Inventive Love, Locality, and Slacktivism (Emmanuel Katongole, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson)
What is love’s response to suffering? Easy, mediated solidarity? Social media lowers the bar for being an activists. These days, we’re all activists. But as Tyler Wigg-Stevenson suggests, the danger of lowering that bar is to cut out the costliness of such work for good. This is part 2 of 2 in Evan Rosa’s interview with Catholic priest and theologian Emmanuel Katongole about the ethics of love in response to global suffering, also featuring commentary by Wigg-Stevenson on “mediated solidarity and the story of a local Ugandan woman—Angelina Atyam—who was faithfully working locally against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) while we were all watching KONY 2012 and staring at our screens.
Emmanuel Katongole: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation.
Evan Rosa: Hi friends, this is part two of our interview with Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan Catholic priest and theologian at the University of Notre Dame. In part one of our conversation—you can check that out in our previous episode—we spoke about the “globalization of indifference”—a phrase borrowed from Pope Francis. Becoming immune and anesthetized to the suffering of others. You open your news app, you scroll through your social feed already expecting the tragedy du jour. And as long as you feel a sense of outrage, maybe share or like or comment, there is the feeling of having done something. But of course, it’s hardly doing anything except spreading the same general awareness-based activism. We know more and more, we do less and less.
When I asked Emmanuel what can be done about these things, he told me two very powerful stories of women who were approaching love from a creative, inventive angle. A 2 Corinthians 5 kind of angle (that was Emmanuel reading that passage just a minute ago). He told me the story of Maggie Barankitse, the Mother of Burundi—
Maggie Barankitse: Love make us inventor, because if you love, you will find the solution. In the eyes of those children, we have universal mission, vocation, and our vocation. Human vocation, very noble, is love.
Evan: You can go back to the last episode if you’re just joining us now. But the point was that we Westerners need to appreciate the local work being done by people in very close proximity to the atrocities we only read about during a Facebook scrolling session that started off as just a quick check and then turned into an hour of fail videos…. [MEOW] But that’s another subject, isn’t it?
His point, graciously put, was that we need a dose of humility. We have something incredibly important to learn from communities and organizers who are immediately present to violence, terror, and other meaning-destroying atrocities. And to make this point he told me another story of a Ugandan woman practicing radical love and forgiveness in response to child abduction that nearly destroyed a community. And I’d bet you’ve already heard this story, from one side at least. In this episode, what love’s response to suffering looks like from the other side.
I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Evan: One night in June 2004, I was at a close friend’s art show at UC, San Diego. Just by chance, following the show, a group was gathering to watch a new documentary that’d been touring the country as a rough cut, raising money, raising awareness.
Three college guys had made a trip to Central Africa to document the effects of the Sudanese Civil War. That quickly turned south, literally. As people fled from Sudan south to Uganda, these guys just followed the story. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, I’m talking about the film, and organization, Invisible Children, which produced “Kony 2012,” the video that “Time” magazine called the most viral video of all time, getting over 40 million views in less than one week.
In their own words.
Jason Russell: Everything in my heart told me to do something, and so I made him a promise.
We’re also going to do everything that we can to stop them. Do you hear my words?
Jason: Do you know what I mean?
Jason: We are. We’re going to stop them.
Evan: That’s the voice of Invisible Children co‑founder Jason Russell. He is talking to Jacob, the young boy who introduced the conflict to him. In this case, “them” is the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA. Their leader is Joseph Kony, the self‑proclaimed prophet, cult leader, and a war criminal who’s been abducting young children for years, brainwashing them into soldiers and sex slaves.
Jason: The fight has led me here to this movie you’re watching, because that promise is not just about Jacob or me. It’s also about you. This year, 2012, is the year that we can finally fulfill it. Its only purpose is to stop the rebel group, the LRA, and their leader, Joseph Kony. I’m about to tell you exactly how we’re going to do it.
Evan: The video and the organization has been something of a lightning rod. And spoiler alert: 5 years and something like $800 millon dollars later, Joseph Kony is still at large. But this isn’t the place to defend or attack the documentary. You watch the video, you see what you think. But we might add to the story. I asked Emmanuel to provide not just a theological perspective, but a Ugandan perspective—the people who live there.
Here are some of his thoughts on Kony 2012 and what it did.
Emmanuel Katongole: First of all, it shows, one, the power of the media exploited as a source for good. What these young people are able to do, to use the media in a very savvy way that drew the attention of the world to these events that are going on, the abductions.
One must credit Kony 2012 for using the media for that kind of awareness. Also, it shows the power of the connectedness, the human connectedness, that this is a story not just of Northern Uganda. It is a story of the world.
To let the world actually receive this story that it is going on, and therefore it is our story as well, that these students…Were they from San Diego?
Emmanuel: Coming to Uganda…
Evan: Various parts of Southern California.
Emmanuel: Various parts of California. It shows the power of interconnectedness, the global community. That should be a force for good.
Evan: That addresses the very issue of global indifference that you were talking about earlier. What they were doing in raising awareness was to combat that indifference.
Emmanuel: To combat that indifference.
Evan: They did it, telling a very compelling story. It is a powerful story. See, we modern, technological peoples, we’re in a strange, awkward position of our own making. We’ve access to more information than ever, so we feel more responsible.
That can be a seriously overwhelming feeling. Even if we’re doing everything we can to contribute to reduced suffering, it’d still be another video in the feed, tugging at our heartstrings. We’re addicted to awareness.
Awareness alone does not cure suffering. The phones in our pockets give us a feeling of increased power, but it’s pretty easy to scroll away. Maybe the real power comes with proximity, with exposure, with the feeling of vulnerability and presence. That’s the point of the incarnational aspect here.
To learn a little more about the ethics and strategies of doing something about global suffering, I called Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, an ethicist and author of The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good and Fighting for Peace: Your Role in a Culture of Violence. He’s currently focused on his local neighborhood ministry as a pastor at Little Trinity Anglican Church in Toronto. I asked him about social media and internet activism—sometimes critically referred to as “slacktivism”—and how we ought to think about its role in responding to global need.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: That criticism that says now people like a page on Facebook, and before, they faced water cannons for civil rights. That might be comparing apples and oranges. Liking a page on Facebook or something like that is more analogous to water cooler talk.
Social media has lowered the bar for what people would think of as social engagement. We’re all activists now. There’s no sizeable portion of population left, I think, that would think that concerted social action can change social realities. That’s exactly what activism is.
The danger of it is that by lowering the bar, it does cut out the costliness of it. You lose something really important with that. The entirety of the outrages and atrocities that I see, that I know to be happening in the world, is mediated to me by a screen.
Unless I’m in the street, unless I’m facing the same material reality as the people on whose side I am, there’s something cheap in saying we are or I am them, because I am absolutely not them. I am safe, and they are not.
There’s nothing wrong with an expression of solidarity, of affirmation of support, but facing real harm, seeing people paying real cost for what it means to be in solidarity, that gives the lie to this trend of easy solidarity, and wouldn’t be an entirely mediated solidarity.
Evan: Easy, mediated solidarity. There is a deceptive power that social technology provides. Perhaps it shows that the kind of knowledge and technical power that technology gives us is no substitute for good old-fashioned wisdom.
Tyler: The illusion of the screen is that it mediates the whole world to us and makes us all neighbors. It often sends us into a spiral of desire to help, but then paralysis and inability to help.
What I want to see is the primacy of love that plays out at a more local level, where you can take responsibility for people as the individual human beings that they are, rather than as causes or as symbolic proxies.
At the same time is willing to understand the systems of power in which we play a part, and to do what small action we can to change those.
The world is unfixable. It can only be redeemed. You’re not the redeemer, and I’m not the redeemer. Nobody listening to this is the redeemer. You get this injunction in 2 Corinthians, be reconciled. Be reconciled, because God has reconciled all things to Himself through the blood of the cross.
It’s our job to own that reconciliation, and then to offer it to others as if God were offering it through us. It’s not that you care less. You still look and grieve, but if you start there, you have a different disposition toward a world that’s not going to stop weeping until Jesus comes back.
Evan: So, of course we must pay attention. Paul instructs us to weep with those who weep. Job’s friend sat with him and mourned. We were not abandoned to destroy ourselves in the wake of the fall. God became one of us, and lived among us.
Returning to some of his reflections on Kony 2012, Emmanuel points out the need to honor the local Ugandan efforts that were already going on—just some of these efforts were led by another woman whose love was inventive and transforming.
Emmanuel: I wish they had brought in some of the local efforts that were already going on. Without bringing in some of the local efforts that were already going on, it might give an impression that this reality of violence, abuse has been going on in Africa, and nothing has been done until these students from America came.
It, again, gives the misleading impression that there can be no hope until America shows up, or until white people show up, when in fact, there have been a lot of local efforts.
One of the stories I wanted to tell today that we did for this woman, Angelina Atyam, whose daughter was abducted. She, with the others, formed the Concerned Parents Association.
Angelina Atyam: Go back to my old story, that in 1996, I was practicing midwifery in a private clinic. I enjoyed what I was doing, and I enjoyed handling babies when they are still inside there.
Our relationship with the babies, enjoying listening to their heartbeat, touching the mothers, and telling them, “You know, I’ve become your family members also,” because the baby inside is my interest, but also the interest of the family.
That interest continued in 1996, when the rebels we have just watched them march through the jungles, stormed the school and abducted 139 girls from that school, and just taken them captive in the jungle.
My daughter was taken. On arriving at school, we parents had gathered together. I saw big men, doctors, people, men. In Uganda, men don’t cry easily, but I saw men sitting on wet ground crying like babies. We are to console one another.
How could we console one another? We were all crying. We cried for weeks.
Emmanuel: She, with the others, formed the Concerned Parents Association. After the girls were abducted—139 girls were abducted—they spent every Saturday praying, and advocating for the return of their children.
Angelina: Every day, we could go to the church, and we prayed every day, but deep in our hearts, we were very angry with the rebels. There was un‑forgiveness in our souls, in our hearts.
Emmanuel: We started with “Our Father…” They couldn’t finish their Our Father…because they couldn’t get over the words forgive us as we forgive them. They couldn’t bring themselves to forgive the rebels.
Angelina: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sinned against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Emmanuel: After a series of weekends, they found themselves that they were able to go and finish their Our Father. Something had happened. According to Angelina, they had received the power of forgiveness.
Angelina: Then there was a conviction that came to me, and I got up, and I said, “Have you heard what the Lord said?” If we don’t forgive, He will also not forgive us. We are asking Him to intervene in the release of our children, and eventual restoration of peace in our region. If we don’t ourselves forgive, no one will come from any other place to forgive.
Emmanuel: They realized that unless they learnt forgiveness, all their prayers were in vain.
Angelina: We called upon each of us to forgive. Forgive the rebels. We were not sure will the children come back or no, but forgiveness is unconditional. We wanted that relationship with God, because if you don’t forgive, don’t come to me to pray. It was like a message for us. Why are you praying if you have not forgiven your enemies?
If we don’t forgive, the bullets will fly, and the bullets have no eyes. They will shoot anybody they see in sight. That could be my daughter. That could be your son. That could be any child. By allowing war to solve these problems, we are signing the death warrant of our own children. We need to forgive.
Emmanuel: They started going around villages, communities, mobilizing the community in this, and inviting them in this strange power of forgiveness. As they did actually, they realized they were getting even more energy for advocacy.
Of course, some of the people could not understand how they could even talk about forgiveness in the corners like Northern Uganda. One woman whose one child was abducted looked at Angelina and said, “Are you from a different planet? Are you the only one who doesn’t know what Kony did here? What strange language are you talking about?”
According to Angelina, that’s the power that she had received, she and the other parents, just by the prayer of Our Father. But also gave them more energy, and they started a very, very serious campaign of advocacy.
They called on Kony to release the children. They went to the government. They said something must be done. Just constant advocacy. The energy that they received was just tremendous.
In fact, in the midst of this advocacy, one evening as they were making a radio presentation, the rebels called in the radio and told Angelina to stop talking about them. That if she did, they would release her daughter.
Angelina: …ask me, “Angelina, we could give back your daughter if you stop advocating for their release.”
Emmanuel: They made an arrangement, actually. They worked out an arrangement for her to meet them. When she met them, they repeated the promise that, “If you stop talking about us, we will release your daughter.”
Then Angelina said, “What about the other girls?” They said, “No, no, only your daughter, but you have to stop to talk about us, because your campaign is damaging our reputation.” You know what Angelina did and said?
Angelina: I told them, “I cannot. I cannot. My child is every single child that you’re holding captive in the bush.” Our slogan is every child is my child.
Emmanuel: Unless you release all the other girls, I will not stop, because she said, “Every child is my child.” She left the meeting, knowing that her daughter was in the bush being abused, raped, and just continued her campaign, advocacy.
Her family, first of all, couldn’t believe. “What have you done?” She said she couldn’t do otherwise, because all the children had become her children.
Angelina: We formed the Concerned Parents Association after that. Our vision was that land. Land of freedom. The land of joy. The land of love and forgiveness, where people live in peace. Our mission was to get there through advocacy, through lobbying.
Emmanuel: She started this campaign that gathered momentum around forgiveness, the Concerned Parents Association that was formed.
Evan: It took seven years and seven months for Angelina’s daughter to return. Seven years. She’d been beaten and raped regularly. She returned with two children of her own, but her response as she returned was remarkable. She too began advocating for forgiveness.
Emmanuel: What this story actually shows is that the power that she got through forgiveness was not only power of having forgiven, but forgiveness as a social, dynamic process into which she was inviting other people.
Also, the energy that she continued her serious advocacy. Also, how that led to an expansiveness about who is my family, that eventually, she would say, “Every child is my child.” That she was even willing to bear the sacrifice of her own daughter to bring into existence this new community, for which she had become a mother for all the children.
Evan: Both Marguerite Barankitse and Angelina Atyam’s stories depict an enlargement of love. In each of their responses to injustice, it’s clear that they became mothers to a wider community.
A mother’s love is creative, inventive. Our mothers long to comfort and be present in the midst of our turmoil. The mother’s love, through forgiveness, brings life and meaning out of suffering, death, and despair.
This kind of love is energizing, enlarging. It’s activating. Its creative powers can change a community, a country, and even beyond. Mother Maggie and Mother Angelina, interestingly enough, show that maybe the best answer to the globalization of indifference is the localization of love.
It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention, but maybe these stories should give us pause. Maybe it’s love that is the mother of invention.
I asked Emmanuel to reflect on these stories through theological lens, to help us understand how these forms of activism are a part of our vocation as co‑redeemers in the new creation. And it goes back to that passage we started this episode with. 2 Corinthians 5. Both Emmanuel and Tyler independently quoted that passage—unprompted. Here it is to jog your memory.
Emmanuel: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new is here! All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors of Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God.
Emmanuel That passage actually is the heart of the Gospel, is the summary of the Gospel. That what God is about. The key issue there is new creation, that there is a new creation. That is what God is realizing. The old is gone. The new is here.
How does God do it? Through reconciling a story. God has been reconciling the world, us, and everything to Himself in Christ. That what God has been doing, restoring the broken relationship, creating new friendships out of enmity. Creating a new world out of the old dispensation. Offering new possibility.
That has been realized in Christ, Christ that’s decisive moment. The old is gone. For Paul, that is the heart of the Gospel. That is the summary.
The question that arises out of that, how should we live? The passage itself provides us with two ways. First of all, it says we should regard Christ and the world not in the former way, but in a new way. This gives us a new lesson of how to look at life, at the world. The world has been reconciled to God.
Towards the end of the passage, he talks us about us being ambassadors, being ambassadors of that new creation. Stories like the ones we’ve been telling, of Angelina and Maggie, provide a glimpse of how people who live within that story, in a way, begin to act as ambassadors in different contexts.
Evan: Like little, mini creators.
Emmanuel: Yes. Living within. That story themselves energizes them to be the ambassadors. When you’re an ambassador, you represent your country, or now in this case, you represent that new creation within a specific geography or context.
That means you’re working from within that story, which is a story of it’s a real gift, it’s a real opportunity, but also, is an invitation to recreate the social, and political, and economic, and the spiritual realities that reflect that new creation in the world.
This is what the Gospel is all about. This is not just one element. It is a powerful summary of what the story of God in the world is doing.
[background music—“Brother” by The Brilliance]
Evan: The Table Audio is hosted and edited by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is supported by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation along with people like you who care about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Production assistance by Paige Bocianski, Laura Gurskey, and Jeff Hubbard. Special thanks to Emmanuel Katongole, Tom Crisp, and Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. To subscribe to The Table Audio, check us out on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, wherever you get your podcasts. Just search The Table Audio.
Voice: Meow. Purr.