For the last year I’ve cautiously watched a debate in Uganda. She is a nation very dear to my heart. My family treasures the eleven years of grace we spent there. Three of my five children were born in Uganda. Two of my five children carry Ugandan passports. Uganda taught me some of my most difficult but treasured lessons of life. I truly can say, “I grew up in Uganda.”
The debate that I have watched concentrates on David Bahati’s introduction into the Parliament of Uganda legislation related to homosexuality. I pastored a small church in Uganda. I volunteered my service with both children’s organizations and media. I have many diverse friends in Uganda. My friendships range from Uganda’s political and media leaders to church members to children who are now the youth of Uganda. I’ve watched as some of my better Uganda friends have become adversaries in this debate. I’ve grieved at what appear to be a lessening of the bonds of friendship in a search for community solutions.
A year ago, I left the Great Lakes region to seek physical healing. While gone I have gone on a pastoral sabbatical. On occasion a friend who knows that I lived in Uganda and consider the protagonists in the debate my friends asks for my perspective. I have cautiously spoken. I’ve read a few stories of homosexual pornography being shown in church. I thought surely that was a media exaggeration. Several weeks ago I saw a television documentary and realized the media reports were true. The profane had entered the sacred. It seemed to me that hatred was overtaking love. When hatred overtakes love the consequence is that fear overtakes courage. In such an emotional climate ignorance overtakes understanding. Such a debate can create opportunity for humanity to fall into our most destructive nature. In such a season it is time for voices of reason and love to speak.
I do not speak under the banner of the church I pastor nor the organization that has sent me to Rwanda. My views do not represent those bodies. I gently asked friends of mine in the media if they would consider a column from me on the homosexuality debate. Though I on occasion do write for independent media outlets none has asked for me to write. In a way I breathed a sigh of relief. I would prefer to be quiet.
Yet on my sabbatical something stirs. Possibly, it is the Spirit of God. Maybe, He is asking for me to write just as a God seeker. This blog is a reflection of that spirit. On it I will not hide under any title, position, or relationship network. These are only the reflections of me as a Jesus follower seeking understanding.
Uganda’s history tells of homosexuality being introduced into her land of fairy tale kingdoms by outsiders. Her history tells of this introduction leading to violence being directed against faithful young Jesus followers. The Baganda found the practice of homosexuality abhorrent. Baganda faced competing interests between Muslim Arab traders, French Catholic missionaries, and Protestant missionaries from the United Kingdom in the early 1880’s. Many believe that Kabaka (King) Mwanga was influenced to become a homosexual practitioner by Arab Muslims. When his pages resisted his homosexual advances it led their martyrdom on June 3, 1886. I cannot imagine that these old stories do not impact today’s perceptions. What I now find ironic is that though Uganda’s early Christians were the victims of homosexual violence some Uganda Christians are now advocates of the death penalty for homosexuals. I believe history teaches that the path of grace and redemption bears the greatest fruit.
It is my perception that Uganda’s prevalent same gender affection is a mark of grace and community. Some of my better advisors have pointed out that Uganda’s tradition of same gender affection is one of the reason that homosexuality tends to be so rare in Uganda. Young men freely express their affection to one another and to the older men who mentor them. Young women also freely express their affection to one another and to the older woman who mentor them. There is no unmet affection need in Ugandan culture for same gender affection. Yet, I observe that one of the first uncomfortable moments Uganda’s visitors experience is watching same gender affection or even experiencing it firsthand. (To be clear for my Bazungu friends hand holding and close physical affection is widely practiced among Uganda friends of the same gender.) Many expatriates assume this same gender affection is a reflection of homosexuality. I believe that assumption is deeply flawed. Same gender affection is a mark of a healthy community.
As a pastor I have experienced some of what stirs our emotions so passionately. I wept several times as I listened to Ugandan youth tell me stories of being seduced by expatriate practitioners of homosexuality. The times when I heard these stories were times when Uganda’s cultural practice of same gender affection and poverty created an opportunity for exploitation. Since I only pastored a small church in Uganda I assume that those who pastor larger churches have more stories to tell than I. During these times my emotions have been full of anger and rage. Deep inside me I sensed the call of victims for justice.
I also have had the experience of being part of a poorly organized international organization that was unable to decisively deal with gross moral failure among its personnel. In those seasons I have argued against cover up, for justice for victims, and for the perpetrator to be removed from his position. I believed that removal and discipline of the perpetrator would actually lead to his personal healing and redemption.
I have also several times while on a ministry sabbatical received a phone call or e-mail from an expatriate friend or colleague crying out for help. My friends had become exploiters. They had removed themselves quietly from positions of influence and leadership, left Africa, and sought healing. I cried at the loss, wrestled with both compassion and anger, and prayed trusting in redemption.
Maybe, this is my biggest concern with Uganda’s debate on homosexuality. It seems that the debate has centered upon judgment and neglected redemption. For those in the daily political arena judgment is part of their responsibility. For those who pastor our responsibility is to explain God’s justice and pray for it. Yet, we entrust justice to God. Out of humanity’s self inflicted disasters we seek to be tools of redemption and healing.
Out of this seeking to be a tool of redemption I offer four suggestions upon Uganda’s debate of legislation related to homosexuality. The first suggestion is to respect the development of democratic institutions and practice. I was at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. when United States President, Barak Obama and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton chose to speak against Uganda’s legislation on homosexual practice. Afterwards, I apologized to my Ugandan and Rwandan friends with whom I shared breakfast. It was my understanding that the breakfast was for the purpose of prayer and that political banter was not to be practiced. It was also my understanding that remarks made at the Prayer Breakfast would not be reported in the media. However, it is now clear these remarks have been widely reported.
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.
My second suggestion is that the time has come for the repeal of capital punishment for sexual offenses. Ethicists around the world still are debating capital punishment. We will likely debate this issue until the end of time. For some it seems that their belief in the sanctity of human life calls them to conclude that punishment that includes the loss of human life falls into the pitfalls of revenge. This offers no communal or personal redemption. It perpetrates cycles of bitterness and resentment that lead to more violence. Others will argue that because human life is sacred the only acceptable means of justice is capital punishment. If life has been taken in anger it must be taken so that humanity’s call for justice is met. Both will quote extensively from the Bible. The pragmatic will debate if capital punishment actually creates a safer society. For my argument, I conclude that though humanity is capable of great evil capital punishment should only be considered when human life has been taken. It should be removed as a justice option for those who offend community sexual morals.
Those of us who observe the pragmatics of capital punishment threats in the face of offended sexual morals notice that frequently this threat is a tool of revenge. It is used as a means to remove offended family honor and elicit financial compensation for the loss. This practice must simply stop. It is time to remove capital punishment as a means of justice in face of offended community sexual morals.
My third suggestion is that legal and institutional means must be developed to protect children. Many of us have experienced the tragedy of Uganda youth being exploited by homosexual practitioners. At each one of those moments we ask ourselves, “How did this happen? What can be done to prevent such tragedy from happening again?” Most of us find the systems in Uganda that should protect children are weak. David Bahiti did see that there are legal holes in Uganda’s legislation. Others have noticed that Uganda’s government services to protect children are understaffed and underfunded. Again, I believe the answer lies in democratic debate, common sense legislation, the strengthening of institutions, and in developing a culture where community leaders are empowered to protect children.
My last suggestion may too strongly reflect my own experiences and wounds. If these are not the thoughts of Jesus follower I ask my community’s forgiveness. My suggestion is that international organizations serving Uganda must be held accountable for the behavior of their expatriate personnel. The incidents of homosexual practitioners exploiting African youth that I know all concern expatriates. Uganda’s Ministry of Internal Affairs should require all international organizations to clarify their mechanisms of international recruitment and screening. Background checks are almost uniformly required in US churches and ministries, but may be lacking in recruitment for international organizations. Though I’ve personally felt weary each time I must bring a police report when I renew my work permit I now see how this is a valuable practice that should continue. When an organization becomes aware that her personnel have been involved in illegal and exploitive relationships they should be required to report it to Ugandan authorities. Too frequently the knee jerk reaction is cover up and a quick exit of the perpetrator. If an international organization is found to have poor screening mechanisms and a culture of cover up I suggest they should leave Uganda and their property be given to another organization that is serious about caring for Uganda’s youth.
The debate concerning legislation on the practice of homosexuality in Uganda is a necessary one for a developing nation. After all a nations future is her youth. Such debates can at times degenerate into a loss of reason, love, and redemption. I am only a God seeker offering my limited wisdom. It seems to me that there are four vital components to this debates resolution. First, those of us from outside Uganda must respect the development of her democratic institutions and process. Second, the time has come to repeal capital punishment for sexual offenses. Third, we must further develop legal and institutional means to protect children. Lastly, international organizations must be held accountable for the behavior of their personnel. May Uganda continue to prosper and bless others as she has blessed me.