The hype around KONY 2012 seems to have died down considerably now, but the stir it caused certainly hasn’t. I’ve included links at the end of this post to several well-made arguments that Kony 2012 is at best ineffective and at worst, harmful. But that’s not my concern here. As unhelpful as KONY 2012 is likely to be for real Ugandans, there’s no denying the campaign’s power to move people. Credit where credit’s due, as a film designed to inspire action, Jason Russell’s video is positively brilliant. It’s a rhetorical masterpiece. Perhaps the most stunning thing about it is its length. Internet-citizens have notoriously short attention spans; to make a 30 minute, non-fiction video go viral is an incredible feat.
Between Vimeo and YouTube, KONY 2012 garnered 80 million views over just four days. Russell’s video obviously struck a terrifyingly powerful chord – and for what it’s worth, I think it has a lot to do with what I’ll call the video’s ‘spiritual vision’. This is vision is communicated almost entirely in the film’s subtext (the hidden assumptions that lie beneath the surface of a text). Every word and every image in the film makes subtle suggestions about who we are and why we matter. Factually dubious and ineffective as it is, KONY 2012 has a remarkably profound perspective on those questions; a perspective which powerfully speaks to the image of God in each of us, whether we know we bear that image or not.
It starts in the very first minute, with Russell’s opening words (0:24):
“Right now, there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago. Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect, and now we see each other, we hear each other; we share what we love, and it reminds us what we all have in common.”
Those words paint a picture (assisted by the camera work and music), of a sort of ‘Facebook Nation’; a confederacy of mostly young, well-off, upwardly mobile Westerners, all endowed with the incredible, mystical, world-changing powers of the Internet. Russell depicts the communications tools we use everyday (iPads, iPhones, laptops, web browsers) as objects of fantastic, almost supernatural power. He is not talking down to us like a morally superior preacher, trying to guilt us into giving him money. He is revering our might, acknowledging our power, and attempting to invoke our favour. He wants us to use our power to help his cause. Yes, that’s a nuance – this all takes place in the subtext. But it’s an important point: it’s undeniable that for the film to make any sense at all, we Westerners, with the power of our social networks, must hold some sort of creative power. What’s interesting, is that traditional Christianity views the human race as ‘co-creators‘ with God the Creator, and co-redeemers with Christ the Redeemer – we have the powers of the God whose image we bear: powers to create and to redeem. There’s a marked note of something like ‘awe’ or ‘reverence’ for humanity’s creative power in Russel’s words. He isn’t speaking to us as selfish children (like many charity campaigns do), he’s speaking to us as gods.
Naturally we all believe, as good Westerners do, that human beings have innate value; an inalienable worth and dignity. Our laws and our culture generally uphold that in practice; but what about in fiction? How many pieces of popular culture depict human being as something worthy, in itself, of reverence? Romantic love? Certainly. Ridicule? Absolutely (browse Damnlol! for a few minutes). Empathy? Often. But awe? Reverence; not for any particular feat, but out of simple admiration of the sheer beauty and power of being human? That, we see much more rarely. Yet it’s powerfully present from the beginning of Russell’s film.
Our cultural ‘meta-narrative’ (the story we tell about ourselves in our heads) tells us that humans lie at the top of an ultimately meaningless evolutionary chain, having no especial purpose other than to survive and procreate. Things like friendship, family, laughter and art are only means to those two greater ends (survival and procreation). By contrast, Christianity views human connection as having cosmic significance; it’s an aspect of the image of God. Met. Kallistos Ware says, “[God’s image in man] signifies relationship not only with God but with other men. Just as the three divine persons live in and for each other, so man – being made in the Trinitarian image – becomes a real person by seeing the world through other’s eyes, by making others’ joys and sorrows his own.” (Also see 1 John 4:7-20). With that in mind, note the images displayed while Russell talks of our powerful ability to connect: grandparents smiling at their grandchild over a webcam, people sharing inspiring videos on YouTube. These are people making each other’s joys (and sorrows) their own; sharing their joy. They’re being Trinitarian; being god-like. All the film’s component parts; the music, Russell’s narration, the clever editing; imply that this connection is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. It’s the power that Russell has made the film to harness.
The film then cuts to footage of Russell’s son Gavin being born. Childbirth, of course, is another important way in which human beings embody the Divine Image. The Father, Son and Spirit work together in Creation – they love each other so much, that they create new things in order to be able to share love with them. Similarly, when human couples pour out their love for one another into each other, their union is so bright and god-like that it also creates – it creates a child, capable of its own loving and creating. A child born of love then, is one of the greatest and most precious things in the world – and that’s precisely how Russell uses Gavin in the film: as a sort of pillar of innocence and beauty. But the brilliant thing about Russell’s use of his son in the film is the way he contrasts Gavin with Jacob Acaye, a Ugandan boy whose brother was murdered by Joseph Kony’s men. It’s immediately clear that Russell wants to draw a comparison between Gavin and Jacob (3:53-4:00), and the difference between the two is what fully brings home the horror of what Kony has done. Only by appreciating the fullness of human beauty (which Russell shows us in the bright-eyed, born-of-love Gavin), can we appreciate the fullness of the terror that comes when that beauty is damaged (dark-eyed, brother-less Jacob). That terror; that notion of God-like, innocent beauty destroyed, is the chief emotional tool that Russell uses to inspire action in his viewers. He inspires us to combat evil, by showing us the incredible wonder of the good, and convincing us that the good is worth protecting from tyrants like Kony.
I could draw more examples, but my case is already made. Russell is working on two core assumptions: that there is real beauty in the world, and that we have a real responsibility to preserve that beauty. He never says all these things in so many words (although he comes very close … (human value – 2:18-2:35), (action in response to that value – 3:25-3:48)), but he doesn’t really need to. These claims are hidden in the film’s subtext; they are subtle, unspoken assumptions. But they are there, in a way that I feel they aren’t in a worrying proportion of our popular culture.
And that’s where, I believe, KONY 2012’s real power lies. These assumptions about beauty and evil are so undeniably true that they cannot help but enchant and entrance the little Christ in each and every viewer, Christian or not. They break straight through whatever postmodern tendencies the viewer might or might not have towards dismissing ‘beauty’ and ‘goodness’ as subjective, social labels, and reveal the raw, powerful truth of human being, which, to use a phrase of DB Hart, ‘carries an absolute demand upon our consciences.’
I don’t mean to suggest that Russell’s is the only film in the last 10 years to have depicted childbirth as something wondrous, or human connection as innately valuable. Others certainly have. But there are many, disturbingly many, that do so with such vagueness and confusion that they might as well not bother, and yet others that don’t even try at all. Perhaps it’s just the prude in me, but I can’t help but feel that a large proportion of popular culture glosses over any discussion of objective purpose brought on by apprehension of objective beauty. Russell’s film on the other hand, factual problems aside, depicts those spiritual truths with a powerful boldness and clarity. Perhaps I’m wrong – I’m merely thinking out loud. But it’s worth thinking and talking about. It may well be that KONY 2012 struck such a powerful chord with the internet generation precisely because our popular culture has left that chord woefully un-struck for decades now. It’s sad that the film is riddled with so many factual and practical problems.