Homophobia in Uganda: Is Christianity the problem or the solution?
I would imagine that most of you are pretty familiar with the so-called ‘Anti-homosexuality Bill’ that is currently on the table in the Ugandan parliament. It is basically a law, that will get passed at some point or other, that seeks to effectively eradicate public homosexuality in Uganda. It has a wide media coverage, was featured on a recent Stephen Fry BBC documentary, and has its own Wikipedia site! It’s everywhere. I think it’s interesting that, as far as I can see, this bill is fast becoming the most famous thing about Uganda. It used to be Idi Amin. But I reckon now ‘gay-hating’ is the first thing many Westerners think about when they hear the word ‘Uganda’. This is largely thanks to a media campaign waged in the West against this bill.
The first thing to point out is that, and I dearly wish the British media would read the bill before they speak about it (as I have done) there is no mention at all of a death sentence. So automatically, when you find articles that talk about killing gays, you should discount them as uninformed and hyperbolic (Yes, you, The Guardian, and The New York Times and Washington Post).
At the risk of being misunderstood, allow me to say straight up, as if it were necessary, that of course I’m not in favour of the bill. I find it bigoted and prejudiced. But that’s not what this blog post is about. I want to draw attention to the thoughtless and unmerited narrative surrounding the bill as it is being increasingly portrayed in the Western secular media. And what is that? Well, it’s that this bill is the fault of Christianity. And more specifically, the result of foreign Christian missionaries to Uganda.
The argument basically goes like this (and this is only mildly exaggerated and paraphrased): Before Christian missionaries came, Uganda was a peaceable and safe country, tolerant and respectful. However Christian missionaries, having lost the ‘culture-wars’ in the secular West, subsequently chose Uganda to be the base of what they hope to be a worldwide spread of a massive anti-homosexual movement. Therefore missionaries are flooding into Uganda to preach their gospel of hate, using their vast material wealth to coax and coerce naïve Ugandan Christians into persecuting homosexuals. Uganda is therefore now, as a direct consequence of this, a bigoted and hateful society (regularly killing homosexuals) because of Christian missionaries. Another example of how Christianity is very, very bad for the world. And Africa in particular (where of course secularists are starting to notice that Christianity is in fact rather popular).
Now this narrative is spreading fast through print media. And it’s about to become a lot more widespread. There is a new feature-length documentary that’s just come out in cinema’s, called ‘God Loves Uganda’. Although it has a fairly limited showing in the UK, that may change soon. After all, It’s made the Oscars shortlist. Now I’m not able to view the film here. You may not be surprised to hear that it’s not common in Uganda! However I can view the trailer, and also can watch online the 8-minute film the director previously that basically acts as the precursor to the new feature-length film (and, presuming that the full movie is simply an extension of the shorter version, then it is going to contain some worryingly poor documentary-making. You can read some of my thoughts in discussion with Mark Meynell and Eddie Arthur, in the comments section here ) And sure enough, it would appear that the film very much supports the assumed narrative I outlined above. (By the way, if you want to read a long but interesting rebuttal, almost blow-by-blow, of this film, John Stackhouse has written for Christianity Today magazine here)
So, what is the West doing? Well, putting a lot of pressure on Uganda to immediately drop this bill! Facebook groups, governments threatening to cut aid, President Obama has spoken out, huge petitions, and even Amnesty International has got involved.
However I think it is worth pointing out (and living in Uganda for the past 2 years puts me in a good position to do this) that, ironically, much of this Western pressure on the Ugandan parliament and Uganda and in general is actually having the opposite affect that what they intend. Even in the time we’ve lived here, we’ve seen the anti-colonial narrative strengthen and strengthen in his country. Uganda, rightly so, is loosing the shackles of dependency on the West in many ways (financial, political, spiritual, and moral). No longer is West always best. Absolutely right, of course. And therefore Uganda is actually very, very proud of defiantly ‘standing up to’ Western moralistic bullying against it. And I use the word ‘bullying’ carefully here. Look at this recent story from the BBC news: The University of Buckinghamshire is now officially refusing to accredit any courses in Uganda, and has cut off its entire links with one of Kampala’s top private universities, Victoria University, SIMPLY because Victoria University is, well, in Uganda, and Uganda is the home of this bill. Note that Victoria University didn’t at any point explicitly support this bill, or deny any rights to homosexual students, or do or say anything about the bill. They are simply Ugandan. And that’s enough for them to have to find a new accreditor (actually, just recently, they failed to do this and have now shut down all operations, with hundreds of students having lost all their tuition fees). Note also that this bill isn’t even law! Just the fact that it’s been proposed is enough for the University of Buckinghamshire to abandon its partner. The point is that they, and many other Western donors and charities, and trying to frighten, threaten, and yes, bully, Uganda into changing its direction. However it really, really isn’t working. From where I’m standing, the louder the West shouts, the deeper Uganda digs in. And Uganda has dug in.
As far as I can tell, there are very few Christians in the West who are really challenging this prevailing and presumed narrative which says Christianity and Christian missionaries are very bad for Uganda and Africa. In fact, sometimes there are good and decent Christians propagating this narrative too, seemingly wanting to apologise to the world for what the world tells us that our own people are doing. I’m guessing that they hope, by agreeing with all this, that the world will differentiate between the crazies and the normal Christians. And it seems to me that much of that is borne of a desperation to be liked by the world. Of course that’s not what happens. All that happens is that, with the tacit approval and acceptance of the narrative by many Christians, the whole faith (including us) is allowed to be denigrated and ridiculed. And when it comes to this issue, please believe me, it really is. Look at some of the comment articles in the above news articles. The level of disgust and venom is extraordinary. People who outwardly wish to adhere to tolerant secular views are, seemingly without any sense of irony or humour, suggesting that all Christian missionaries in Uganda should be shot. Or at least banned. Most of the expat community in Kampala is secular, and as people who naturally take an interest in what the Western media is saying about Uganda, they are starting to get very angry with people like me, who they are told are preaching hate, and it seems to be getting worse and worse. Seriously, this is not a good time to be a missionary in Uganda if you want the world to think well of you.
So, now that I’ve explained what’s going on, let me try and explain why I think this popular narrative in the West concerning this bill is nonsense. And let me explain that by telling a quick story…
Last month, Ros went a church event. I’m purposely being coy about the details on a public blog. At this event, organised by and attended by many Christians and Christian leaders in Kampala, the speaker held up a small stick. They then explained that, if you put this stick in a pot of goat stew (must be goat – the speaker was most clear about that) and leave it for several minutes, then feed the stew to your family, then your family that had previously been argumentative and disunited will, immediately, be of one mind in a happy, peaceful harmony. The speaker told stories of how well this trick had worked in their own family. They was happy to admit that this advice came from African traditional witch doctors, but the speaker ‘Christianised’ it by suggesting you should put the stick into the stew ‘in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.
Now that’s syncretism. That’s taking old religion, witch-doctery, dressing it up in a desperately thin veneer of Christianity, and bringing slap bang into the heart of the church. And sadly this kind of thing happens up and down this country every week, in churches. We heard this week of an active church-goer who, when annoyed by someone, went to the local witch-doctor, got some charms and curses etc. and hid them in the room of the one they were annoyed with. I could tell you story after story like this.
My point is that, the more time we spend here, the more we realise that Christianity here has barely scratched the surface of many people’s worldview, morality, and belief system. Of course that’s not true for everyone. But it’s true for many (and significantly, the amazing and wonderful people that it’s not true for, those folk here who we love and admire and learn so much from, unbelievably good people, would be very quick to admit it is true for many). When you see and hear some of what goes on here, by people who outwardly are the most faithful of church-goers, it feels impossible to reconcile that with some of the statistics that show Uganda to be one of the most evangelised and ‘Christian’ countries on earth.
And yet article after article and film after film is telling us to believe that Christianity has not only penetrated so deeply into so many people’s deepest belief systems that it affects their sexual attitudes, but that it has done it so significantly that this has been translated into national laws in parliament!. No way. Seriously. No way. On a purely anecdotal level, I am continually shocked by the levels of wife-beating, rape, child-abuse, polygamy, adultery, and sexual immorality in many churches here. And yet these journalists want us to believe that this same faith, that is inwardly rejected and ignored by so many in churches, is held to so passionately as to change the laws of the whole country. Have these people ever even been to Uganda I wonder?
So what is behind this bill, you ask? Simple. Traditional Ugandan views about sexuality. Uganda, with or without Christianity, is not a place that is readily tolerant of homosexual activity. This is true in the Christian community, the Muslim community, and the ‘traditional ethno-religious’ community (unaffected by any Western missionary work or imposition of ‘outside’ religion). In fact, in that latter community, I would imagine that the support of this law, and vehement and angry opposition to homosexuality, is even greater. To put it simply, this law comes from Ugandan culture. Not Ugandan Christianity. Christianity has barely impacted upon culture here.
For example, take a look at this article from the main newspaper in Uganda, entitled “Homosexuality: Is it a normal or sick lifestyle”. Without any suggestion of religious argument or influence, the author concludes that homosexuality is “at best a result of severe developmental problems” and therefore “a normal person, that is, a heterosexual, should under ordinary circumstances find the very idea of homosexuality repugnant.”
Now it is certainly true to say that many Ugandans, nominally within the Christian community, would use Christianity as a rhetorically-useful ‘peg’ to hang this law on. That much is well documented. There are a few clips going around of preachers and church leaders supporting this bill. But that’s all it is – a peg. Many Christians here argue passionately that women should never wear trousers. That is their traditional culture. When Christianity came to Uganda new converts worked hard to justify that practice using their new religion, and although they have tried hard to find a few OT-law verses to justify it, they really can’t. Does their belief change? No (or not yet anyway for many) Traditional culture just gets brought into the new religion instead of allowing the new to shape and interpret and renew and transform the old.
And its similar with attitudes to homosexuality. The vast majority of Christians in this country have never met or spoken with a Western missionary. And nor have their leaders. Many of these attitudes about homosexuality come direct from traditional Ugandan culture. Of course these attitudes may change in the future. But if they do, much as the secularists would scoff at this, it will most likely be because of Christianity, as churches preach a message of godly love and kindness towards active homosexuals here, thereby opposing the culturally-driven anger and violence towards homosexuals we too-often see. The sad reality for Western secularists is that their worldview has little to say to change Ugandan attitudes to homosexuality. They can go on about ‘human rights’ as much as they want, but the more they shout, the more they get ignored. The best hope for a Uganda that is safe for homosexuals is, of course, the gospel. The gospel that shows us that all people are created in God’s image and loved by him, the gospel that shows us how much God truly wants to rescue and redeem his people The gospel that promotes humble, gracious, non-violent love towards all people. The gospel that welcomes all people to confess that Jesus is Lord and unite together in a broken but re-built community of Christ (Ephesians 2:17-22)
And so, for the sake of Ugandan homosexuals, Ugandan Christians, and missionaries in Uganda, please don’t let this nasty, secularist, hate-filled narrative of Christianity in Uganda go unchallenged. Your future heavenly Ugandan co-worshippers around the throne will be grateful that you didn’t.