Holy Martyrs of Uganda, pray for us

A Sermon for the
Feast of
Archbishop Janani Luwum

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

February 19, 2020

Archbishop Luwum.jfif

While attending graduate school at the Jesuit University of New York City—the Rose Hill Campus of Fordham University, in the Bronx–I lived and worked part time at St. Benedict Parish in Throgg’s Neck. It was one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese of New York and had a congregation of around 4,000 members. As a result, there were LOTS of funerals, weddings, and baptisms. Consequently, it had a large staff. One night at supper there were six priests at the table: two from Nigeria, one from India, one from Sri Lanka, and two from the U.S. It was at that point that we realized that all of us were from former British Colonies! It really was a fascinating conversation. Four of the priests had actually been raised in areas controlled by the British—and the two U.S. citizens were shocked to learn how similar the experiences of education and politics had been for the other more recently “liberated colonials.”

The sad reality, though, was that each of us acknowledged, to a greater or lesser degree the negative impact which that colonial legacy had on our countries. While most of Africa and Asia which had been controlled by Britain had not found it necessary to engage in a bloody revolutionary war to gain independence, so many of those areas had been devastated by bitter partisan wars after the British left. This was especially true of Africa.

One has only to think of Nigeria, for instance. When the Europeans sat down at a table at the “Congress of Berlin,” in 1878 and “carved up Africa” into spheres of influence, they gave no consideration to the indigenous peoples who lived there. They lumped together peoples who had been at war for centuries and who spoke over three hundred different languages—not dialects! Oddly enough, English allowed all of them the possibility of communicating with each other—something which had been impossible previously.

When the British left, though, it was a bit like the collapse of Yugoslavia after the fall of communism. Without an autocratic central authority to force everyone to obey, chaos broke out and violent struggle ensued. Sadly, in many cases, the military seized control and dictatorships emerged. Those who often were from out of power tribes were violently oppressed.

I could say, “ironically,” but instead, I will say “Providentially,” there was one—and really only one autonomous source—which was able to “speak truth to power,” and that was the Christian Church. In the case of so many countries in Africa, that meant the Anglican Church. One has only to think of South Africa, for instance, and of Bishop Tutu.

Uganda was a different reality. In Uganda, Christianity had struggled from the beginning with violent oppression. The faith which emerged in Uganda had been sown in the blood of the martyrs. As Wiki tells us: “The Uganda Martyrs are a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887. They were killed on orders of Mwanga II, the Kabaka (King) of Buganda.”

In the twentieth century, a new “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” came to power in Uganda. Idi Amin. I grew up hearing horror tales about him—he is even alleged to have gone so far as to have consumed the roasted flesh of his enemies—following their brutal torture and execution. He appears to have been willing to use all the power at his control to take down anyone who opposed him—even in the smallest way.

Today we recall the brave Christians who stood up to Amin—remembering especially the clergy of Uganda-and Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was martyred under orders from Amin in February 1977.

The challenge which faces us today, is to recognize the evil legacy of imperialism. We care called to love, honor, and respect the dignity of every person—without exception. May we continue to struggle against unjust regimes which brutalize and oppress those who are most vulnerable—in every part of the world. And, through the intercession of all the martyrs of Uganda, may their beloved country truly know justice and peace.

A final, and slightly unrelated thought. If you would like to view a fascinating movie which depicts the horrors of life in Uganda in the 1970’s, I recommend the 1991 movie, Mississippi Masala, starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury.

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