Media critique for TRANS/MISSIONS, the site for the Knight Center for Media and Religion, March 26, 2012

After visiting a slum in Delhi, India with a young evangelical woman from Georgia, a friend and I got into a discussion about Americans working in the developing world. “Maybe I just don’t like NGOs,” he said, convinced that the efforts of not just evangelicals but all Westerners are tainted by a sense of cultural superiority.

After our India trip, I returned home to find an explosion of articles about Kony 2012, the flashy campaign to mobilize the world around capturing the infamous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Plenty of articles have expounded on the power of technology and celebrity to win supporters for humanitarian causes. Others have disparaged the campaign’s creator, Jason Russell, for simplifying the facts so much that the media components of his project distort reality.

Another set of article addresses question that my friend and I had in India: What is the role of Westerners who want to help tackle injustice overseas? Particularly noteworthy is Teju Cole’s article, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” in The Atlantic. Due to their complexity, Africa’s social ills defy easy intervention, Cole explains.

Overlooked, though, is the word “savior,” with its clear religious connotations.

The media discussion could be served by unpacking the religious motivations for many Americans’ overseas service. In connection with the story, little if any coverage has highlighted the relationship between Americans working abroad today, the history of missionary colonialism and the present-day evangelism behind the concerns voiced by many Africans about Kony 2012.

Invisible Children, Jason Russell’s organization, is a good case-study for this issue. Russell is an evangelical, but he frames his work as secular in order to attract wider support. The Los Angeles Times mentions only in the last sentence of a story on Russell’s mental breakdown that his parents run a Christian theater group. Right Wing Watch and an atheist blogger have written about Russell’s faith, but both these groups want to disparage evangelical Christianity rather than reflect critically the relationship between overseas service and saving souls.

It’s important not to restrict the conversation to American evangelism. As my friend observed, NGOs, religious or not, can carry with them a sense cultural imperialism left over from missionary days. We think secular activism is on the opposite end of the spectrum from evangelical mission work, but from a global perspective, they’re not so far apart. From an interfaith point of view, it may be a hopeful sign to see George Clooney linking up with Pat Robertson, but such a partnership may also show that liberal secular Americans are just as “evangelical” in spreading their worldview as many Christians.

At the same time, it’s also important not to dismiss all faith-based work as paternalistic or proselytizing, especially since many Africans, Indians and other formerly colonized peoples long ago embraced Christianity and made it their own. Though Kenyan intellectual Binyavanga Wainaina is critical of foreign aid, a few years ago he told Krista Tippett, host of “On Being,” that he supports the work of religious groups, especially the Roman Catholic Church, “because you have a very long relationship with people and you understand their value.”

Reporters writing about Kony 2012 and American service overseas would be served well by revisiting the 2009 interview with Wainaina, which delves into religion in the second half. Also check out Wainaina’s satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa.”

There are a lot of religion angles in the Kony 2012 controversy that remain ripe for exploration. But as my classmates and I learned in India, it’s critical to seek out non-Western voices to understand global issues completely.

Read the post on TRANS/MISSIONS