Last night, a Ugandan friend and I spoke of “White Man’s Burden.” Some of you may know of the phrase from Rudyard Kipling’s controversial poem by that title published in 1899, or the 1995 movie starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte. My Ugandan friend, Michael, and I didn’t have either in mind in any direct sense. What was on our minds is the ongoing burden white Americans and Europeans often still seem to have to try and carry the world on our shoulders, whether or not we are conscious of these actions.
Even in TIME Magazine’s reflection on “LRA Awareness. Milestones in the attempt to bring Kony to justice” (TIME, March 26th, 2012 edition, pp. 38-39), the only significant mention of African involvement is the founding of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in 1986 in Uganda, and Joseph Kony’s ascent to leadership in 1988. All other milestones involve Americans and Europeans, such as Invisible Children, the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Joseph Kony, Congress’s LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery bill, and African American United States President Obama’s deployment of special operations troops to assist local forces with tracking down Kony and the LRA. Except for Kony’s and the LRA’s emergence, these are all good things and should be celebrated. However, what is missing are the historical backdrop of Kony’s and the LRA’s emergence (including how the colonialist white man’s burden created a gaping hole in infrastructure that only increased once he left and which helped open up a door for Kony and the LRA to emerge) and highlighted consideration of various local initiatives that Ugandans have put in place. Perhaps it is only coincidence that such details are missing from the report of milestones, but how often must we leave it to coincidence and fail to press forward with greater alertness?
My heart was touched even while my mind was alerted when Jason Russell’s son Gavin said near the close of the movie Kony 2012 that he wanted to grow up to be like his father. Sure, Jason had a meltdown last week, but still he and his friends at Invisible Children melted through many people’s apathy to get them to care about life beyond their immediate surroundings. For this I am grateful. Because of this, his son should be proud. But he might be even more proud of his father if Jason and his friends draw primary attention in their next movie to local efforts by African people, and if they can motivate Americans to take interest in what Africans themselves do. It can be done. It has been done, as evidenced by the widespread interest in the life of Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu Rwandan hotel manager who sheltered over 1,000 Tutsi refugees during the ethnic cleansing of Tutsis at the hands of Hutus in 1994. Paul’s life was the subject of the movie, Hotel Rwanda. Just think of the impact Invisible Children could have, if they now focus primarily on Ugandan youth like Jacob in their next film given their global viral web influence. If Invisible Children makes a movie that now focuses primary consideration on the valiant lives of Ugandan youth, Jacob (whose tragic childhood is narrated in Kony 2012), and others like him, it would be wonderful if children like Jason Russell’s son say they want to grow up to be like Jacob as well as Jason.Why create a film that is primarily focused on Jacob and his friends? Perhaps they are not the heroes that Paul Rusesabagina is. Still, what courage it must take children like Jacob day after day just to survive the emotional trauma they have experienced at the hands of Joseph Kony and the LRA. What resilience it must take day after day for Africans to endure the white man’s burden through the generations, as we come to do them good, and often do much harm, even though sometimes mixed with good.
Western-based NGO’s, missions organizations and Western governments need to move beyond motivating people to good will based on how good they look and how much they have to offer Africans. Certainly, Americans and Westerners generally are more interested when we and our actions are the focal point of movies and videos, and when we receive awards for our efforts rather than the Africans. I am not saying that Invisible Children is itself driven by White Man’s Burden, or that the movie focused on Americans because of self-concern; it might simply have been pragmatic and strategic—to get more Americans and Westerners involved and contribute to the overarching humanitarian cause. Of course, we have something vital to contribute. But we also have something vital to receive. Such giving and receiving is not a matter of mere function but of our being who we are in mutual relation to one another.
One of the things I need to receive from Africans like Michael is “Ubuntu”—the way of being that understands my life as interconnected with everyone else’s life. This African way of being points to Jesus’ way of being: Jesus is the God-Man who exists for others. I am who I am in relation to him, and all others are who they are in relation to him. Jesus gives me life and shares his life with me. Jesus has also given me friends like Michael. Michael’s way of being in the world, including how he relates to me, frees me to share life rather than seize it, and keeps me from thinking life is mine to take and mine to give. I am slowly learning how to receive and how to truly give of myself in relationship.
I carry such a weight as a white man, if and when I think I have to carry the whole world’s burdens. I thought that was Jesus’ job (see for example Isaiah 53:5-6 and Matthew 11:28-30). Of course, I am responsible and am in solidarity with my neighbors here and abroad. But my job is to share life with Africans like Michael, who chooses to share life with me. We need to carry one another, even as Jesus carries us. Jesus, come and lift my burden and take away my need to be needed more than others. Come and carry all of us, even as I share life with Michael, and Michael shares life with me.
This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.