Invisible Children: A Political Theology for Emerging Humanitarians


December 13, 2012

[Editor’s note: the following is a guest post written by Scott Schomburg, who is an M.Div ’13 candidate at Duke Divinity School, with research interests in political theology and contemporary humanitarianism. A previous version of this was posted here]

A new generation of humanitarians is coming-of-age in North America, turned toward an image of Africa in flames.  Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani, has analyzed this emerging humanitarian imagination, and locates the explosion of interest in Africa within political frameworks indebted to the War on Terror.[1] If U.S. invasions of Iraq symbolized a complicated history and politics, a de-historicized and de-politicized Africa became the site of clear moral imperatives and righteous political action.  Young North Americans could turn away from their own complicity in a dubious war, and turn toward Africa framed as on-going catastrophe.  Africa as catastrophe reflected back to millennials a new image of their own identity—one that would find its global humanitarian par excellence in Jason Russell, and an organizational exemplification in his San Diego, California based advocacy group, Invisible Children.

In 2003, Russell would travel to East Africa, two years into the War in Afghanistan, and same year of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Invisible Children would inherit from the War on Terror a social imagination that locates the enemy as an ultimate evil; that is, a threat from the outside that must be destroyed. Within this purview, reconciliation is refused a priori.  Jason Russell and his fellow visionaries thus joined military and humanitarian solutions more directly than ever, universalizing American fear of the external enemy. Ugandan LRA rebel leader, Joseph Kony, became to the world what Bin Laden was to the United States. According to this social imagination, Africa is narrated as a continent in crisis within a straightforward story of good and evil actors who never change places, the boundaries between good and evil being seen as self-evident from coffee shops in Southern California. Conceiving of a plan to stop ultimate evil within this framework would necessitate a messianic vision—a theological vision.  Which is to say, Invisible Children does not simply call for greater justice; their dreams of a better world demand an altar call.

Invisible Children’s vision of universal equality and justice began by captivating millions via aesthetically driven advocacy campaigns.  Jason Russell and his team successfully turned almost an entire generation of upper-middle class young North Americans toward an image of catastrophe in Africa, a movement finding its climax in the highly criticized Kony 2012 campaign.  In a matter of days, Jason Russell and Invisible Children would go from social media geniuses to naïve millennials, teaching an oversimplified version of conflict in East Africa.  The conversation they started caught itself in a false binary of cynicism and enthusiasm, overwhelming our venues for productive conversation, leaving us without time and space for careful discernment. Thoughtful criticism was lost in a sea of personal attacks, convincing Russell they were not being rightfully challenged, but wrongfully accused by those who fear change and do not truly want justice.  Without time and space for authentic dialogue, Invisible Children was able to imagine Jason Russell, the organization as a whole, and American millennials writ large as a community of martyrs. Criticism became an organizational accouterment to show Invisible Children’s strength to overcome injustice and realize their universal vision.

Critique was able to become a valuable accessory to the organizational narrative because most of it missed the fundamental vision behind the Kony 2012 campaign.  That is, most commentary failed to attend to an earlier Invisible Children effort driving the universal vision of their work, an undertaking that predates Kony 2012 and gave the film its raison d’etre.  Invisible Children officially calls this undertaking “the Fourth Estate”—which is both Invisible Children’s organizational ethos and their invite-only event organized to strategize a revolution.  As such, “the Fourth Estate” marked a shift in Invisible Children’s focus from the specific to the universal, distilled into a manifesto: “All life is equal, and justice for all is not a fantasy.” Seen through this lens, Kony 2012’s success was never going to be in its ability to offer a thick description of international politics; Kony 2012’s success lies in the film’s ability to place Western millennials at the center of a global movement.

Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate is a manifesto for the Western millennial generation.  And like all Invisible Children advocacy, it is dramatically portrayed through film.  The official Fourth Estate video begins in a dimly lit office as music emerges to build suspense.  A young man takes his seat, and proceeds to write letters with a feather pen, sealing them with dark red wax.  On the wall is a large display, a checkerboard of small profile pictures—young people—with black bars covering their eyes with white text that reads, “Invited.”  Then a young-white-male narrator, speaking omnisciently, begins to tell a grand progress narrative.  The Fourth Estate becomes the way to salvation inside a story that locates the genesis of individual liberty at the French revolution, leading to Invisible Children’s global movement. Regardless of their long-term commitment to East Africans, Invisible Children chooses to bookend their grand progress narrative with two Western events, filling in the gaps with a photomontage of significant historical struggles working to place Invisible Children in solidarity with the oppressed.  Finally, the video closes with the wax-sealed, feather-penned invitation being delivered to the steps of a suburban front door.  The narrator, still speaking omnisciently, brings the narrative to a dramatic climax: “We will come together to map out a new revolution.  You will say it all started at the Fourth Estate.”

Within the messianic tale of the Fourth Estate, Invisible Children’s advocacy effort in East Africa is a means to an end, a way to fashion a political imagination, and a method to transform the identities of Western young people.  While Invisible Children’s projects are done in earnest, with a sincere desire to care for people in East Africa, the Fourth Estate vision sublates irreducible tragedies as it beckons us to invest in the realization of universal ideals.

To dismiss Invisible Children based only on the Kony 2012 film campaign would cause us to pass up the opportunity to engage seriously with this ambitious universal vision, its implications, and its distinctly North American character.  Indeed, Invisible Children puts forth a liberal democratic vision of individual rights and justice for all, embodied in a new people whose ultimate object of love is universal equality.  In the Kony 2012 film, this universal vision is embodied in the life of Jason Russell, whose voice as narrator emerges at the moment an expansive globe comes steadily into a narrow, God-like view.  Russell speaks as the world’s representative, and invites his fellow revolutionaries to do the same. Attempting to climb from the particular to the universal, understood within Jason Russell’s evangelical framework, is a crucial move that shapes the theological character of Invisible Children’s vision.  That is, attempting to view the globe from above imagines God’s creatures without limits—as God-humans.

The universal character of Invisible Children’s theological vision is most tellingly demonstrated in Jacob Acaye—the first Ugandan child Jason Russell befriended in 2003.  Documented through films and photographs, Acaye’s story has been central to Invisible Children’s organizational history and outreach. Russell and Acaye’s nine-year journey shows Acaye’s life transformed by Invisible Children’s vision, and the effect has been striking.  Moving from African isolation into American social life, from second-hand clothing characteristic of Northern Uganda’s poor to the trendy fashion accessories of Southern California, Acaye is transformed from an image of a neglected continent to a humanitarian success story in America.  Leaving aside the character of Acaye’s new opportunities for a moment, it is worth noting the Southern California character of his transformation, which shows the inability of Invisible Children to achieve universal status.  The new world order Invisible Children offers cannot be imagined outside the history and politics they know, the way they have learned to imagine the true, good, and beautiful.  As a result, Jacob Acaye cannot move toward the ultimate goal of universal ideals.  He can only move toward San Diego.

More is at stake, however, than Jacob Acaye’s transformation. By universalizing a particular vision, Invisible Children falls prey to a narrative that requires the exclusion of an ultimate enemy.  Joseph Kony is thus seen in films as an evil madman.  But Joseph Kony is not the ultimate enemy. He is a particular rebel leader formed by a specific historical situation requiring a particularly creative political response.  An imagination that identifies Kony as ultimate evil is far too indebted to the War on Terror, and involves an overly Manichean narrative involving good state actors and evil terrorists.  From this view, what is left out becomes all-important.

Consider Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni.  While Invisible Children admits to disapprove of the Ugandan government’s human rights abuses, their advocacy campaigns remove Museveni entirely from view and isolate Joseph Kony’s LRA as the sole cause of violence against the Acholi people.  More convincing histories of violence in Uganda, however, bring Museveni center stage.  Through a complicated history of social hierarchies, Museveni’s rise to power marked the continuation of colonial frameworks inherited from British colonial rule.  Museveni situated his “modern” regime against the so-called “primitive” Acholi people.  While not diminishing the LRA’s negative impact on the region, it is worth considering whether they were powerful enough to necessitate the displacement of the entire population of Northern Uganda. Within Museveni’s commitment to colonial logics, Northern Uganda’s displacing event is more accurately a systematic government strategy to make the Acholi people more vulnerable—a violence done to invite more violence.  Invisible Children’s advocacy efforts cannot adopt this view because they reproduce a Manichean narrative complimentary to Museveni’s view.  That is, within a re-historicized Africa in crisis, Invisible Children celebrates state actors for military-humanitarian intervention while they locate evil outside state-sanctioned activity.  Put another way, an organization committed to making injustice in East Africa visible has shaped a humanitarian imagination that makes state-sanctioned violence invisible.

From these vantage points, Invisible Children’s vision looks anything but universal. When seen through the influence of the War on Terror, in Jacob Acaye’s transformation, and in the omission of Museveni’s role, Invisible Children’s universal ideals of equality and justice are confronted with questions that take us underneath the surface of the organization’s claims:  Whose equality?  Whose justice?  Arriving at these questions marks a turn away from false universal claims, and opens up new space to imagine future possibilities.

A serious engagement with the theological work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer could make visible new directions.  While Jason Russell encourages his audience to read the Eric Metaxas biography of Bonhoeffer alongside Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Western millennials will better learn to reject false universal claims and Manichean dualisms by putting down Rand and Metaxas to pick up Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.  Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s important text could foster a more richly textured and faithful conversation among this new generation of global humanitarians, rejecting the notion that human existence can escape moral ambiguity by realizing its universal identity in the present.  Bonhoeffer’s reflections on community do not turn Christians toward fictional universals; they turn us toward particular human beings, and toward a God who became flesh and dwelt among us. Bonhoeffer writes, “The Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality;”[2] which is to say, precisely at the moment we love the dream of community more than the community itself, our attention has been distracted from God’s life, the only life that righteously judges good and evil. Western millennials, therefore, must learn to see and act through a lens more rigorously imaginative than Invisible Children’s revolution, or universal claims will keep betraying us.  Humanity’s identity must remain an open question; we must remain in a posture that takes the courage of a community to keep telling us the truth about our lives.  ‘We are God’s creaturessummoned not to give witness to humanity’s ability to break out of our particularity, but to open our lives in praise of a God who breaks in.’

For a background piece on Invisible Children and its roots in the ’emerging church’ see the following in the Atlantic.



[1] Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2010), 5.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayer Book of the Bible, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works,” v.5(Minneapolis, MN, Augsburg Fortress Publishing, 1995), 35.