When Herod Wears a Clerical Collar: Sanctioning the Slaughter in Uganda
A Reflection on the Feast of Holy Innocents, December 28, 2013
David R. Weiss
In his Christmas Day message Kampala Archbishop, Cyprian Kizito Lwanga exhorted his congregation at the Lubaga Cathedral “to do as the Lord wishes us, and have respect for our fellow humans.” But that respect was short-lived in the Archbishop’s own sermon as he used the pulpit on Christmas Day to endorse Uganda’s looming Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
The Archbishop is far from the worst of Uganda’s anti-gay religious leaders, but, given that fully half of Uganda’s 85% Christian population are Catholic, his decision to use the birth of Jesus as an occasion to promote the furious pursuit of every LGBT person in the country … places him squarely in the shoes of King Herod.
The Archbishop’s words, along with the rhetoric of other Ugandan pastors like Martin Ssempe, Solomon Male, and Thomas Musoke, is already unleashing a slaughter of Holy Innocents in Uganda.
I understand there are deep and tangled roots that shape the way Ugandan religious leaders respond to homosexuality. But there comes a point when it’s simply honest to say that, unlike the masses who are getting whipped into a homophobic frenzy, Uganda’s religious leaders ought to know better. They have had by now opportunities to reflect on the wisdom of their words and to consider their impact on the passions of the Ugandan populace.
The same can be said for the American evangelical extremist Scott Lively, who tries these days to distance himself from the bill that he helped initiate five years ago. Ditto for Lou Engle, whose ministry The Call, preys on both genuine and manufactured spiritual hunger and feeds it with a toxic gospel message so tainted with anti-gay sentiment that it creates followers who are a tinder box for social violence.
Now their robes drip with blood.
Some 2000 years ago, King Herod, paranoid that his grip on dominating power might be threatened by something so innocent as a newborn babe, unleashed a slaughter of Holy Innocents across his land. In so doing, he became a symbol of power made evil by fear. (At this level, the historicity of the slaughter matters less than the truth it declares about the lengths that unjust power will go to preserve itself.)
On one hand, we can say Jesus posed no threat – he was, after all, ruler “only” of a spiritual realm. But more truly, in retrospect, Herod was right to be scared of Jesus and the radical heart of the Christian message. His announcement, about thirty years later, that God loves us freely and unreservedly, and his invitation to his followers to adopt such radical grace toward others absolutely threatened the system of domination that held sway in his day … and still holds sway in ours.
Today, in Uganda, the LGBT community – like the Holy Innocents in Palestine – stands in the place of Jesus. They ask us to make good on the Christian call to love of neighbor. They beg us to see in them – and in their love – an image of God. And they whisper a prophetic witness to us in the voice of Christ, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sister – whether imprisonment or indifference, vile words or violent deeds, solidarity or compassion – whatsoever you do or fail to do, you have done unto Me.”
Uganda’s religious leaders bear a special responsibility for their role in sanctioning the slaughter that is even now unfolding in towns and neighborhoods, on buses and in market places, between friends and within families. They have betrayed the care of their own flocks – whose numbers include countless LGBT persons – for the evil of clinging to the security of tradition … and the lure of power. With no thought for the Innocents whose slaughter, in our distant past and now our immediate present, we commemorate on December 28. There is always – always – opportunity for redemption, but today their robes drip with blood.
NOTE: I will, within the week, share a post about how we can best respond. I am waiting to take my lead from friends in Uganda. But one thing is clear: those taking the lead in Uganda need funds – NOW. My church works with four organizations serving the Ugandan LGBT community. If you make a special gift to Wingspan-Uganda, we’ll pass these funds on quickly to help these groups in serving their members in the days ahead. On the church’s donation page you can make a secure tax-deductible gift to the Wingspan Uganda project (second from the bottom in the list of designated gifts). If you prefer to send a check, make it out to St. Paul-Reformation, with “Wingspan-Uganda” on the memo line, and mail it to SP-R, 100 N. Oxford, St. Paul, MN 55104.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at http://www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” He recently published a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book, When God Was a Little Girl. Learn more at http://www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com.