The Ugandan Interreligious Council, severely implicated in orchestrating the Anti-Homosexuality Act, was defunded by the U.S. government last week. Fomenting misinformation and discrimination on a national scale has cost them $6.5 million in faith-based contracts.
This follows the World Bank’s decision two weeks ago not to fund a $90 million capital investment in the Ugandan health care system because the government could not guarantee patient confidentiality or non-discrimination in equal access to care.
The influence of religious attitudes to homosexuality in Uganda has been one of the most significant barriers to non-discrimination across many sectors of Ugandan society, including the educational and judicial systems. The collusion of church and state to deprive a significant minority of their quality of citizenship is well attested in Uganda. For American fundamentalist Christians, Uganda is the perfect social experiment in theocracy and what they could never do in their own republic. A series of ill-informed legislative acts – the Anti-Homosexuality Act and two other bills on HIV and pornography -- are all part of the same moral framework, imposed upon a citizenry unable to demonstrate their concerns on Kampala’s streets. The president spent the last 25 years bribing Anglican and Catholic bishops with expensive new vehicles and other perks and the religious community (traditionally the voice of conscience in civil society against violent dictatorships) and they have created their own Frankenstein where everyone’s quality of citizenship is diminished.
Their chief moral focus remains on the LGBT minority while corruption and other forms of vice goes unchallenged. This collusion of state and religion was as much at work 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem when Jesus was put to death. The passion story will be read all over the world this weekend as the Christian community celebrates Easter, but in most of the countries where LGBT people are criminalized, there will be little connection in what religious authorities continue to do in conjunction with their politicians to persecute and crucify LGBT people. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” is not a Jesus prayer only for the people who shortened his young life, but as much for the Christian church and others today.
We are in the story
I read Matthew’s account of the passion this week, and it is rich and full of detail. We move from gospel stories of individual healings and conversations to this epic and rich visualization, like a camera moving from its focus on an individual face to the widest screen crowd scene you can imagine. A third of the canonical gospels are devoted to this epic passion story.
I invite you simply to reflect on this epic and perhaps to see yourself in one of the characters we have read about. Perhaps, like the Governor, Pilate, you are finding yourself in a difficult political situation at work where you are forced to compromise what you really want to see happen? Perhaps you are the unwitting Simon of Cyrene in Africa where you have been forced to carry someone else’s burden? Perhaps you have been betrayed by someone you trusted and love dearly, or betrayed someone? Perhaps you have been the victim of the criminal justice system that steals one’s identity and freedom. Perhaps you have been the victim of prejudice, violence and sexual abuse as we read of Jesus stripped, flogged and abused by the soldiers?
The power of this story is in the writers telling us it is a universal story. It is for everyone. We are all participants, and good and bad decisions have to live together. We know this story may ring true in many countries in the world today, but the invitation as we enter Holy Week is to identify a point in the story which may speak to us personally and our situation today.
Danger in the interpretation of holy texts
The text also give us an insight into what first century Christians and Jews were most concerned about. Obscure writings from prophets like Isaiah become more important to interpret a different way of looking at what was expected – a radical belief that Jesus was the Messiah (a servant to humanity who embraced suffering) while others in the faith community remained unconvinced, looking for a strong military leader. The idea that the Messiah was foretold as the “Suffering Servant” was sheer heresy.
In many ways the first century argument, largely a Jewish argument -- “Is the Messiah a Warrior King, or is the Messiah a suffering servant” -- has not gone away, merely changed its context.
Dominic Crossan is a former Catholic priest, now married and his scholarship reflects on this early Jewish conversation. “Did Jesus get it right the first time and came to Earth to bring justice, peace and equality through non-violence, love and concern for the marginalized? Or did he get it wrong the first time and return with his army to beat us all up into salvation?” Crossan would also claim that the Book of Revelation is one of the most violent holy texts ever written and the key importance of biblical interpretation remains crucial to our application of the text to real life.
What we are seeing, in countries like Uganda, is the rise of a militant fundamentalist form of Christianity that is both frightening and yet, inevitable if their sincere interpretation of holy texts concludes that Jesus will return to Earth as a Warrior King. The state becomes the instrument of this violent imposition of the reign of God. We cannot truly understand the place homosexuality has in the psyche of these fundamentalist leaders without understanding the Warrior King discussion as a kind of internal code and conversation. Homosexuality is seen as against God’s natural order and therefore evil and needs to be eradicated so the reign of God can come. Violence and all the weight of the criminal justice system (an even mob justice) is justified because it is a sign of moral degeneration.
Sadly, if we asked Christians in the world today “Is Jesus the warrior king or something else?” I would expect the vast majority would vote for Jesus as the Warrior King. I look at many of the churches in Africa including our own Anglican church and some churches in this country and there is an imperial militancy about our theology and public policy that can be traced back to these early Christian/Jewish interpretations of holy texts.
Two years ago we welcomed faith leaders from countries where the criminalization of homosexuality was causing huge problems in areas of access to HIV care and prevention, and this parish was one of several who journeyed literally with the crucified, in contexts where the church was often in the front row calling for the death penalty for LGBT people, for life or long-term prison sentences, in permitting the mob to adjudicate, not unlike the passion story.
The 21st century church all over the world will dramatize this story over this weekend, but is still looking for a Warrior King who will come a second time to violently transform the world. It is the ultimate conversation around biblical interpretation that we need to have and like the early church we just may agree to disagree. The text today reminds us that religious leaders who were around in Jesus’ time, used holy texts, culture and religious law and values to put Jesus to death. The 30 pieces of silver used to bribe Judas into betraying Jesus was holy money, straight out of the temple’s collection plates and was a strategic decision by holy leaders to protect their religious traditions. We forget that holy people conspired with the state to put Jesus to death. I am seeing this happening all over Africa today in the context of LGBT people and with laws in Nigeria, Uganda and even Russia, we find ourselves in the story in a new and tragic way.
Straight allies who risk all
One of my favorite characters in the story, missing from the gospel narratives but included in popular piety and liturgies like the Stations of the Cross, is Veronica. She is in the crowd and risks her public safety and reputation to step out from the anonymity and mob cruelty of a hostile crowd and wipe the face of Jesus with her veil or towel. I see her as a prototype for straight allies who refuse to be controlled by these anti-gay laws and sentiments and step out to do the right thing but also are taking enormous personal risk.
We walk with the suffering and crucified
I recently visited LGBT prisoners in Cameroon, one of the worst places in Africa for being LGBT, and families and even the churches do not visit these young men and women who are inhumanely treated. I call them, not prisoners of conscience, but prisoners of being. They have done no crime or harm, but are in prison simply for living and loving the way God meant them to be.
Interpretation of Scripture, colonial laws and a growing Warrior Jesus mentality in these churches, has made it socially acceptable to unleash all the violence, sexual abuse and injustice that we read about in the passion story. The bribery by American churches and development institutions to make homosexuality a wedge issue for many African countries is well documented. Holy money still goes to persecute and kill innocent children of God. You can read about the prison visit in detail in something I wrote and an article Andy Kopsa wrote in the Nation.
It was chilling and the inhumanity of what religious well-meaning leaders are doing to their children and fellow citizens is as harrowing as the story we read today. After the visit, I felt ill and appalled by what we religious leaders are doing in the name of God. As I looked into their eyes, I shared with them my belief that they have not been forgotten but God was with them. My words seemed empty and false, knowing that the churches in Cameroon had largely created the climate in which these young people were denied their freedom and access to proper health care and earning an income.
The collusion of religion and state is as real today as it was 2,000 years ago. So all I could do was to write a prayer. The invitation of the passion story is to ask ourselves: Where are we? Where am I in this story? Am I one with the crucified, or am I participating in the crucifying? Is my savior the Warrior King or the Suffering Servant? Is my church the Imperial one, wrapped in flag and culture, or am I creating an alternative community of justice and equality that may be in direct opposition to the dominant forces of our own day? Can I step out from the crowd, like Veronica, to make a difference in the life of someone on their road of suffering? I see her as a prototype for straight allies in these violent contexts who step out and do courageous things, risking all for what is right and decent and humane.
Click HERE to read that prayer for all LGBT prisoners of being. May we find ourselves and each other as one with them, one with the suffering and crucified.
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RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.