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Old Wine, New Bottles Department: Rush Limbaugh, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Taiping Rebellion

Calling out Rush Limbaugh for being an intellectually flatulent moron is certainly batting at low hanging fruit, but his comments last week criticizing the Obama Administration plan committing US special forces to Uganda to assist in the fight against the morally repugnant leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army was an immensely whimsical foray into the realm of the truly stupid:

From Rush’s site:

Now, up until today, most Americans have never heard of the combat Lord’s Resistance Army.  And here we are at war with them.  Have you ever heard of Lord’s Resistance Army, Dawn?  How about you, Brian?  Snerdley, have you?  You never heard of Lord’s Resistance Army?  Well, proves my contention, most Americans have never heard of it, and here we are at war with them.  Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians.  It means God.  I was only kidding.  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.  That’s what the lingo means, “to help regional forces remove from the battlefield,” meaning capture or kill.

So that’s a new war, a hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda, and — (interruption) no, I’m not kidding.

Okay, so Rush is an idiot. What’s amazing is that nobody on his staff (Brian? Snerdley?) has ever heard of Google.

Graeme Wood, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, went to Uganda last year and came away with a slightly different take than Rush regarding the LRA and the LRA’s apparently completely batshit insane commander, Joseph Kony:[1]

Formed in 1987, the group is motivated by a complex mix of fundamentalist Christianity and allegiance to the traditions of the Acholi people of northern Uganda. Its leader, General Joseph Kony, aims to dislodge the Ugandan government headed by Yoweri Museveni and replace it with one led by northerners, who enjoyed privileged status during the first 20 years of Uganda’s independence. But when Museveni’s military drove the LRA out of the nation in 1994, the group initiated a period of brutal wandering. Uganda’s northern and western neighbours, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have each taken turns as bases for the rebels, who move in small, ultraviolent gangs that abduct villagers, drug them and force them to work and fight for the insurgency. The LRA prefers to kidnap children, who are taught the Acholi language and raised to revere Kony. (They learn that powerful magic protects Kony from the Ugandan military, and that he can appear and disappear at will.) An American diplomat in Bangui compared the group to the Manson family, but given that the LRA has killed 12,000 people, the comparison is self-evidently unfair to Manson.

In a 2009 Vanity Fair piece, Christopher Hitchens was even more blunt:

This grotesque, zombie-like militia, which has abducted, enslaved, and brainwashed more than 20,000 children, is a kind of Christian Khmer Rouge and has for the past 19 years set a standard of cruelty and ruthlessness that—even in a region with a living memory of Idi Amin—has the power to strike the most vivid terror right into the heart and the other viscera.

Rush’s endorsement of anybody who calls themselves “Christian” is hardly a new form of lunatic Western punditry.  In fact it reminds me of many Western writers’ uncritically jubilant celebration of the Taiping Rebellion, the cataclysm which shook the Qing Empire to its very foundations in the middle decades of the 19th century.  Like the LRA, the Taiping were a group whose ideology was, to put it charitably, based on Christian teachings even as the rebellion’s leader Hong Xiuquan gradually changed and twisted those teachings to suit his increasingly bizarre worldview.

Now to be fair, there’s nothing in the historical record to suggest the Taiping organized a systematic campaign of terror and mutilation such as the LRA have inflicted on the people of Uganda and Sudan, but conservative estimates for the number of civilian and military causalities associated with the nearly 15-year war to suppress the Taiping total in the tens of millions, and certainly some of the Taiping tactics (especially when the target were Manchus) could be…baroque to say the least.

That still didn’t stop quite a few Western missionaries and foreign pundits from gushing at the possibilities for Taiping success.  As Hong and his “God Worshipping Society” were just getting started in South China, Issachar Roberts, the Tennessee preacher who once upon a time had taught Hong Xiuquan about Christianity, exclaimed:

“Behold, what God hath wrought! Not only opened China externally for the reception of the teachers of the gospel, but now one has risen up among themselves, who presents the true God for their adoration, and casts down idols with a mighty hand, to whom thousands and tens of thousands of people are collecting!”[2]

Hong Xiuquan

Many other missionaries working in China also saw the Taiping as the best chance of realizing their dream for a mass conversion of the Chinese nation…That is until some of these same missionaries actually met with Hong and heard about some of his interesting alterations to Christian doctrine, notably the inclusion of Hong himself into the divine hierarchy as God’s other son, the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

It probably didn’t help Hong’s chances for foreign support that he was so adamantly committed to stamping out the trade in opium and saw himself, as did the Qing Emperors, as a universal ruler to whom all must submit…although being handpicked by the Christian God rather than Heaven’s Mandate was a nice touch.

Hong’s Kingdom of Heavenly Peace was finally defeated by a combination of local armies raised, funded, and trained by provincial officials, along with a little help from various foreign-led units, and the Hong’s version of Christian theology passed into history, making those who signed up early in support of his crusade look eternally foolish.

Just add Rush’s name to that list of fools.

[1] h/t Blake Hounsell’s excellent round-up of links related to Rush’s comments and the LRA.  FWIW, I’m not endorsing sending US troops to open up yet another front in the “War on Terror,” although the LRA certainly seem like a worthy enough target.

[2] Paul French. Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), p. 40. See also Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p. 54.