Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni last week signed into law the Anti-Homosexual Bill. Social media has been active in the discussion. A multiple of Western nations are considering changing their aid packages to Uganda. Western media has some thoughtful voices speaking. Yet, I can also find some who quickly resort to name calling.
This discussion is very personal one for me. My family was blessed to spend 11 years in Uganda. Many of the media commentators and pastors from Africa’s Great Lakes are my friends. Also, I am privileged to have been friends with some of the Ugandan political leaders. During my missionary posting in Chicago some of our family’s most delightful friendships are with Uganda Diaspora.
So far though there are a multiple of Ugandan pastors and short-term missionaries involved in the Anti-Homosexual Bill I can find few who are offering pastoral reflections. I prayerfully try in the hope that whatever words the Lord may give me will be ones to heal wounds.
THE HISTORICAL WOUNDS ENDURE
My missionary training frequently included the phrase, “Context matters.” I believe it. This concept of seeking to understand is crucial to healing wounds. A gaping hole that I repeatedly see in the discussion of the debate on homosexuality in Uganda is the historical wounds.
Most cultural commentators on Uganda conclude that homosexuality is considered abhorrent. Yet, a few mention that there are some instances of behavior that contemporary humanity would call homosexual. Andrew Mwenda has been one of the more open ones to discuss historical practices of homosexuality in Uganda in pre-colonial periods. As a missionary I asked question after question trying to understand context. A few times I heard stories similar to the ones repeated by my friend, Andrew. Yet, those who whispered these stories to me saw them as fringe behavior in the darker reaches of Ugandan traditional culture. All cultures (including my American one) have fringe places of darkness. I am cautious to make these normative patterns of understanding as they many times further promote prejudice. Yet, to be honest we must acknowledge there is a history of homosexual behavior in pre-colonial Uganda. Yet, those stories are difficult to document and meander into a world of great ambiguity.
However, there is one historical event that I do believe has left a deeply lasting wound in Uganda. On June 3, 1886 Buganda’s Kabaka (King) Mwanga ordered the execution of between 30 and 40 of his pages. Many historians believe the pages were ordered to be executed after their refusal to submit to Kabaka Mwanga’s homosexual advances. These pages were both Catholic and Protestant and some of the earliest Christian converts in Uganda. Though the tragedy took place in Buganda some of the pages were from neighboring tribes. Many in Uganda find the story so embarrassing that they never mention the homosexual parts of the story. Those who do tell the homosexual parts of the story usually include that homosexuality was introduced to Buganda by Arab traders and that it was a new and abhorrent practice in Buganda. The events following the martyrdom led to an increase in the speed of the colonial activity, religious wars, rapid increase in Christian influence, and an enduring story.
|Road to Namugongo, Martyr's Day|
Martyr’s Day on June 3 is a Ugandan National Holiday. All stops and thousands make their way to the Namugongo Shrine where the martyrdom took place. The Ugandan Martyrs are Catholic Saints. Uganda’s history of homosexuality is perceived as one of outside influence and violence. It is little wonder why the discussion on homosexuality so rapidly stirs such deep emotions.
PROTECTING THE VULNERABLE
A basic task of leadership is security of person. Protective leaders scan their surroundings to maintain safety. Humanity is wounded. Our wounds can at times make us wise. At other times they create a sense of paranoia that wounds others. Discernment is our prayer and hope.
With Uganda’s historic wounds her best leaders search to protect the most vulnerable. I perceive two realities that make Uganda’s youth vulnerable in her beginning interactions with homosexuality.
The first vulnerability is Ugandan poverty. Though great economic strides have been made in Uganda from the collapsed state of the 1970’s and 80’s Uganda still is a poor country. A growing middle class is part of Uganda, but there are still young people who struggle to have the basics of life. With such levels of poverty it is very easy to manipulate one into behavior one would not normally do with the promise of money, immigration, jobs and scholarship opportunities.
The second area of vulnerability is Uganda’s culture of same gender affection. In Ugandan culture intimate affection is expressed between those of the same gender with no sexual connotation. For instance, one will frequently see men in Uganda walking the streets holding hands with one another. These men sometimes are the most masculine men that can be found. In school rooms with too few desks one will find several students of the same gender sitting on one another’s lap. Many westerners feel quite uncomfortable when they first have a Ugandan friend of the same gender take their hand on a walking conversation. Some westerners quickly conclude this same gender affection is a mark of homosexuality. It is not. However, with cultural cues so different the potential for misinterpretation and later exploitation is possible
CONTEMPORARY WOUNDS ARE REAL
As I have read Western commentaries on the Ant-Homosexual legislation I have noticed a tendency to not acknowledge contemporary wounds in Uganda. I pastored a church in Kampala and had a high level of community engagement with youth. I can twice remember listening to painful stories as Ugandan youth had fallen into an exploitative homosexual relationship, and we sought through prayer and the grace of God to find healing. The stories were ones of poverty and same gender affection meeting an expatriate who at first seemed helpful, but later developed a surprising sexual component.
I also can twice remember while away from Africa on furloughs communicating with former African missionaries who were in the midst of healing from being such an exploiter. Both situations were ones of tragedy. I have pastorally listened to both sides. God made humanity in His image. We are full of dignity by the proclamation of God. Yet, we are all also depraved and do the most horrible things. Our contemporary wounds are real. Through the Lord’s grace we seek healing.
I also am friends with a number of Diaspora from Africa’s Great Lakes who have traveled to Western nations to study. I have lost track of the number of times in visiting with Diaspora students they explain the confusion of first meeting homosexuals. The nuance and cultural cues of our different cultures make misunderstanding likely. With so many misunderstandings the potential for wounds is great. Healing must be sought.
The narrative that I have frequently experienced in listening to these types of stories has some consistent themes. My friends in the midst of healing from what they did to their fellow man tell stories of a dysfunctional childhood home and early exposure to pornography.
Yet, I can read of other narratives that don’t include these types of stories. I believe we need to listen well to other narratives. In God’s family there is always room for conversation.
While these wounds are real I also need to mention they are rare. If my averages are consistent with other pastors in Africa healing from homosexual exploitation is a pastor’s task about once every 4 to 5 years. I have lost track of the number of times pastoral counseling involved healing from heterosexual exploitation. My sense is that heterosexual exploitation is much more prevalent than homosexual exploitation. Both require governments to develop strong measures of legal protection.
DEMOCRACY IS MESSY
In the debate concerning the signing of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality act there have been several positions taken that I believe are ill advised to heal wounds. One has been the approach of Western nation’s leaders that seems to forget democracy is a messy endeavor. Democracy evolves. It reflects shifting society morals. History finds that almost all democracies do things that later generations will find flawed. Thus fear of our own arrogance is one of the most appropriate states of democratic wisdom.
Four years ago I was at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC when United States President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke against the proposed Uganda homosexual legislation (http://jenkinsinrwanda.blogspot.com/2010/07/pastoral-reflections-on-ugandas.html.) I wrote,
“I believe that we live in a global community in which it is acceptable for friends to widely and graciously advise one another. However, I also believe that sometimes global advice can degenerate into the powerful manipulating those who have less global influence. I found it disturbing that though David Bahati was the author of Uganda’s legislation and Edward Ssekandi is the Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not mention a phone call to either of them. Instead, she clarified that she had called Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to voice her disapproval of the legislation. It seemed to me that a phone call to President Museveni communicates that the United States government is more comfortable with a developing nation where one individual personally influences national policy than one in which democratic practice is debated and decided in community. David Bahati saw a problem in Uganda. He introduced legislation that he saw as a solution. Now, Uganda debates his proposal. This is how parliamentary democracy functions. We in the west would be well served to allow Uganda to debate and decide without our manipulation. Those of us who are only visitors or friends to Uganda must allow Uganda to develop her own democratic institutions and practice.”
I am at the same place today. As time has gone on the death penalty has been removed from the legislation. Then Uganda’s parliament, religious organizations, N.G.O.’s, and media thoroughly debated the bill. It was passed by Parliament. Then President Museveni signed the bill into law. Though we may have concerns, democracy worked in a democratic way in Uganda. All the polls show that the majority of Ugandans approve of the legislation. In a short amount of time the legislation will be tested in Uganda’s courts. If history is a marker the Anti-Homosexuality law will be practically modified many times in the next few years.
The banter of Western nation’s leaders is an inappropriate muscle flexing mechanism that I believe discourages the development of democratic institutions in both Uganda and around the world. Emperors tell other sovereign nations what do with threats. Democracy calls for discussion. Because of our flawed human condition democracy is always messy. Grace is our hope.
MOB JUSTICE IS IMMORAL
Another approach that will not heal the wounds is mob justice. In seasons of communal frustration we take matters into our own hands. Someone must pay. History is filled with stories of the injustices of angry mobs crying for blood. Maybe, the most enduring and indicting story of an ungodly mob is the one crying for Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. All humanity at one time or another has participated in mob justice. Whether we were a school bully or a self-righteous religious hypocrite we have all participated. It is immoral. Repentance is required.
There is no place for publicly naming and shaming. Healing requires confidences. There is no place to grab a suspect, host an impromptu court, and brutalize another. Justice requires law, the establishment of truth, and measured punishments. The goal of justice is a reconciled community. Mob justice makes reconciliation impossible.
If one does a twitter search on “Uganda” most of the hits the last week have concerned this legislation. Yet, when one reads New Vision (http://www.newvision.co.ug/) or Monitor (http://www.monitor.co.ug/) (Uganda’s leading daily newspapers) it seems that Ugandans have much more on their mind. Ugandan media and churches are discussing many more matters. I suspect that this legislation has become the priority of westerners and neglected that the Ugandan public finds other matters to prioritize.
History may find that the Anti-Homosexual legislation was nothing more than a political show for partisan purposes. Yet, history will speak most clearly in the contemporary times as we are faithful with the task of today.
Let us today make the well being of our neighbors the highest priority. As our neighbors are diverse so will be the daily tasks. All of these tasks seek a better day. We believe this world is wounded and flawed. Yet, our Lord teaches us that redemption is possible.
REDEMPTION IS POSSIBLE
My greatest concern in this debate is the neglect of redemption. The dictionary defines redemption as “atoning for a fault or mistake” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/redemption,) “to make (something that is bad, unpleasant, etc.) better or more acceptable, to free from what distresses or harms, to free from captivity by payment of ransom, to extricate from or help to overcome something detrimental, to release from blame or debt, to free from the consequences of sin” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/redeem.) Both extremists in this debate seem to have lost sight of the possibility of redemption.
As I read the law a homosexual can be sentenced to life imprisonment (http://wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/files/2014/02/Anti-Homosexuality-Act-2014.pdf.) The intent of the law seems to be protection of the vulnerable. Yet the law could easily be a lifetime punishment of private consensual homosexual activity. With such a law how is redemption possible? The law has made the historic mistake of law. It neglected forgiving grace and the power of change.
Those who oppose the law also neglect redemption. Many of their arguments demean those who believe change is possible. They argue that homosexuality is a fixed state unable to change.
Both extremes leave our community tattered and torn.
Master missionary Paul wrote,
“Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10. New Living Translation.)”
The most terrifying words are that none of us can escape this condemnation. There are some sins we find culturally abhorrent in Paul’s list, but when it comes to making material things our pursuit (idolatry), small acts of theft, and anger we’re most likely all guilty. Paul in another passage wrote,
“For we have already shown that all people … are under the power of sin. (Romans 6:9. New Living Translation.)”
None of us is righteous. We’re all guilty. If the mob has to sacrifice someone it might as well be me.
Yet, the story is not over. Paul tells about the start of a new church plant in Corinth,
“Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 9:11. New Living Translation.)”
If 2,000 years ago God could redeem such morally bankrupt people and turn them into a vibrant church He can do the same thing today. The extremists are mistaken. Redemption is possible.
THE LEGITIMACY OF THE MISSIONARY IMPULSE
In the discussion many have pointed out that Uganda’s Anti-Homosexual law was promoted by conservative American evangelical short-term missionaries. I can understand their reasoning. Yet I disagree. I define a missionary as one sent by the Holy Spirit to a new location to make disciples, develop churches, and usher in kingdom possibilities. To be a missionary requires for one to become a master of a place that will always be foreign. There is no such thing as a short-term missionary. Missionaries listen and serve before speaking. Those who speak quickly are simply meddlers.
Paul was a missionary. The Roman world was changed by his missionary impulse. He was a master of contemporary languages and cultures. He offended many, but his chief offense was his steadfast belief in the possibility of redemption because of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
All cultures are in need of missionaries in their midst. Recent historians have argued that missionaries actually promote a culture of democracy (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html.)
The missionary impulse is a legitimate one not only in Uganda, but in America. I’m a newbie in Chicago. Yet, I’ve been dumbfounded by watching Chicago dig out from snow. In Africa’s Great Lakes our best leaders insist that in the midst of nature’s obstacles our community serves our most vulnerable. I can’t believe it as I watch single moms, the elderly, and the disabled deal with Chicago snow.
It is because of this hope that I write this blog. Uganda is dear to me. The wounds are real. Democracy is messy. Redemption is possible. We must attempt to heal the wounds.