Monday, February 12, 2007
Getting the story "straight"
My dear friend and sister clergy, Ann Fontaine of Wyoming, posted a note on the House of Bishops/Deputies (HOB/D) Listserve about her memory of her trip to Dar es Salaam.
"St. Alban's Cathedral in Dar es Salaam is a lovely place. When I attended church there (on a Partner-in-Mission visit of several weeks) in 1985 they sang hymn tune froms the English hymnal in a very slow tempo and in Swahili. Tanzania was a lovely place with incredible hospitality and I assume it remains. There was a startling painting of the Martyrs of Uganda - young people who were murdered by the King for not doing his sexual will."
I had to respond to Ann:
"This was not about "young people who were murdered by the King for not doing his sexual will." That is not the whole story. Indeed, it is dangerous to promote this incorrect perspective, because it is one which simply perpetuates the misunderstanding of the difference between human sexuality verses how a sex act can be used as an act of violence and humiliation.
This is not a story about the "evils of homosexuality" any more than the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) is about homosexuality. It is a story about how rape - of women and men - has been and continues to be used as a vehicle of dominance and abusive power.
I first learned the fullness of this story from a lovely Ugandan priest when I was in Canterbury during Lambeth 1998. The perspective of "young people who were murdered by the King for not doing his sexual will" was being promoted by the neo-Puritan evangelical conservatives to whip up the bishops of the Global South and sympathetic Europeans, as well as the international media, against the issue of homosexuality.
As a devout Ugandan Christian, my priest friend was angry and embarrassed by the way the story of The Martyrs was being used, saying to me, "It is like their memory and legacy are being raped."
The story is this:
There had always been religious tension in the royal court of Uganda. The Arabs (the Moslems), the Catholics (the French) or the Anglican/Protestants (the English) had long operated, of course not without constraint, with some minimal success. Subjects of all ranks were allowed to subscribe to or join any creed of their choice.
The new King Mwanga, who had at first shown love for Christian missionaries as a young prince, turned into an intolerant and vicious persecutor of all Christians and foreigners because he felt the powers and authority his predecessors had enjoyed were dwindling and had disintegrated under the influence of the missionaries and their converts.
Turns out, the real demon in the court was a heavy dose of "Christian triumphalism." (Stop me if you've heard this before.)
The Christian religion was received with much excitement by the converts but it came with its own requirements. It denounced all the native religious behavior and practices as heathen and satanic.
Therefore joining it meant a commitment to break away from the old life style, make and adopt new alliances, and adjust to new moral and religious standards, adherence and allegiance.
The new flock of believers therefore, were seemingly regarded as 'rebels' who had transferred their loyalty to new religious systems thus abandoning the old tribal traditions.
King Mwanga was angry and felt his powers and influence diminished. The converts had diverted their loyalty to some other authority and their allegiance at all costs could no longer be counted on.
Because he felt humiliated, he sought to humiliate others. He sought to rape members of his royal court by performing sodomy on them just because he could.
The King also had Anglican Bishop James Hannington murdered because he took a shorter route to Uganda which was considered "the back door" into the Kingdom. Mwanga felt that anyone "coming through the back door' must be evil (Okay, boys and girls, the snickering from the back of the class will now cease).
Mwanga precipitated a showdown in May of 1886 by ordering the converts to choose between their new Christian faith and complete obedience to his orders - including submission to sodomy by him. Those unwilling to renounce their new faith would be subject to death.
Courageously, the neophytes chose their faith. The execution of twenty six Christians at Namugongo took place on June 3, 1886. It was the climax of the campaign against the converts.
Forgive me, Ann, for taking this opportunity for a public correction. I know you well enough to know that you did not mean anything malicious by repeating what you had been told.
As important as it felt in 1998, it feels even more critically important now in 2007, to tell the fullness of the truth of this story.
Here endth the lesson.