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Catching Kony…

April 4, 2013

I was teaching on the cross last week (as in ‘about the cross’, as opposed to…well, whatever) when I encountered a massive cultural difference that hit me square in the face:

I was trying to get over to them the idea of God’s justice in dealing with sin…it must be punished. I wanted them to realise that, as humans, we all long for justice to be done. I tried to ground this in real Ugandan life so asked them a question that I thought would resonate deeply:

“What would you want to see happen to Joseph Kony (Ugandan warlord who has been responsible for the rape and murder of thousands, currently on the run in the jungle) if he were caught and brought to Kampala”

I was expecting them to reveal the ‘innate’ human desire for justice….jail him, hang him, make him pay back all the victims in any way possible.

Instead, the whole class agreed: Let him go. For free. No trial, no truth, no punishment. Just forgive him, and let him go.

Well that took my breath away (and scuppered entirely the point I was trying to make). I tried another one…what if your wife was raped? Same response.

This explains a lot of what we see here. Amongst Christians (and remember over 85% describe themselves as Christians) there is a tendency to be reluctant to punish anyone. We know ‘Christian’ charity/aid/NGO/church workers who have stolen huge amounts of money, been involved in huge sex scandals, or even child abuse, and rarely face any censure. The worst that happens is often they get moved to a different role within the same organisation. It’s almost unheard of to find someone losing their job here.

When you see a huge corruption scandal in Uganda (and believe me, rarely a day goes by when you don’t) often the response is simply that the person has to pay back the money. OK, at least that is a punishment, but given that this is sometimes years later, and they have made loads of money on it by investing it, it doesn’t seem much of a punishment or deterrent.

So, what’s going on? I don’t know. I think partly it’s a misunderstanding of the cross, whereby they think that God forgives us by just forgetting. I think it’s partly a shame-based culture thing, where actually just the sheer publicising of the sin is considered punishment enough. I think it’s partly a misunderstanding of God’s provision of government to bless and punish, and I think it’s partly an effort, so common here, to try and out-do others in terms of holiness.

One of our observations of parenting here (generalisation alert: I know, I know) is that it ranges between extreme harshness (severe beatings, quite nasty language and brutal tone) and extreme freedom (many parents seem desperately reluctant to inflict any punishment on any kid, and tend to just give in to whatever they want). The latter would fit with this idea of ‘we must forgive, and forget, and not punish’.

My students were aghast, quite genuinely aghast, when I suggested that I could forgive someone who did something terrible against me or my family, but still testify against them in court. We spent an hour debating it, but they still looked at me with complete horror at the thought.

Finally, this is also a culture where regularly, regularly, without any trial, explanation, and sometimes in cases of misunderstanding or mistaken identity, suspected thieves (note ‘suspected’) are chased down by strangers on the street and beaten to death. Doesn’t even make the news when it happens here. I’ve seen it happen (and I’ve also thought that, if I were mugged, I’d think twice about calling out for help). So this idea of forgiveness, leniency, and no punishment doesn’t seem to apply here. Quite the opposite.

Which means, like almost every aspect of Ugandan culture, I get so muddled up mentally with apparent contradictions and confusions that I give up even trying to figure it out and quickly retreat into my well-worn cosy mental shell of ‘I just don’t get Uganda’.

And you know, I really don’t.


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  1. Really glad I’ve found your blog mate. I want to read it all now! This whole issue of forgiveness/justice is particularly interesting. I’d love to see what some East African guys think of this. Do you mind if I repost it on my blog?

    • Hey buddy – of course. Go ahead. Would be fascinaed to see any responses or thoughts – I’m still stumped, although Alan Purser had some interesting thoughts on it recently which I’ll forward to you too. Following your blog too now. Look forwrda to reading more,

      Speak soon, Chris

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  1. Catching Kony: forgiveness and punishment in East Africa | Watumishi wa Neno

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