Why ‘Kony 2012’ Misses the Mark

VIRAL SENSATION: In less than a week, the Kony 2012 video campaign was viewed by more than 100 million people, including countless high school and college students.

Like most everyone today, I am wired, wireless, and connected. Like millions upon millions, I also was drawn to the Kony 2012 video. Produced by the San Diego-based human rights organization Invisible Children, the 30-minute documentary shines a light on the brutal crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony (especialy his use of child soldiers) and presents a compelling call for his capture. A week after its release, the video already has been viewed more than 100 million times.

Working on a college campus like Seattle Pacific University requires a certain level of social media capacity and commitment. I guess this is how I justify my constant connection to the hit, trend, and tweeting world. Even for the stodgiest of universities, social media “skillz” have become a type of tool of the trade. So when Kony 2012 showed up on the Facebook pages of some of my students as “the greatest story ever told,” I slowed down from my busy schedule and watched the video.

Yes, I did my part to keep the Kony video “viral,” but my interest transcended the obvious curiosity. In fact, the Ugandan and Central African story was one I personally knew well. Many of my students over several years studied the Lord’s Resistance Army and Uganda. They led group presentations noting the complexity of a 26-year war of organized tribal and religiously affiliated groups. We knew Kony was no longer in Uganda, possibly since 2010, and his army was massively smaller than reported. Furthermore, we also regularly send teams of students around the world. We monitor everything from national security issues to communicating and partnering with indigenous leaders. Seattle Pacific University’s John Perkins Center has also hosted Central African leaders who lead reconciliation ministries throughout the region. Combined with my own multiple travels to Africa over the last 12 years, the Kony video was enlightening and troubling, frustrating and affirming, doubtful and hopeful.

It took a few days but eventually I began to share my thoughts. My bias is present and obvious. I favor a faithful, missional response rooted squarely and firmly in biblical justice. My experience and knowledge of these issues may account for something, but they may also lead to a sort of defensiveness. I own that as well. Holding both bias in one hand and defensiveness in the other, struggle with me to reflect on this global phenomenon.

The Limits of Awareness

Creating awareness in response to atrocities hidden in alleys and brothels, tenements and executive offices is very important. Awareness can lead to the pursuit of further education and activism. Awareness can inspire and create hope in the unseen places of our world. To that end awareness means we rejoice with them that rejoice and mourn with them that mourn.

Awareness can be viral in that it can lead to advocacy and activism. But what happens when those creating awareness simplify the message for easy consumption and unashamedly play to our often insular and over-inflated worldview that we can save the world? You get 100 million hits.

You also get passion-filled and loosely educated constituents attempting to become activists. To that end, we can thank the filmmakers for poorly educating millions on a very complex issue. Maybe “poorly” is too strong of a word. How about lightly educating millions?

But it is here I am reminded of John Perkins’s many sermons on “over-evangelizing the world too lightly.” The same can be said in regards to over-discipling the world too lightly.

Some describe the Kony video as a new form of the TV infomercial, light on facts but heavy on hype. The product being marketed can literally do everything for $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Honestly, I have no idea what $30, a bracelet, a T-shirt, and millions of hits on YouTube produces. I am not sure anyone knows. This is new territory in many ways.

Beyond Slacktivism

What I do know and fear is we run the risk of moving from true advocacy and activism, to what I heard on a recent news show labeled as “slacktivism.” I hope this word never makes it into Webster’s Dictionary, but we can easily assert a definition for this occasion.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Filmmaker Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and the director "Kony 2012," agrees with critics who have called the film oversimplified. "It was deliberately made that way," he says. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)

Slacktivism is feeling satisfied that one has contributed to ending injustice in the world because they have pressed the send button. This is in no way to diminish from the importance of giving of money to support a cause or to make light of informing people about a great injustice. And maybe for some people pressing the send button while sipping a latte is a good start. But can we all agree that it should not be the only missional proposition to millions of viewers? If you really have the platform and ability to tell a great story, please encourage us to do more than purchase a kit. If nothing else, we privileged people need that encouragement.

We need the type of encouragement Jesus provided both in word and in deed. The scripture that says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” has made its way into my reflection time more than once this past week.

So maybe we should evaluate the integrity of the Kony 2012 video by its ability to inspire churches to build partnerships with ministry leaders in Uganda, send ministry teams to conferences to learn what God is doing in other parts of the world, and organize students across the nation to form prayer teams for Africa and American relationships. Or maybe the video should simply prompt us to connect with the Central African community in our neighborhood. At the very least, it should challenge us to do more than just send money.

Be aware, and be a giver. But also be educated. Be an advocate. Be an activist.

Be a servant. Then you will be like Jesus.

A ‘Portal’ to Truth

Sometimes identically-qualified people studying the same topics and come up with wildly divergent conclusions.

Take astronomy, for example.

The Scriptures teach us that the heavens declare the glory of God. But the atheist astronomer would have you believe that the cosmos declares nothing more than the existence of certain matter — light waves, metals, minerals, gases, etc.

In this light, it is a dreadful understatement to say that our faith informs our worldview. Really, it should inform our entire universe.

My universe includes a lot of pop culture, including a fair number of video games. And of all the games I’ve played in the last year, none of them have captured my attention or garnered as much critical acclaim as Valve Software’s Portal 2.

A different kind of video game

The Portal series is unlike any other title on the market. It stands out for several reasons — because it’s almost completely nonviolent, it’s got a witty, snarky tone to it, and rather than bludgeoning the senses with nonstop violence, it engages the mind with clever problem solving. The primary game mechanic involves a gun, yes, but rather than shooting bullets, it shoots portals that help the user travel from one space into another.

And unlike the original Portal, which was a sideshow bonus added to a larger game, Portal 2 is a full-featured title with an impressive single-player campaign that takes you through a story of hope, betrayal, and redemption — pretty impressive, considering almost all of the key characters are computers.

And, by the way, it’s also really, really funny.

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re not a video game enthusiast, you might be wondering — why should I care?

Well, on a basic level, it’s a basic tenet of healthy mental stewardship that we use our God-given intellect to evaluate the pop culture landscape around us. Even if you’re not interested in buying video games for a loved one, it’s not a stretch to say that TV and film have become the literature our day, and by extension, video games are occupying much of the same cultural space as films were decades ago.

Simply put, it’s good to know what’s out there, what people are talking about.

But more importantly, we must learn to appreciate good art in all of its forms, because any piece of art that is truly creative and innovative is in some way reflecting a portion of the character of God. Not just because he created the people who created the art, but more essentially because all good art flows from God as a source. Everything good and perfect comes from Him. Therefore, it opens up our appreciation toward and understanding of God’s character when we see His signature on man-made creations, even ones by those who do not profess to know God.

So enough of the philosophy lesson.

Here are three important lessons that every Christian can learn by playing through Portal 2.

[SPOILER ALERT – If you don’t want to know any plot details of the game’s story, STOP HERE and skip to the end.]

1. We Bear the Image of a Creative God When We Create Things in Our Own Image. In Portal 2, we learn that GLaDOS, the controlling, manipulative computer life form, was created in the image of an Aperture Science employee named Caroline, assistant to founder Cave Johnson. This truth comes out in a delightful set of scenes where GLaDOS the computer hears recordings of Caroline’s voice and recognizes it as her own. For the viewer/player, it’s a moment of bemused poignancy.

These scenes illustrate the ultimate truth that all of us are made in the image of God, and that just as GLaDOS finds a greater sense of purpose and perspective with this, so can we as Christians find a greater sense of purpose and perspective in the midst of our day-to-day trials.

These trials don’t usually involve killer robots and volatile chemical reactions, but still … it’s true nonetheless.

And many times, these creative expressions have incredible meaning, even when they appear not to.

(Even when the creative expression is self-referential and derivative, like a TV show about two guys having dinner while not talking about one guy’s favorite movie while reenacting another of his favorite movies about two guys having dinner. Even something as crazy and recursive as that.)

2. Immortality Through Technology Is a Futile Mission. As the game progresses, we learn from a series of audio recordings scattered through the old Aperture Science facilities, that Cave Johnson, Aperture’s lovable, reckless dolt of a leader (voiced by J.K. Simmons), died prematurely from prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Knowing the end was near, and not wanting his company to lose the collective knowledge and wisdom amassed during his tenure, Johnson instructed his computer engineers to create a form of artificial intelligence drawn from the brain of his most trusted assistant, Caroline.

Yet, at the close of the game, after GLaDOS comes to realize that a part of her file architecture contains something approximating a conscience (the part she inherited from Caroline), she promptly deletes it. Which means that, in one sense, all of Johnson’s work was for naught.

The Bible is full of stories about people trying to either gain immortality or stave off the inevitable, and it never works. (See: Jonah, or The Tower of Babel.) And you see strains of this idea all of pop culture in general (especially films like Inception), and the message is often the same. Technology might be able to enhance life in certain ways, but it can never replace it wholesale. All attempts to prove otherwise amount to chasing after the wind.

3. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. One of the most interesting plot reversals happens when the sentient personality sphere known as Wheatley (voiced by British comedian Stephen Merchant) conspires to supplant GLaDOS as the prime directive over the Aperture Labs testing facility. After taking over, we see the effects of so much power going to his head, so to speak. Wheatley becomes just as much of an insufferable tyrant as GLaDOS had been prior.

This is a principle we also see from the Scripture, that is echoed across the film and pop culture spectrum. King Saul hunts down young David, yet when David takes the throne, he eventually has another man killed to take his wife. The younger protégé became the ruthless opportunist, just like Michael Corleone upended his older brother Fredo in The Godfather, or little Cindy turned the tables on Riley in “The Fundraiser” episode of The Boondocks.

The principle is simple. All of us have evil in our hearts. None of us are truly righteous. So if given the power and opportunity to do wrong, all of us have the capacity to go there, and the only thing that is stopping us is the grace and power of God in our lives.

Which, really, is the whole point.


Learn to make the leap

If I were raising an adolescent or a teenager, I would definitely want them to be able to understand the pop culture that they consume, but also to see the connections to biblical truths, and make the final connection back to their need for Christ.

It would be my hope that in their private moments, they would recognize God at work in their lives, and that they would be able to see and appreciate how God can use their favorite movies or video games or songs to woo them toward Himself, as He does for all of us. And I would hope they would respond to His call, and take the courageous leap of faith toward the thing He is calling them to do.

Mostly, I would want them to trust the Holy Spirit more than any ratings system, because only He can help us to move from where we are to where He wants us to be.

And He doesn’t need a portal gun to make it happen.

(Which is good, because those things are kinda dangerous.)