. And the fact is that no matter how good my intentions, using my power to interfere with the lives of others will often cause more harm than good.

The example of colonial conquest of Hawaii is a worst case. Another common result that arises from the efforts of Americans to help others can be simple inconvenience and annoyance. While I was working in Nicaragua, I had a colleague in Peru who commented on the short-term volunteers coming through the boarding school for at-risk boys where she worked. The volunteers had limited language and technical skill, and as a result the boys had the dorm walls repainted every other week.

The lesson in the criticism of the Kony 2012 video needs to be taken to heart in the churches that offer social outreach ministries. Justice is not a one-way enterprise. If the church is not being consciously transformed by those it purports to transform, its work is not just.

In a wonderfully insightful response to the Kony 2012 video, Rosebell Kagumires critique points to a different way of doing justice work: listening to the story, listening well, and telling it right. As she puts it, “if you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless… you shouldn’t be telling my story.”

In my 18-month volunteer stint in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua (fueled undoubtedly by some of that same idealism that inspired Jason Russell, the Peruvian volunteers, and the missionaries), I discovered the power of story as an instrument of justice. Being open to hearing the experiences of those in another country, letting those stories change me, daring to be vulnerable and share my own stories with them: this ministry accomplished far more than any lesson plan I developed or class I taught.

Even a year and a half of listening does not qualify me to try to fix the many problems of Nicaragua’s economic and political situation.  That’s why it angers me to hear an American claim solidarity with the Sandinistas, while having no knowledge of how the political party has both helped and hurt its country in the 30 years since the civil war. The most effective thing I can do now is continue to tell the story as truly as I know it, and hope that my telling it will change others as it has changed me.

In American culture, listening does not count as doing.  Taking the time to hear someone out is time that could be better spent fixing them. Speaking with others who have spent substantial time abroad, I find that so many of us have drastically reevaluated what we think “doing something” means. In our impatience to make things better in a way that makes sense to us, we fail to see the work that we actually need to do. If we do not take the time to get the story right, and recognize the power of the story and the honor of receiving it, how can we hope to play a positive role in the story’s next chapter?

Sculpture:Bill Woodrow, Listening to History, 1995 Bronze.  Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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5 thoughts on “The Lesson of Kony 2012 for Mission Outreach: Sometimes “Doing Nothing” is Better

  1. Thanks for this, Kathryn. As another American idealist who has spent significant time engaging in humanitarian work abroad (in Uganda, in fact), I appreciate your emphasis on listening and learning from others. Allowing ourselves to be changed. There is much more room for this in American engagement abroad. At the same time, to become defeatist, to claim there is nothing I can do because of the privilege into which I have been born, is, I believe, a mistake. What I have found is that listening and learning go hand-in-hand with action – action that is alongside, indeed, led by, the people indigenous to the struggle. My Kampala field office was staffed almost entirely by Ugandans. Indeed, I was the American fellow who had come to fill in any gaps needed on the ground; to be directed by those who knew how I could best be utilized. It takes vast humility to truly serve and I am by no means a perfect example – far from it! But in my opinion this is a horizon toward which people of privilege can strive.

    1. Sarah,

      Thank you for your thoughts and sharing your experience. When one engages in the honest hard work of relationship and self-reflection demanded of international engagement (without which any action is bound to counterproductive), I agree that there is a certain point where you have to ask, “So what do I do with these stories? Where do I go from here?” Neither of which have easy, unproblematic answers, but I think it often ends up looking like the support work you described.

      I don’t believe privilege is a disqualification, but I do think it’s an obstacle that complicates international work as much as it is a resource that enables that kind of work. It’s good to be self-critical and realistic about the consequences of my actions, but ultimately I can’t stay home, either. The folks I worked and journeyed with and the issues they face are too important.

  2. I think sara’s response is a good clarification of kathryn’s excellent article. It seems like a bit of an updated version of Ivan illych’s “to hell with good intentions.” Thank you both

  3. Unregulated Capitalism us clearly what The Hunger Games was meant to depict. The Hunger Games depicts Capitalism without any regulations or restriction, such as existed in the USA prior to the Progressive reforms led in part by President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt helped usher in the first antitrust laws which created a partial breakup of the trusts (the monopolies that always end up destroying competition and creating tyranny and virtual slavery for the masses in a system of unregulated Capitalism). In 1890, the life expectancy for the average worker was about 37 years old, while the life expectancy in the leisure class (the rich) was about 67. That is the paradise that unregulated Capitalism brings us. That’s what The Hunger Games is depicting. Of course, we don’t have unregulated Capitalism in the USA now. But many people see The Hunger Games as relevant to today’s world because there is a powerful political movement in the USA that wants to return to the glory days of unregulated Capitalism, the paradise of no antitrust laws, no labor laws, no environmental laws, no minimum wage laws, no unemployment insurance, no social security insurance, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no nothing except Herbert Hoover’s old phrase, the business of America is business. Of course, the USSR and Mao’s China were tyrannies too, but they did not maintain their tyranny by forcing the masses to fiercely and ruthlessly compete against each other just to get enough food. The USSR and Mao’s China were attempted Utopias based on forced cooperation, not forced competition. There was also no forced murderous competition in Orwell’s 1984. In truth, the tyranny of unregulated Capitalism is a great evil for the vast majority of the people. So is total Socialism. That’s why all the richest countries, those with the highest average standard of living, all have Mixed Economies (part Capitalism, part Socialism). This is so clearly seen in the northern European countries, all of which have a per capital GNP much higher than the USA has ever had.

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