Now 50 years later, sportswear manufacturer Puma has launched a commemorative line of footwear to celebrate Tommie Smith’s bravery and the impact of his actions.
When African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists from the medal-winners podium at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, October 1968, many saw this as a “black power” salute. Smith always said it was a “human rights salute,” but regardless, he and Carlos were expelled from Mexico City for failure to represent the Olympic ideal. Smith, who won the gold medal and set a new world record in that race, never competed again.
Now 50 years later, sportswear manufacturer Puma has launched a commemorative line of footwear to celebrate Smith’s bravery and the impact of his actions. The centerpiece of the line is a casual suede shoe virtually identical to the one Smith held in his unraised left hand in 1968, with profits from shoe sales going to charities supporting equality.
Puma’s anniversary campaign comes just over a month after rival footwear company Nike featured NFL player Colin Kaepernick in its own campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan. Kaepernick spent much of 2017 using his status as a professional football player to raise awareness of human rights issues – specifically, racial injustice and police brutality in the US. While Smith raised a fist during the national anthem, Kaepernick took a knee. Like Smith, Kaepernick’s high-profile protest may have ended his career: he has been unemployed since the end of the 2017 season. Appropriately, Kaepernick’s tagline in the Nike campaign is: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
While both Kaepernick and Smith demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice everything fighting for what they believe, could the same be said of Nike and Puma? Are these companies also willing to put principles ahead of profits and risk everything to take a stand on highly divisive social issues? No, of course they aren’t.
Nike and Puma, and other companies that take a stand on controversial social issues leverage the interest in these social movements to generate profits. Few companies understand how to create customer and brand value better than Nike and Puma. They have gauged their customers’ sentiment and are using this to forge new corporate social opportunities. From entry into new markets, engaging new customers or increasing brand awareness, the business case behind social opportunities increasing profits can be very strong.
What makes campaigns like this controversial is the human element. Nike is taking a stand on racism and social division because the company has decided that’s what its consumers and employees care about. Many may not remember that Nike celebrated the 25th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan only five years ago. Under the title “Possibilities”, this anniversary campaign challenged people to set goals and to do things they’d never done before, with a video that featured famous and everyday athletes doing extraordinary things narrated by Bradley Cooper. Racism and social injustice were problems in 2013, too, of course: George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing black teenager Trayvon Martin just a month before Nike’s campaign launched.
While Nike’s 30th anniversary of the campaign includes a similar montage of famous and everyday athletes, the tone is very different. Kaepernick is the narrator, and the theme is that they all “leverage the power of sport to move the world forward”. Times change. Opportunities change.
This doesn’t make these companies evil or hypocritical. It’s about opportunity. Starbucks has benefited from its partnership with Conservation International through which it works with rural farmers in developing countries that grow and sell fair trade coffee. Tesla has become a US$50 billion company thanks to changing consumer sentiment around electric cars and generous government subsidies. Walmart has also benefited from changing sentiment and government subsidies, investing more in on-site solar facilities than any other US company in the past few years. And it’s very clear about why: “At Walmart, renewable energy is about our customers and helping them save money so they can live better.”
Few companies in recent history have been more socially-driven than Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. When Unilever acquired the brand in 2000, questions hung over whether Ben & Jerry’s would become more like Unilever or whether Unilever would become more like Ben & Jerry’s. Today, few large companies are more socially progressive than Unilever: the Unilever behemoth has indeed become more like the tiny company it acquired. It should be noted that in the 18 years since it acquired Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever’s stock price has outperformed the S&P 500 by more than 2.5% per year. Social and environmental principles sell products well.
Why would we negatively judge companies that capitalize from human-centered social issues? Companies survive and thrive by capitalizing on business opportunities. Certainly, there are risks for the companies: they may have misread the business case and these investments may end up hurting in the long-run. All companies occasionally make bad investments. But that’s not their expectation. Nike, Puma, Unilever and others who tie their fortunes, short or long-term, to social movements believe they are acting in the best interests of their stakeholders while seizing an opportunity to make their companies better. If a consequence is that society becomes a better place as a result, then that’s OK too.
From the late-nineteenth century to the present, the most popular stories of Appalachia have been simplistic tales of white mountaineers. Those stories have infused everything from culture to politics and media. Despite importantcounter–examples, these stories continue to be the starting place for most Americans’ understanding of Appalachia — one that erases a complex history of race, racism and Black resistance. Placing Black people in Appalachia’s history is not simply a matter of recognizing diversity. Rather, it forces a different angle, a truer way of seeing the region and its relationship to the South and the United States.
If Black people have been difficult to see in Appalachian history, Black women have been virtually invisible. They can be hard to find in institutional archives that, until the 1970s, did not preserve the history of Black Appalachians with any consistency. And they have been marginalized in a region defined historically by its relationship to whiteness and embodied by white men.
Mary Rice Farris, a Black woman who lived her whole life in Madison County, Kentucky, where the knobby hills meet the bluegrass, worked much of her life to demand that Black Appalachia be seen and heard. Her story, preserved in oral history interviews and other documents at the Berea College Special Collections and Archives, reveals the intersections between African American, Appalachian and women’s history, and how one Black woman from Appalachia fought for Black civil rights and economic justice.
Slavery and Emancipation in Appalachia
In 1914, Mary White, a Black midwife, caught Mary Rice Farris at her birth. Mary White was a former slave who built an illustrious career after Emancipation. Calling her generation the “second after slavery,” Farris narrated her historically Black community’s history through the story of Mary White.
White was born in 1835 to the enslaved couple Metilda Elder and Mitchell Walker. The man who owned the family sold infant Mary White to slave owner Wash Mopkin.
When White was 11 years old, Mopkin sold her for $14 to Durke White, who placed her in a cabin behind his house before “he took her to the big house as his mistress,” according to Farris.
Farris used the coded language of her day — “took her … as his mistress” — that made clear the reality of the stealing Black women’s bodies. This white man bought a girl named Mary and raped her. She bore two children, raised them and kept Durke’s house. Historian Shannon Eaves has called this confluence of reproductive, domestic and emotional labor “sexual servitude.”
Durke died at the hands of “night riders,” the term given to vigilante groups. Farris guessed that they disliked how he carried on with a Black woman. White ended up in another slave cabin on the estate of Robert Cochran. He soon “took her as his mistress” and “after slavery, kept her on as his mistress,” according to Farris.
In 1880, White headed her own household and raised her eight children. At some point in the late nineteenth century, Robert died, leaving his estate to Mary White and her children.
At that point White fashioned a new identity, one staked on freedom. She chose her own profession, adopted a little rat terrier she named Ruth (her “constant companion”), and placed a white picket fence around her house.
White entered a nursing program at Berea College, where in 1855 the abolitionist John G. Fee had organized an interracial community and opened the doors of the college to Black and white students. Carter G. Woodson is among the most celebrated alumnus. “An intellectual pioneer in Appalachian studies,” as Cynthia Greenlee recently argued, Woodson, who hailed from West Virginia, would go on to attend the University of Chicago and Harvard.
White also had an illustrious career. She graduated and became a midwife in the region. According to Farris, “Most all of the Black and many of the white babies in and around southern Madison County and around Berea were delivered by Mary White.”
Embodying a story of resistance and resilience, White delivered babies and cared for families up until the day before her death in 1924, when Farris was ten years old.
The Second Generation Since Slavery
Mary Farris. Photo courtesy of the family.
White’s story was evidence of what Black women could do and achieve despite a state of deprivation, as Farris called slavery. Growing up during the nadir, when white southerners restricted Black civil rights and terrorized Black communities, Farris would face a different kind of deprivation.
As a child Farris grew up near Berea College’s campus and knew that community leaders like Mary White had been educated there. She desired what it had to offer. But in 1904 Governor J. C. W. Beckham had signed the Day Law, “An Act to Prohibit White and Colored Persons from Attending the Same School.” She would attend the Lincoln Institute, an all-Black boarding school created in the aftermath of the Day Law.
Farris remembered, “I walked through (Berea) as a little girl, barefooted and dusty, and sold blackberries and bought me some cheese and crackers and sat on that campus and watched those girls, hopping and skipping, and looked at those buildings and wished and prayed that I might be able to prepare myself for a better life. But I wasn’t able to because I couldn’t go there because of the Day Law.”
Neither could her own children. And her husband, Moss, could not get a job there, even though he was as qualified, often times more, than the poor white people who were hired.
Farris married the farmer Moss G. Farris and had four children with him. She helped her husband in the tobacco fields and, when her family needed more income, worked as a hotel maid, a packager at a munitions factory and as a cosmetics saleswoman.
Farris emerged as a leader in the First Baptist Church of Berea, where she served in a variety of capacities and became a well-known speaker throughout Kentucky and Ohio. She joined and was elected vice president of Church Women United of Madison County, an inclusive Christian women’s movement that worked to improve the lives of women and children.
Understanding the importance of political power in the quest for full civil rights, Farris rose in the ranks of the Republican Party of Madison County and became the area coordinator, running the local polling booth. She became so well known in Madison County that white politicians began courting her for endorsements. Her granddaughter, Ms. Cheryl Farris, recalls watching her grandmother go head-to-head with politicians at her dining room table. “She could talk to anyone,” she said.
By the late 1960s, she sought full-time work that brought together her interests in politics and improving her community.
The Struggle for Civil and Human Rights
“All my life done political and community work,” Farris wrote in a 1967 application for a job in a War on Poverty program. “The people have been deprived of what they should have received, and I would like to see that something is done for them.” Like many middle-aged Black women across the country, she saw federal resources as a right of citizenship, a way to enact freedom.
War on Poverty programs relied on networks that women like Farris had been building for years. Farris used the too-often scant resources to expand programs in her community: cultural and social programs for African American youth, information sessions on welfare for poor people and events for senior citizens. She helped to organize a library of 2500 books for local kids to use. She took one group of youth for a tour at Berea College, where African American students were finally admitted, and she took others to Frankfort, the capital of the state, for protest marches.
In February 1968, Farris took her political skills to a new arena when she went to the heart of Appalachia to confront Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Congressman Carl D. Perkins.
Vortex was the first stop on Kennedy’s eight-stop tour of eastern Kentucky. On the verge of announcing his presidential campaign, Kennedy was there to document the effectiveness of President Johnson’s War on Poverty programs and whether citizens had “enough to eat.”
Farris arrived at a one-room schoolhouse in Vortex. Inside, almost solely white people crowded the building. They were there to testify about their lives, to tell an Appalachian story before powerful white men who seemed to care.
Farris was prepared to tell a story of Appalachia, too. A story of Black Appalachia — and Black America — at an event that recreated the story of Appalachian whiteness, a cornerstone myth of white America.
Congressman Carl D. Perkins, who represented the eastern Kentucky district, joined Kennedy. Both men gushed about how much they loved and admired the people of Appalachia, and when they said “people,” they meant “white.” They are the “best people in the world,” Perkins exclaimed, before identifying himself as one of them. “We love our country.”
Five other people besides Farris testified that day — two white men, three white women, all of them identified by the conveners as Mr. and Mrs. except for Farris, despite her decades-long marriage.
Farris testified last, and her words packed a punch. “I am Mary Rice Farris, representative of a delegation of Madison County,” she began.
Perkins’ embrace of white Appalachia wasn’t simply semantics but had real consequences in policy decisions. The War on Poverty programs in Appalachia flowed mainly to white people in Appalachia, despite the fact that Black people were disproportionately poor and, of the impoverished population, were the poorest. Farris noted this when she pointed out that white communities throughout Appalachia had begun to get food stamps, which allowed people access to a wider range of foods, while Black communities continued to have access only to commodities food programs, in which foodstuff was rotting or full of worms.
Farris then articulated the connection between racism, injustice and poverty:
(Why are we) spending $70 million dollars a day in Vietnam, plus loss of life, when (there) are millions of people in our area hungry, without homes and decent housing, or without clothing. And we would also like to know why the Negro is having to fight for a decent place in society as a rightful citizen? Why we, as American Negroes, are having to fight and speak out for a right to take decent responsibility in this great nation?
Her line of questions raised the hackles of Perkins, who refused to address her by name, instead referring to her as “this lady here.”
Kennedy and Perkins stalled and blurted out hollow statements.
Farris asserted, “I want an answer.” While they could not answer, that wasn’t the point; her statement underscored that the crises of the moment would demand an answer. And by her presence, she insisted on telling a story of Black Appalachia.
With Eyes Open to the Future
Farris continued community work when she returned home. In 1969, she attended the White House Conference on Food and Nutrition, and she supervised the emergency food and medical services of the Kentucky River Foothills Development Council in the late ’60s.
She also joined the board of the prominent reform organization Council of the Southern Mountains. For most of its history, it had ignored the needs of Black Appalachians. Farris was part of a group of leaders who led efforts to make the council more inclusive, including establishing a Black Appalachian Commission that, in the words of one of its members, Jack Guillebeaux, “was the first recognition of the fact that the plight of black people is an integral part of the definition of Appalachia and its problems.”
Farris wrote of the new Council, “It has condemned second-class citizenship and deepened its fellowship with all the people. I have confidence and hope that the Council now has a new opportunity to serve Appalachia in the coming years with eyes open to the future.”
Farris’s reference to the “future” was no coincidence. The common perception of Appalachia as a white enclave and a place of nostalgia had erased the complex histories of Black men and women and had led to a false history of Appalachia. She understood how incomplete histories cut off paths to the future. Lacking a true history, policymakers and activists would continue to ignore the experiences of Black Appalachians. The council’s transformation signaled the possibility for new understandings of the region and a new frontier in the struggle for democracy.
We remain far from Mary Farris’s future. Stories like hers continue to be erased every time Appalachia is cast as a region of poor whites. Bringing her story to light, and others like it, is necessary in order to fully reckon with our history and to imagine paths toward a more just future in Appalachia
In 2016 the Richmond-Madison County branch of the NAACP recognized Mary Rice Farris for her commitment to civil rights, nearly forty years after her death. Her legacy continues, and her words — spoken in 1973 as the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam — still carry power today: “Because we still have people … who would like very much to put us back. Of course, that will never happen. We’ll never stand for that.”
Jessica Wilkerson is an assistant professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. She is currently completing her first book, To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (forthcoming, University of Illinois Press).
Clergy and faith leaders march to counter protest the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. RNS photo by Jordy Yager
An old question has recently found new energy among Christians.
“What does the gospel have to do with justice, particularly social justice?”
Justice has been a frequent topic these days — in the face of a stream of cellphone videos capturing instances of police brutality, conflict over the presence and future of Confederate monuments and racially charged responses to the nation’s changing demographics.
Christians, both as people of faith and citizens of this country, have pondered what to do in this current social climate. They have called for Christians to join or start movements for change as an explicit expression of discipleship and obedience to the prayer that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).
And they have called for the church to make amends for the racial divisions of the past and present.
Others take a different view.
Where some see calls for biblical justice, they see heresy.
This week a group of Christians published “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” a response to what they call “questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church.”
The statement comes just after a short blog series posted by well-known Christian preacher and teacher John MacArthur, warning of the dangers of social justice.
MacArthur calls social justice a distraction from the gospel.
“Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift — and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results,” he wrote.
MacArthur is one of the initial signatories of The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, which echoes his blog posts.
While Christians from many traditions, races and ethnicities have displayed a concern for social justice, it is a topic that particularly concerns black and brown folks. We have endured a long history of race-based discrimination that did not simply disappear after the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the election of the nation’s first black president.
The Rev. Pamela Lightsey, center, leads advocates from the Black Lives Matter movement as they disrupt proceedings of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. The demonstrators marched into the plenary session chanting slogans and gathered around the central Communion table. Photo by Maile Bradfield, courtesy of UMNS
Statements that dismiss social justice send a message that the ongoing marginalization many minorities still experience and struggle against is of no concern to their fellow Christians.
Or to God.
Or to the Bible — despite ample scriptural evidence that demonstrates God’s concern for the poor and the powerless and anger toward those who create oppressive conditions (Amos 5:24, Micah 6:8, Psalm 103:6, Isaiah 10:1, Luke 1:52-53, Luke 4:18).
Although much about this statement needs discussion, I will highlight one section in particular.
It reads: “We affirm that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions.”
The best word to describe the assertion above is “ethnocentric.”
Who gets to decide which cultures and which assumptions are closer to biblical truth? For most of American history, white Christians have claimed that privilege. That privilege is now being challenged.
I’m tempted to refute the recent statement on the gospel and social justice point-by-point — showing how it falls short of the Bible’s call for justice. But I think our time would be better spent on other pursuits. There’s too much work to be done — work that will be delayed by endless debates.
Here’s my advice.
Many of the people who authored and signed this statement have large ministries and platforms.
Find other authors, preachers and teachers from whom you can learn. People like Austin Channing Brown or the podcasters and bloggers at Truth’s Table or The Witness, where I am a contributor. Or read Howard Thurman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bryan Stevenson, James Baldwin or the other writers who have explored issues of justice.
If the supporters of statements that dismiss social justice as a distraction from the gospel headline a major conference, state your concerns to the organizers. If nothing changes, then don’t go.
If they do an interview on a podcast, find another episode to listen to. If they write more blogs to state their case, share other ones instead.
Statements like these are a distraction. They siphon off energy and attention that could be used to create new organizations and initiatives that help bring about justice and equality.
Instead of writing a rebuttal to the statement on social justice, why not write a proposal for a new scholarship to help underrepresented groups go to college and stay out of debt? Why not donate money to support ministries run by and geared toward racial and ethnic minorities? Why not research a cause and find out how you can get involved?
Refusing to give more attention to the people who oppose social justice is not a statement on their standing with God. This does not mean they are not sincerely attempting to follow Christ. It does not mean that they have not said helpful things on other topics in the past.
It simply means that in this case, they have made statements so troublesome that we must register our objections in visible ways.
Christians should never give up hope that people can change. Yet going back and forth, especially online, about social justice with those who see it as a dangerous intrusion into the church often does not alter anyone’s opinions and may lead to more frustration.
In the end, I think more people will be persuaded to change their minds about social justice by looking at the fruit of the people who engage in it rather than by arguing on social media about the validity of doing so.
Half a century after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s easy for people to claim that they would have been among the protesters and marchers and those who risked it all for the cause of justice. Well, the struggle for civil rights never ended. Now is your chance to get involved for love of God and love of neighbor.
For many, the past two years of the Trump presidency have felt like twenty. Tensions surrounding every issue, from police brutality and immigration regulation to our education system have seemed to be on a constant, and sometimes spiking incline. However, despite the increased feelings of distress and actions of contempt among Americans, there are still people working to combat this country’s general state. Citizens of all ages understand now more than ever the power of their voices, especially the youth. Whether it’s organizing and speaking out at rallies for gun reformation, marching for black visibility, or educating their peers on the vitality of voting, young people are increasingly aware of their power to change the future.
Hundreds of faith-based social justice organizations across the country are working for the betterment of all people, battling systemic racism, sexism, classism, or an intersection of the three. The missions are all the same at their core — to make a difference with the time we’re given by leaving the world better than we found it, keeping faith at the center.
If you’re ready to get active and involved, consider volunteering for one of the organizations listed below that speaks to your own personal values or seek one out with a similar mission in your area. We’re just getting started on this list and will continue to build it out on UrbanFaith.com. If you have one in mind that we should add, please email us at [email protected].
Mission: To “inform and bring people of faith and congregations together…to intentionally and decisively transform society toward greater social justice at the intersection of racism and poverty.” They affect this refinement of perspective and policy through engagement within their communities, holding policymakers accountable, and helping the public understand that their income is not a restriction on their right to be fully participating members of society.
Mission: Founded in 1997 by the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, this organization has been working to mend the gaps between the various faith communities in New York in order to create beneficial programs for its citizens. In the 21 years they’ve been active, they’ve developed education programs for students, teachers, social workers, and young parolees. Through faith-based retreats, local partnerships, and the recognition of outstanding team members, this amalgam of belief systems, from Christian to Buddhist to Shinto, are able to fulfill ICNY’s mission to “overcome prejudice, violence, and misunderstanding by activating the power of the city’s grassroots religious and civic leaders and their communities.”
Mission: Sponsored by the Morningside Presbyterian Church out of Atlanta, this group is dedicated to “engaging communities of faith in stewardship of Creation…as a religious response to global climate change, resource depletion, environmental injustice, pollution, and other disruptions in Creation.” Since its founding in 2003 by Reverend Woody and Carol Bartlett, GIPL has supplied bodies of faith across Georgia with the tools necessary to combat humanity’s affliction on the planet. By standing on their principles of faith including Justice, Community of Life, and Stewardship, they have been able to decrease the energy consumption and cost of their 500+ partners, while also providing them with new earth-friendly initiatives.
WATER is an education center “committed to theological, ethical, and ritual development by and for women.” Their mission is “to use feminist religious values to create social change.” Their work of the past thirty years has included ensuring women’s right to exercise their humanity and spirituality. WATER has implemented a variety of programs, such as WATERtalks, which is a monthly free and open to the public presentation featuring female scholars and religious leaders who create a dialogue with the audience through sharing their experiences in a specific field as a woman. WATER also hosts various collaborations, such as Women Crossing Worlds (WCW), which is an engagement with women from Spain to Mexico through reciprocal visits and teachings intended on strengthening their study of effective enactments of theology.
MOSES is a community organizing nonprofit that works to help everyday people, particularly in marginalized communities, get the skills they need to effectively address what concerns them most. The organization is “guided by faith-based principles of social justice and fellowship” and believes in developing grassroots leaders. They do this through training leaders in places of worship, showing them how to explain their shared values in the public arena and work together with area residents.
Finally, Los Angeles is home to California Faith for Equality (CFE), spreading the message of loving they neighbor by helping to bridge the gap between communities of faith and nonreligious LGBTQ+ groups, both on a local and national level. Started in 2005, CFE is a growing network that builds upon other organizations and efforts in order to serve their mission of “educating, supporting, and mobilizing California’s communities of faith for LGBTQ+ people and to safeguard religious freedom.” They are an influential factor is California’s growingly diverse community, serving the members of their community through and for faith.
(RNS) A retired Anglican bishop in northern Uganda is agitating for restorative justice – which emphasizes forgiveness and truth-telling over punishment – in a region where the wounds of a brutal war unleashed by the Lord’s Resistance Army persist.
Bishop Macleord Baker Ochola II, 84, has been responding to community concerns that the modern court system may not deliver justice for the people who suffered in the complex conflict.
In 1980s and ’90s, the LRA rebels, led by Joseph Kony, terrorized civilians in northern Uganda, abducting children and forcefully recruiting boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves.
Kony turned child soldiers into killing machines against their own community.
By 2005, the LRA had abducted over 60,000 children and killed more than 100,000 people, while displacing 2.5 million people.
Ochola buried the dead, walked with returning child soldiers and at one point was forced into exile.
The conflict took a toll on his family. His wife died in 1997 after a land mine blast hit a car she was traveling in. Ten years earlier, his daughter committed suicide after being gang-raped by the rebels.
But Ochola has refused to remain bitter, choosing to promote peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation among his people.
“If there is no process of reconciliation, there is no healing, and if there is no healing there is no restoration and justice,” said Ochola, who served the Diocese of Kitgum. “Healing and restoration brings transformation of life for those affected.”
The International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted five top leaders of the rebel group in 2005.
Last month, it put on trial Dominic Ongwen, a 41-year-old former rebel commander who was abducted at age 10. He faces 70 charges, including murder, attempted murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery and forced marriage. He is the first former child soldier to appear before court.
“In the name of God, I deny all these charges,” Ongwen said in court.
Dominic Ongwen, center, a senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, sits in the courtroom of the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Dec. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Peter Dejong/Pool
Ochola has been urging the court to carefully reconsider the circumstances under which children-turned-commanders were trapped in LRA captivity.
While he does not deny the court’s charges, he fears the court may not offer restorative justice but is seeking punishment or retribution. He is also concerned it will divide the community, which is in dire need of unity in the aftermath of LRA atrocities.
Like many other cultural and religious leaders in Uganda, he stresses a traditional justice system known as “Mato Oput,” which he thinks is more holistic.
Centered on forgiveness, it involves truth telling, compensation and a ritual in which food is shared and the accused drinks bitter herbs.
“It brings restoration to broken human relationships, transforms lives and heals the hearts of those involved,” said Ochola. “The court system, which is retributive, promotes polarization, alienating both sides.”
Mato Oput mirrors many of the forgiveness and reconciliation efforts central to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa and the Gacaca courts used in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Mato Oput is the justice system of the Acholi people of northern Uganda, the community most affected by the LRA conflict.
The LRA left northern Uganda in 2005 and is now believed to operate along the border region of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The LRA is still at large and they are still fighting … so we must continue with the work,” said Ochola.
In 1997, Ochola was one of the founders of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith organization led by cultural and religious leaders that sought to peacefully end the LRA insurgency. ARLPI has been facilitating grass-roots and intercommunal reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.
One aspect of that is trying to help the government and LRA go through a process of truth telling.
“This would involve accepting full responsibility and making public acknowledgment of what one has done,” said Ochola.
One problem, he said, is the government’s lack of political will to dismantle the LRA.
In the case of Ongwen, Ochola had hoped the former rebel would be brought to the community for truth telling. Since that did not happen, Ongwen will likely refuse to accept responsibility.
“As a victim, he continues to be punished twice,” said Ochola.
Sheikh Musa Khalil, a northern Uganda Muslim leader and the ARLPI vice chairman, backs Ochola, saying that with Ongwen, the traditional system could have achieved more.
“It mirrors what is in the Quran and Bible,” said Khalil. “It’s based on forgiveness. We feel he should have been brought to us.”
The bishop believes a change is needed in the general wordview that when a child is abducted — as in the case of northern Uganda — he or she must take full responsibility in adulthood for any crimes committed while a captive.
“For northern Uganda,” he said, “this is wrong because the children had their humanity destroyed.”