Sunday, November 6, 2011

Limbaugh and the LRA

What do you know about the LRA?

I first heard of the Lord’s Resistance Army a decade ago, when Bishop Ojwang and his wife Margaret visited our church to strengthen the partnership between the Church of the Good Samaritan and the Anglican Diocese of Kitgum in Northern Uganda.

The LRA was formed in 1985 by Joseph Kony, an irrational, often violent man. By early 2002, the year of the Ojwangs’ visit, he had cut a wide swath of misery through four countries of central Africa, crossing borders between Northern Uganda, Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. His mode of operation: attack villages at night, abduct young boys and their early adolescent sisters, insist the new captives torture, dismember, then murder remaining relatives, burn whatever's left. Captives who didn’t comply immediately were tortured and killed; children who attempted to escape were killed by other children. 

The Ojwangs were hoping to raise awareness of the tragedy unfolding in their region, and were looking for financial and prayer support. At the time, almost a million people were living in IDP camps (for Internally Displaced Persons) in Northern Uganda. Roads were impassable because of land mines and marauding bands. A once prosperous farming region was no longer yielding food, because the patterns of life were so disrupted.

Five years later, another priest from Kitgum visited our church, about the time we were learning of the Invisible Children. Someone in our youth group had seen the Invisible Children video about “night commuters” in Northern Uganda, tens of thousands of children living in fear of abduction, traveling miles from their villages each evening to sleep in relative safety in larger towns. We showed the video to our group and sat in tears as we watched the suffering of children an ocean away. One student asked if she could design a tee shirt to sell to raise money for the work of Invisible Children.

Our visitor, Rev. Wilson Kitara, then secretary of the Diocese of Kitgum, was able to offer his own perspective of the trouble in Kitgum, and told our youth group about the thousands of children the church sheltered every night, the ongoing work of providing food, medical care, and emotional and spiritual support to those children. Our group decided we would sell tee shirts and bracelets to support the work of Invisible Children, do what we could to share what we knew about the LRA and the night commuters, and find other ways to raise money for the Diocese of Kitgum in their work with the thousands of children affected.

Rev. Kitara invited our son, a recent college graduate, to come to Uganda to help write grant proposals, a continuing struggle for the short-staffed and underfunded Diocese of Kitgum, so that fall our church sent him off as a short-term missionary. He spent three months visiting IDP camps (at that point, swollen to hold almost two million displaced people), teaching computer skills to church staff and interested young adults, writing proposals and reports, and looking for ways our church could offer more support. He came home with a deep love for the people of Kitgum, some great ideas about continuing partnership, and a backpack full of bead necklaces the clergy wives had made for us to sell to raise money for school fees for the many children of the community.

Over the years we've continued to support and pray for the Diocese of Kitgum, raising money for the work there, selling the mothers’ bead necklaces, and joining a group called Resolve which has faithfully worked to raise awareness of the continuing tragedy of the LRA.

Through the advocacy of Resolve, Invisible Children, and others human rights groups, the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act was introduced to Congress in March of 2009 by five bi-partisan co-sponsors. Over the next year, the bill gained momentum and attention as activists made endless phone calls, lobbied representatives, and organized letter-writing campaigns. By the time the bill came to the Senate floor a year later, it had 65 Senators as cosponsors. It passed unanimously, then moved to the House of Representatives on May 13, 2010 with 202 Representatives as cosponsors. Again, it passed unanimously, and was signed into law by President Obama on  May 24.

The act required the president to submit a strategy to Congress, which he did last November.  In the intervening months, those who care about northern Uganda, the child soldiers, and all impacted by the LRA have waited to see the strategy put into action. Budget conversations threatened to derail it, and repeated phone and mail campaigns have been undertaken asking Congress and the president to move “From Promise to Peace.”

On October 14, I was happy to receive news from Resolve announcing the president’s plan to deploy 100 US military advisers to LRA-affected areas as an initial step in a multi-faceted plan to bring the years of violence to a conclusion. The advisors will work with regional militaries, coordinating efforts across borders, encouraging rebel leaders to defect, and increasing surveillance of rebel activities while watching for human rights violations by both rebels and regional armies.

The plan also includes improved communication technology for military and impacted communities and a commitment to greater diplomatic efforts in the region, as well as a promise of ongoing funding for reconciliation and transitional justice initiatives, and much-needed reconstruction assistance to northern Uganda.

While I was celebrating this long-prayed-for announcement, I received another email, announcing “President Obama sending troops to kill Christians in Africa.” The email warned that the president had bypassed Congress and was plunging the US into further war.

In the days and weeks since, it’s become clear that that email, and more like it, was prompted by hasty remarks by commentators with no knowledge of the LRA and no real interest in learning the truth before initiating attacks against the president. The tidal wave of criticism and misinformation was launched by Rush Limbaugh, who announced that President Obama had invaded Uganda to attack a Christian army:
“[M]ost Americans have never heard of it, and here we are at war with them.  Lord's Resistance Army are Christians. . . .  They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan.  And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them. . . .So that's a new war, a hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda, and no, I'm not kidding.”
I’m still trying to understand how even the most irresponsible commentator could misrepresent a situation so completely. And I’m trying to understand how any organization could fire off email alerts without first doing a few minutes of research to see if the alarm was well-founded. Five minutes on Google yields a heart-breaking supply of information about the harm Kony and his LRA have done.

I’m amazed that in the outcry since Limbaugh’s comments, he hasn’t seen the need to apologize or correct his statements. And I have yet to receive clarifying emails from those organizations and individuals who alerted me to the president’s plan to kill Christians. 

How is it possible that a national news commentator would not have heard of an international war criminal who has killed thousands, and impacted millions, across a span of twenty-five years?

And how is it possible that political antipathy would overrule the simplest rules of public discourse? Is the truth that expendable? Is fairness even possible?

And how helpful can it be to have headlines rocketing around the globe: "Obama Invades Uganda"? "President Killing Christians"?

I find I’m grieving at the state of political conversation, as I continue to grieve at the incredible damage done by one evil man and those he drew into his web.

In a public statement released last week, Bishop Ojwang and other Christian leaders in northern Uganda thanked the US for promised aid, and asked policy makers in the United States, Africa and elsewhere to heed the lessons of history and focus their efforts on dialogue rather than force, engagement rather than confrontation. Despite all the violence and suffering, they still pray for a non-violent solution. “Let us redouble our efforts to engage in dialogue. We believe this is the only way to bring about a lasting solution that will foster healing and reconciliation.” 

If they can advocate for understanding, reconciliation, and peace, after all the atrocities they’ve witnessed, all the suffering they've lived through, surely we can find a way to do the same. Hard as it is to speak with those who hear only what they want to hear, and say what they want with no interest in the truth, "Let us redouble our efforts to engage in dialogue." And continue to pray for reconciliation, healing, and peace, here, and in Central Africa.
We pray for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world;     
     That there may be justice and peace on the earth.
Give us grace to do your will in all that we undertake;    
     That our works may find favor in your sight.
Have compassion on those who suffer from any grief or trouble;    
     That they may be delivered from their distress.  
Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.