November 17, 2008

The Lord's Resistance Army

Joseph KonyChances are, if you hear anything about Uganda on the evening news, it will have something to do with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). This terrorist organization is led by Joseph Kony, a spirit medium seeking to establish an independent state based on a synthesis of Christianity, Islam, and local (Acholi) beliefs and traditions. Kony and his LRA are widely known for abducting children and using them as soldiers and slaves in their ongoing war, which has created a humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda.

There are few in-depth analyses of the LRA that discuss its cultic dynamics. Thus I was glad to discover an article on the LRA in the latest issue of the Cultic Studies Review (Vol. 7, No. 2), published by the International Cultic Studies Association.

“Innocent Murderers? Abducted Children in the Lord’s Resistance Army” was written by Terra Manca, a master’s student at the University of Alberta, and probes the history, beliefs, and practices of the LRA, with an emphasis on its use of child soldiers. The article’s abstract states:
For over twenty-one years, a guerrilla force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been terrorizing the people of northern Uganda. The LRA abducts children to help it fight against local civilians and the Ugandan government. LRA commanders use extreme violence to control these children. The LRA justifies the use of this violence with its secretive spiritual and political ambitions. Many of the children in the LRA commit horrendous acts, such as mutilations and murders, against civilians in a effort to survive while they await the opportunity to escape. Some of these children eventually internalize the violence that the LRA subjects them to and become willing participants in the movement. In this article, I discuss how to the LRA’s organization, its use of religious doctrine, and its use of physical coercion manipulate children in an effort to create obedient member of the LRA.
Manca begins by summarizing the historical milieu in which the LRA was born. During the colonial period, Christian missionaries brought the gospel with them, but due to a lack of contextualization Christianity was largely mixed with local traditional beliefs. Additionally, the British generally divided Uganda into the North and South, with the North mainly used as a source of soldiers, labor, and foodstuffs while the South was developed commercially. This separation continued once Uganda gained independence, with the North generally on the losing side of dictatorial rule and political struggles. Many Northern soldiers eventually formed a rebel army to liberate themselves from the oppressive central government. Their ongoing struggle left them at odds with the current administration of President Yoweri Museveni and ripe for Kony to take over what rebel soldiers remained from the conflict, including remnants of the Holy Spirit Mobile Force led by Kony’s cousin, Alice Lakwena.

At first, Northern Ugandans were tolerant of Kony’s group, as they had never enjoyed a good relationship with the government in the South; but by the early 1990s, the focus of the LRA changed from fighting the Southern army to “purifying” the Northern Acholi people themselves. Kony began forcibly abducting children to join the LRA because of his belief that they are ideal for building his future “pure” race and bringing about his dream society.

Because the traditional African worldview doesn’t distinguish between the sacred and the secular, the LRA becomes hard for Westerners to classify. It’s a terrorist organization, a religious movement, and a counterculture all wrapped into one. Consequently, children who want to escape the LRA struggle with physical coercion, spiritual manipulation, and social ostracism. Most live in constant fear for their very lives and completely surrender to their commanders to survive. Some eventually internalize the LRA’s ideology as their own. Still others risk death to escape to freedom (to appreciate the plight of children who leave the cult, see the documentary film War/Dance).

Manca’s article goes into far greater depth than I can cover in this post, including the role of spiritualism in the LRA and a description of the nightmarish life of the cult’s children.

In any case, she has produced an insightful and detailed overview of an important and complex situation in contemporary East Africa. Since her analysis was written from a strictly secular perspective, numerous questions remain, especially concerning the spiritual side of the LRA. For example, how should Christians further research the movement and critically engage it with the revealed truth of our Savior? And how can we reach out with the Gospel to members of the LRA specifically, and to the Acholi people generally? These and other fundamental issues must be carefully addressed as the Africa Center for Apologetics Research develops.