If you’re anything like me, you were already beginning to feel a bit of media fatigue by the time you heard about the Jason Russell incident in San Deigo the other night.
Moreover, if you’re anything like me, you may have felt pretty bummed out for the guy. (You may also have made some jokes at his expense at a dinner party last night, and had to admit to everyone there that it was a bit too soon as the conversation stopped, and disapproving eyes shifted in your direction. I’m not saying I did that, but you may have.)
Let’s imagine for a minute what his last couple of weeks have possibly been like. In fact, let’s start a bit further back. Suppose you were a white, Christian, college student in Southern California in the early 21st century. Suppose you were raised in a pretty affluent atmosphere, in an incredibly affluent part of this rotating spaceship we call planet earth. You decided to go to college at USC. While still in attendance there, you took a trip to Uganda and had your world torn asunder by the suffering you saw there.
If this was you, would you have had the courage, patience and vision to co-create and sustain a non-profit like IC? I can’t speak for Russell, since I don’t know him, nor can I speak for all of you. I can, however, speak for myself.
I went to Northern Uganda in January of 2006. Within Evangelical circles at that time, there was nothing more sexy than going to Africa and posting pictures of yourself with African children on your Myspace account (yes, Myspace). There were some other, more virtuous reasons as well, but the important point is that I jumped on the bandwagon. Having done so I wasn’t at all prepared for what my trip would bring me. The suffering that I saw there made previous trips to the slums of Manilla, an orphanage in Bali, shacks on the outskirts of Tijuana and Skidrow in LA, to name a few of the seedier places I have visited in order to “help”, seem like Sunday afternoon outings to the park — you may be interrupted by a homeless man asking for change, but even taking the time to buy the guy lunch is quite manageable.
I am not saying that any humanitarian crisis, poverty stricken city, or situation of oppression is simple, none of them are. What I am saying is that Northern Uganda was a clusterfuck ( see definition two). Between the IDP camps, Museveni’s regime, starvation, the LRA, child soldiers and ex-child soldiers, a corrupt military, homophobia, some of the most extreme poverty I had ever witnessed, the lack of adequate medical supplies to take care of the ring worm methodically digging its way into my favorite (Hurriet) six year old Ugandan girl’s foot, religious divisions, lack of infrastructure, and confusing claims regarding all of these situations coming from multiple sources I was left aghast, lost, and staggering from one crisis to the next with nothing but cold Coca-Cola Classics to comfort me in the balmy evenings.
It’s not an over exaggeration to say that I was thrown into an existential crisis of sorts. By the second week, I sat in my room on most days, reading anything I could get my hands on (which wasn’t much) on development and economics, or theology. It was in Uganda that I decided to go back to grad-school in order to begin to coherently construct some of the questions I was feeling. At the time I though I might even get some answers.
Thus, Uganda and my initial experience there helped set the trajectory that my life has been on for the last six years in a profoundly important way. While my path led me into the endless labyrinth of theology, philosophy, critical theory, economics and political philosophy in order to try and get a better grasp of the complexities of the world we as oppressing, suffering, gracious and spiteful humans inhabit, it led Jason Russel to start Invisible Children with his co-founders. There are few days that go by where I don’t wonder if he, or others like him, haven’t chosen the better course. This includes the last week.
I have no desire to get caught with my pants down running through the streets of San Diego. However, I wouldn’t mind having built an organization that has been a catalyst in shifting US foreign policy, mobilized a massive and passionate following from the supposedly disillusioned Millennial generation, and set a new historical precedent for the powerful use of social media. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t think some of the criticism of IC are to the point, incredibly important, and possibly even devastating. I do, but I’m not interested in getting into that here. If you are interested in that look here, where Netta Pan has done an amazing job of aggregating a lot of the most important information out there. In this day of and age of information overload, this is important work, so much thanks to Ms. Pan for having done so. The Atlantic article, the Foreign Affairs article, and the Securing Rights blog-post are good places to start in my opinion.)
When I got back from Africa, and posted pictures of myself with the Ugandan children I was “saving” on my Myspace account, all of my friends were impressed. Some pretty girls were as well. I inhabited a rather unique space at that point in my life — the cultural-religious milieu of Southern California conservative Evangelicalism. Within this space, the only thing you can do as a young male that is more impressive to the members of the opposite sex than leading a Bible study is going to Africa. I mean for God’s sake the girls were right to express interest; I had reached the pinnacle of Evangelical fervor working itself out in action, and to top that off I had read the entire Bible numerous times! But I digress.
When I got home, I attempted to hide my suspicion that what we had done, were doing and wanted to do in Uganda probably hadn’t and wouldn’t work. I did my best to silence the consistently inconvenient little voice in my head that kept irritatingly suggesting that the version of Christianity I was willfully inhabiting was not working, while I basked in the communal recognition of my glorious adventure into the Heart of Darkness.
I have no idea what doubts, fears, or suspicions Russel has had over the years, nor if he has had any, but I can imagine that it has probably been pretty hard for him to remind himself that what his bowels generate also stinks. What I mean is that if the people I knew thought I was fantastic for going to Uganda, they looked to Russel and the rest of the IC crew as if they were modern day saints. The original Invisible Children video was shown and talked about non-stop for the many years that I slowly faded in and out of this cultural-religious milieu and I’m guessing that it still is today.
In light of this, I’m willing to bet it was more than just a little jarring for the guy to face a massive onslaught of local, national, and international criticism coming right on the heals of a massively successful campaign. If someone had told me that I was a liberal-bourgeoisie, post-colonial, racist, empire inhabiting, ignorant, and hubris laden hypocrite when I had got back from my time in Uganda, while they would have been right, it would have floored me. You couple that with the several years of good old evangelical sexual repression that my 26 year old body had been through and God only knows what drugs I would have taken or what body part I may have pulled out in public.
So, what good is this? What is the point of this somewhat incoherent public self-confession and speculative reconstruction?
What I want to say is this: Mr. Russell, wherever you are located in the actual world, if you happen upon this in the virtual one, know this: I don’t know you, but whatever you did, whether it did or did not include masturbation, and no matter what type of substance you were or were not on, you, my friend, are free. You have hit the bottom, so to speak. You have faced what all of us fear most (other than an all expenses paid trip to Guantanamo, spinal meningitis, or public speaking): you have committed yourself to something you believe in, you have worked passionately and diligently, and when it looked like the achievement of your goal was just around the corner you have come face to face with what must have felt like an assaulting onslaught of criticism that would have devastated even the most hard headed of us. Well, maybe not G.W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, or Donald Trump, but you get my point.
I’m not sure what all of the factors that entered into your escapade were (stress, sexuality, emotions, or maybe just a bit of self-sabotage?), but I encourage you to face them. An old professor of mine once told me to ride the demons all the way down so that I could find what they were hiding. This is good advice. I would add that you also have to learn to love them — the demons. That’s really hard. If you figure out how to do it, please let me know. Lean into your community and if they can’t love you in this, then fuck them, find a new one. While you and I likely disagree on a lot, I think that we may agree on this: Jesus Christ was a badass. It is my belief that he, in whatever way his existence continues in the dance of the life that is God, smiles down on you this day. You are loved. Heal — listen attentively and humbly to your critics and try to learn from them, and then get your butt up and get back to work on whatever it is that you are passionate about. Maybe it will still be Invisible Children. If so, cool. If not, that’s ok as well.
Either way, we need people like you, people who are brave enough, passionate enough, and committed enough to follow their dreams to fruition, even if the stress from doing so does lead them to rock out with their c*#k out from time to time.