Learning from Gandhi and Martin Luther King in Response to Kony 2012

Sometimes I keep them close by so I feel less alone in my journey.

This is a follow-up post to my previous thoughts on Kony 2012

It took me a really long time to read through Martin Luther King’s autobiography. I think, all told, it took me two and a half years from start to finish.

The benefit is that I took the long journey of his life into myself, really contemplated and absorbed it, allowing myself the privilege of learning under him as a master teacher of sorts.

I had a similar experience when reading Gandhi’s autobiography. I think it took me about two years to finish his 500-page tome. The effect was a sense of real companionship, of getting to know this strong and honorable man by walking slowly alongside him, observing his choices and his leadership and deeply listening to his philosophy and how he made decisions.

Three things always stand out to me about these two great men and the work of their lives. And over the last few days, as I’ve continued to educate myself and contemplate the events of the Kony 2012 effort, I’m noticing that these three elements can be instructive to us in developing our perspective on the issue the Kony 2012 effort represents and its proposed resolution.

1. The work of both men grew out of their experience and context. 

Pretty early in my nonviolence journey, I heard a story about Mother Teresa. It was shared in the context of how often people sought her permission to come care for the poor in Calcutta alongside her. While she was glad to receive visitors and often told them to “come and see,” she also often told them, “There are Calcuttas everywhere.” The implication I took from that story was to ask myself and God in prayer, “Where is my Calcutta?”

I think about this regarding Gandhi and MLK, too. They were so clearly called to the contexts they served. They knew the people they served and were, in fact, one of them. They had personal knowledge of the plights they served and sought to change. They were fully immersed in and lived among the struggle.

I think resolution to the violence perpetuated by the Lord’s Resistance Army is going to need similar leadership — that it is going to need to come from those just as closely acquainted with it and living among it.

This, in fact, seems to be one of the great messages those living in Uganda, the Congo, Sudan, and the CAR keep sending in response to the Kony 2012 video — and have, in fact, been sending for quite some time. See, as one example, this 6-minute video by Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire recorded in response to the Kony 2012 video.

While it may surprise Americans to hear it, the people of Africa — in whatever country or context where suffering may exist or emerge among them — do not want to be rescued as though they have not the strength to help themselves. The care, compassion, and solidarity of the wider world is valuable to them, yes. But they are not helpless people. They are strong. Vibrant. Creative. Resourceful. And they want to be part of their own solution.

Furthermore, they are the ones who best know the situation and its history and its people. They know what solutions will work or not work in response to their struggles. And their personal knowledge of their own context is perhaps their greatest strength.

All this to say that while I am still so glad the wider world has been educated about the existence of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, I’m not so sure that agitating the international community and policymakers to do something to make it stop is the real solution this situation requires. We ought, instead, to be students of those affected by the violence — those who know the situation and its dynamics better than any of us and who can teach us what solutions they believe their situation requires.

2. The efforts of Gandhi and MLK were coordinated and strategic.

When I read Martin Luther King’s autobiography, I was struck over and over again by how organized and carefully planned the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement really were. They had to be.

For instance, when the bus boycott in Montgomery began — which was the first initiative led by MLK in the Civil Rights Movement — they started with 150 volunteers who donated their cars to the effort. Within a few days, the volunteer drivers had swelled to 300 and the group had distributed leaflets to the community that listed 48 dispatch and 42 pickup stations.

That’s pretty impressive and massive coordination in just a few days. Even the white community was impressed by it, Dr. King tells us in his autobiography.

But the oppositional response of the white community to the bus boycott necessitated further strategy and coordinated response on the part of the Negro community. When reading this section of MLK’s autobiography, I noted no less than 10 oppositional efforts the white community undertook to derail the boycott:

  • Opposition #1: Use laws against them.
  • Opposition #2: Negotiate an unsuitable compromise.
  • Opposition #3: Divide the black community against itself.
  • Opposition #4: Spread lies.
  • Opposition #5: Institute a “get tough” policy.
  • Opposition #6: Make threats.
  • Opposition #7: Resort to violence.
  • Opposition #8: Initiate mass arrests.
  • Opposition #9: Refuse car insurance.
  • Opposition #10: Take legal action.
  • Opposition #11: Send in the Ku Klux Klan.

And with each oppositional effort, a savvy and thoughtful response was required and offered in return by the Negro community. Indeed, the full length of MLK’s life and work reflects such coordination and strategy every step of the way. And in learning about Gandhi’s work, we see the same careful planning and execution applied to the particulars of his own time and place.

I believe dismantling the Lord’s Resistance Army will take more than finding, capturing, and bringing to justice Joseph Kony, which is the solution offered by the Kony 2012 video. As I read over and over on blogs by people long acquainted with the situation in the last few days, the issue is greater than just one man. It requires us to consider questions like, “How has a small but vicious group been allowed to thrive for over 25 years?”

In other words, there are bigger issues at play here than the efforts of one single man leading a brutal war — issues like governance in the countries affected by the violence, for one — and smart and careful planning and strategy needs to be applied to the larger issues that get at the root of things here.

Again, as happy as I am that the video has raised awareness in the wider world about this issue, I have come to believe the solution it offers is just altogether too simplistic.

3. Both men were convinced of the efficacy of nonviolent resolution. 

Of all the insights I’ve gained in the last few days as I’ve read and continued to learn about the history and scope of the issue presented by the Kony 2012 campaign, I am most thankful for the perspective that “brought me back to myself,” so to speak.

My nonviolence journey began with a single question: Is it really true that the only truly transformative force in the world to overcome violence is love?

It was a question I asked with no little amount of dubiousness. Though I had observed the transformative power of love in my own life experience, I didn’t see how this could possibly translate on a broader social scale. But the possibility of it gripped me, and that’s why I eventually began my long journey into the study and practice of nonviolence.

Throughout this journey, I’ve continued to learn that the great nonviolent leaders of history insist on the premise that love is the only way to disrupt, uproot, and transform violence. It sows something new, rather than repeating a cycle with switched-up players as victims and perpetrators.

I have this article by Mark Kersten to thank for bringing me back to the perspective that peaceful solutions are the ones that I support. But beyond just “bringing me back to myself,” Mark’s article helped me view the particular conflict raised by the Kony 2012 campaign in a different light.

Invisible Children, the creators of the Kony 2012 video, uphold a military solution to the conflict. They want the US to maintain its existing 100 troops on the ground to provide tactical support and to help the Ugandan army capture Joseph Kony so that he can be brought to trial at the International Criminal Court. As much as this effort is devoted to capturing, rather than killing, Joseph Kony in order to bring him to justice, the reality is that this is a military solution. It involves armies, and gunfire and loss of life will be involved in the process.

Invisible Children proposes this is the only feasible solution since peace talks have failed in the past.

But Mark Kersten says this:

There is much to be learned from the previous talks between the Government of Uganda and the LRA in Juba, from 2006-08. . . . In taking the lessons of past experience , energy can be harnessed to get back to the negotiating table.

I love that Mark asks us not to be so quick to discount the possibility of renewed peace talks. And I’ve decided that, by virtue of the nonviolent path that I have committed to walk, peace talks must be the solution I support in this situation as well.

Lastly, I’ll share that in the process of learning more about the proposed peace talks solution, I have been wholeheartedly heartened by the discovery of a woman living today who has been an integral actor in previous peace talks with Joseph Kony and the LRA. Her name is Betty Bigombe, and you can read about her selfless, savvy, and incredibly brave work here, here, and here. She helps demonstrate to me what nonviolent peacemaking really looks like and has become one of my new modern-day heroes.

UPDATED TO ADD: This morning I found this article by Anywar Ricky Richard, a former child soldier in the LRA who now rehabilitates orphans in Uganda affected by the war. It is a beautiful and honest article that also speaks to how Ugandans would like to see this issue resolved and the value of resuming peace talks toward that end. I also forgot to mention in the original post that Betty Bigombe, one of the key actors in previous peace talks with Joseph Kony and the LRA, is a native Ugandan.

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6 responses to “Learning from Gandhi and Martin Luther King in Response to Kony 2012

  1. I love this response. I’ve only had time to look at a few pieces that have come to my notice on these issues, and I feel conflicted. On the one hand, I think and feel very similarly to you on what will actually solve these complex and difficult problems. On the other hand (and I don’t think you would necessarily disagree with this), I tend to think that anything that gets Americans (and maybe people in general), especially young ones, to think about things and people other than themselves is probably more good than it is bad (ok, so that’s a very general statement, but I hope the sentiment makes sense). And anything that actually gets them to give, whether time, money, effort of another kind, etc., seems like a further step in the right direction. While I might wish people had been better or more thoughtfully directed, I end up feeling more support than I do censure for the campaign because it’s causing people to care and to act. Not perfectly, certainly, but I don’t think any of us pretend to that.

    I add to that a much more tentative thought that figuring out how to support the kinds of people and actions that are likely to actually bring about resolution seems much harder than what Invisible Children is calling people to, or at least much more subtle. I don’t necessarily think that means they shouldn’t have called people to those things instead, but I balance that with the fact that we live in a culture that doesn’t often appreciate subtle actions. I don’t know where that leaves things, but it is something I’ve considered that seems important in this whole thing.

    • Such good thoughts here, Sarah, and I definitely agree with you. I think what Invisible Children has done, on an “injection into the culture” level, with this video is nothing short of brilliant. They used mediums their audience uses (video and social media), they put a face on the victim (through Jacob), they related to their audience (American dad talking to his 5-year-old American son), they created a focused target (Joseph Kony), and they provided simple action steps (share this, give money, and use your action kit on April 20).

      It’s incredible what they have done here, just from a means perspective. I think this campaign needs to go in some kind of playbook somewhere for future people to learn from.

      But I found myself, toward the end of my research, deciding that I wish Invisible Children played more single-mindedly toward their obvious strength (raising awareness in effective ways with their specific audience) without proposing specific solutions. Maybe being more educators than activists? Because I’ve started to become more aware of what I saw one person call “badvocacy,” meaning some advocacy does more harm than good. (You can read that article here.)

      I’ll also add to this that I think this is a critical time in which we’re seeing the effects of technological advances. In so many ways, critical thinking and nuanced thought has fallen to the wayside because we’ve become more dependent on technology to not only do our thinking for us but also to amuse us. So while the Kony 2012 campaign harnessed the reality of that in a really effective way, it left all those who are doing the hard work of thinking critically about the nuances at play here scrambling around doing clean-up while simultaneously tearing at their hair. It’s such an interesting time in which we live, and think you’re spot on that situations like this, full of such subtlety, bear the brunt of it.

      • I so love hearing your thoughts on this, because I don’t have the time right now to think about this like I’d like to, and I trust the way you think (Not that you’re infallible, but it makes sense to me).

        Your talk about badvocacy is making me think of something that I keep running across in my students and their research papers. There’s something about the younger generations (and maybe ours, too) that makes them think that making people aware of a problem will somehow lead to a resolution (I don’t think this is what you’re saying, just a problem I see in a lot of areas). While awareness is important, it doesn’t necessarily lead to action (or, more importantly, to useful action). So while I think that maybe IC should have stuck to raising awareness, I struggle with the idea that they should have left it there. I disagree with their solutions, but in some ways I’m glad they encouraged people to act (I think that while simultaneously cringing at some of the actions they advocated . . . does that make sense?).

        I guess what I wish is that there were more apparent ways to support the people who can really achieve something in these situations. I wish there were ways to get money to the people promoting peace talks, for instance, or clear ways to encourage those to happen. I say this because I don’t think there are too many things that a group like IC could encourage people to do that would 1) Actually help the problem and 2) Make people feel like they’re doing something. The second isn’t actually necessary, though I’m not sure people in our culture would act if they didn’t feel like their action mattered (whether or not it, in fact, did).

        I’m sorry if I’m rambling – I hope this all makes at least some sense ;)

        • I so love the way you think. :)

          Your comment here made me think of Terri’s. Both point to that desire we have to do something to help — to be a part of something that matters and have our actions make a difference. The response to this video and other world catastrophes, like the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunamis in Asia, really bring this to the surface.

          I guess this is getting me back to the Mother Teresa story. What if we channelled that desire to do something into the places where we can actually make a difference — the contexts we already know and are a part of and perhaps need the attention we are best equipped to give.

          I find myself struggling (in a good way, I think) with the African response to this video. They want us to know the truth of the situation — that Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda and that Uganda has been living in relative peace since the 2006-08 peace talks happened. And they want us to know that they don’t want outside saviors to come swooping in with their own ideas of how to resolve the situation. They want us to be aware of their complex story (you may already have seen this really beautiful TED talk from a Nigerian woman talking about the danger of a single story).

          Can we trust those living there to know and do what is needed in situations like these? When is outside help needed? And what ought that outside help look like?

          Probably the answer is different for every situation. Which is frustrating. But also calls us to be people who look deeper, seek to understand, and value the unique response each situation calls for. There’s something really dignifying about that, I think, even though it means unilateral or simplified answers won’t cut it.

  2. terrichurchill

    Your’s is a very helpful voice in this discussion Christianne. I was really surprised when I heard that Invisible Children advocated a military solution and I think you’re right on about this as well as your other points. I wish things were as simple as seeing a problem and providing a solution, but that’s not how it works in the real world. *sigh*

    • Thanks for sharing, Terri. It’s interesting to notice that we long for simple solutions, isn’t it? And yet that’s not what life really requires. I see an interesting tension here between our longings and reality. I wonder what both can teach us about God and the world (and people) he created?