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Kony 2012 and the challenge of forgiveness


The latest in modern social networking has focused enormous attention on the crimes of Joseph Kony. But the peace-making resources of ancient religious and tribal traditions offer the only way to heal the wounds he has inflicted.

Kony 2012 and the politics of retribution

Over the past six weeks, the world (almost literally) has witnessed the phenomenon of Kony 2012, the internet video that has now garnered over 100 million hits.  The video’s creator, Invisible Children, deserves credit for this remarkable feat of activism for social justice and indeed for drawing wide attention to one of the world’s most monstrous war criminals, Joseph Kony.

However, if the world were to learn about Uganda’s colossal civil war of a quarter century and attendant attempts to build peace only through Kony 2012, it would be missing an extraordinary story of peacebuilding whose characters are Ugandans themselves.

Kony 2012 focuses almost exclusively on Kony himself, the leader of the bizarre and murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and calls for his arrest and trial.  The emergent hero of the video is Luis Moreno Ocampo, the famous chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), who has indicted Kony and vows to bring him to justice.

Beyond the politics of retribution

What Kony 2012 does not show, though, is that even while the hunt for Kony continues, Ugandans themselves have made giant strides in reintegrating thousands of children whom the LRA had abducted and hundred of thousands of internally displaced persons back into their home cities and villages.  Key to this reintegration has been the practice of forgiveness and the larger ethic in which it is rooted, reconciliation.

Behind forgiveness and reconciliation, in turn, has been the leadership of the religious.  One of the world’s most effective examples of religious leadership in promoting peace is Uganda’s Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), a coalition made up of a Catholic archbishop, Anglican bishops, a Muslim leader, and other religious leaders.  ARPLI leaders have traipsed through the bush to meet Kony and mediate between him and the Ugandan government and they crucially influenced the passage of the Amnesty Act of 2000, passed by the Ugandan parliament to encourage LRA soldiers to put down their guns and return home.  Most importantly, though, they have led the people of northern Uganda in practicing reconciliation and forgiveness between victims and perpetrators of thousands of horrible crimes.

The challenge of forgiveness

Forgiveness is not easy, especially of atrocities.  Often it is preceded by a painful airing of grievances and requires the simple passage of time.  Many choose not to forgive at all.  But as I discovered on a research trip to northern Uganda this past January, the people of the region have practiced forgiveness widely and frequently.  The explanation lies in good part in the Christian faith that northern Ugandans widely share, though which they view forgiveness as a participation in God’s redemptive work and are enabled by grace to perform an otherwise exceedingly difficult deed.  Forgiveness is enabled as well by the tribal traditions of the Acholi people, which contain rich rituals of reconciliation.

Invisible Children is right: Kony should be captured and tried, for he continues to perpetrate horrible deeds on civilians outside of Uganda, where he is on the lam.  Let us not ignore, though, the widespread popular practice of reconciliation and forgiveness within Uganda, motivated by religious faith, which deserves credit for returning vast populations to their homes and for significant strides in building peace.

Faith-based forgiveness in action

As I had the opportunity to discuss on Fox News last week, a camera crew accompanied me on my January research trip to Uganda and shot the footage for what is now a video documentary, “Uganda: the Challenge of Forgiveness.” Sponsored by the Fetzer Institute and produced by Jason Cohen Productions, the documentary features interviews with Archbishop John Baptist Odama, the most prominent and most charismatic of the ARLPI leaders, as well as Angelina Atyam, who practiced and promoted forgiveness courageously after the LRA had abducted her daughter.  Though Kony 2012 was utterly unbeknownst to us when we shot our footage, our video now enters into conversation with it by telling another side of the story.

Religious leadership in building peace in Uganda also reflects one of the central themes of Contending Modernities, namely that religious versions of modernity make contributions to political and social life that are distinct from — and sometimes in competition with — secular modernity.  Perhaps unwittingly, Kony 2012 manifests some of the characteristic tendencies of secular modernity.  Ocampo and the ICC are emblematic of the legalistic and retributive approach to massive past injustices that dominates the international community today — the U.N., western governments, international lawyers, and leading human rights organizations.

These emblems of secular modernity are still looking for Joseph Kony, despite the unprecedented modern powers of Facebook and YouTube. While the hunt continues, religious leaders, acting out of their religious beliefs and drawing on ancient tribal traditions, may be making far more enduring contributions to peace and justice in Uganda.

Daniel Philpott is Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and on the faculty of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.  He is author of the forthcoming Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation (Oxford University Press, 2012).


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