Ruling politicians in undemocratic countries love to tell other people to avoid political comment. Yoweri K. Museveni, the Ugandan ruler, has made it a specialty, forever warning cultural and religious leaders to stick to their stuff which, according to him, does not include political matters.
Of course, political comment that supports the rulers’ schemes and plans is very welcome – and encouraged. The preacher who directly promotes the interests of the president or sticks to recitations of benign scriptures and homilies finds great favour with the ruler.
For example, Anglican Archbishop Stanley Ntagali’s Christmas message over the weekend must have gone down very well in Rwakitura. It is vague enough not to offend anyone. It invites Christians to “fervent prayer and fasting for our nation,” without being specific about the key problems and players that threaten the survival of our country.
The Church of Uganda Website lists nine prayer points, which Archbishop Ntagali encourages us to bring before the Lord this week. These include general themes that are nice-sounding, inoffensive generalities that leave the Archbishop’s cozy relationship with the rulers intact, and simultaneously immunizes him against charges of ecclesiastical negligence and collusion at a time when the president is buying, bullying and beating his way to the life-presidency. A visit to that website is worthwhile.
One longs for the return to the pulpit of great and courageous preachers like Archbishop Janani Luwum and Bishop Festo Kivengere of Idi Amin’s Uganda; Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge and Rev. Timothy Murere Njoya of Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya; Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu and Rev. Allan Boesak of Apartheid South Africa; and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr of racially segregated USA.
These and many others exhibited great courage in the face of evil, and preached in plain English without mincing words. The stakes were high. The enemy was ruthless – even dangerous. Some were murdered. Others were imprisoned and tortured. They exhibited the courage of conviction that dates back to Jesus Christ Himself.
Happily, we have among us men like Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu who is clearly and loudly speaking out against Uganda’s latest political fraud. We also have Bishop Zac Niringiye, who used the pulpit to speak the truth to power for many years, then joined the active struggle for democracy. We need more like of them.
Christ’s message and mission were not shrouded in mystery and unintelligible homilies. He challenged wrong deeds and authority. His mission was about salvation of the soul and justice for the mortal being – all stated clearly and honestly.
My prayer is that this year’s Christmas message from Uganda’s pulpits will be about the human rights of all citizens, not the power pursuits of the president and his courtiers. The sermons should be about social, political, legal and economic justice for all; democracy and honest political engagement; defence of the country’s secular constitution against an assault by extremely greedy and selfish men and women; and peaceful transition of power from Museveni to a freely and popularly chosen leader.
It is not enough to repeatedly declare that “a child is born”, on its own a meaningless phrase that does not add value to the spiritual, physical and social wellness of a hungry, angry and perpetually oppressed person facing a dark future.
God’s children are victims of bad politics, poor governance, pervasive corruption, sham “democracy” and a hijacked state that is supposedly theirs. The answer is not recitation of scriptures, but using scripture to address real-life issues, events and conditions that impact people’s lives.
The life-presidency project is a classic example of how a combination of the seven deadly sins can ruin the soul of a man and destroy the hopes of millions of his subjects. Manifest in the Ugandan ruler and legislators who are scheming to lift the constitutional age-limit, the seven deadly sins are: gluttony, lust, greed pride, envy, sloth and wrath.
The men and women who speak in the name of the Lord should seek divine guidance, strength and courage to address these sins from their pulpits and elsewhere, using language that is very clear and specific to the Ugandan political situation.
This is not the time to speak in tongues. Those who do should make sure that there is clear interpretation. Those who stand in the pulpits before the oppressed must stand with them and bear their pain. To continue to enjoy the cozy relationship and goodies from the rulers will make their sermons and messages sound like noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
May the Spirit and Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be our anchor as we speak the truth and fulfil the purpose of His birth. May our claim to be Christians go beyond the rituals and labels, and become the reality of our lives.
Yes, it carries great risks. But Christ’s birth carried great risk from King Herod even as the newborn King lay in a manger.
However, the great news of Christmas is that the three wise men defied Herod’s scheme to use them in his plot to kill the infant Jesus Christ. Our prayer is that the majority of the Ugandan MPs will find the courage of the three wise men.