“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 Kagumire’s 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.