16 January, 2010

UGANDA UPDATE # 3 Good news, sort of...

On 14 January The Guardian (London, UK) reported that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni announced that the Anti-Homosexual Act of 2009, "had become a 'foreign policy' issue and needed further consultation before being voted on in parliament." The Guardian reported in the same article that, "James Nasba Buturo, minister of state for ethics and integrity, who is a strong supporter of the bill, said, before Museveni's speech that it was likely that the death penalty provisions would be dropped because of the international outcry." Who made the outcry?

The Gay community.
Gay, human rights organizations and Amnesty International immediately expressed strong opposition to passage of this bill which would restrict the rights and endanger the lives of the estimated 500,000 gays and lesbians in Uganda.

Western Governments.
The international outcry from governments was not immediate but it came. Many western industrialized nations criticized this legislation, including: Australia, Canada, the UK and France. The European Parliament and Sweden threatened to reduce economic aid if the law passes. Former President Clinton, Secretary of State Clinton and four U.S. congress persons have made individual public statements opposing the law. After a telephone call from Hillary Clinton, "...to express strong concerns about the proposed law, [Museveni, the President] said, 'It's a foreign policy issue, and we must handle it in a way that does not compromise our principles but also takes into account our foreign policy interests'."

Part of the reason that governments (and, as will be mentioned below, international religious leaders) were slower to act, is based on the complexity of the situation and international relations. Anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda were introduced by the British during the colonial period. Also, the general Ugandan (and African) culture is very conservative with regard to family and sexual mores. In more recent years, conservative Evangelical Christian missionaries have reinforced and expanded upon the traditional mores to intensify and provide a new rationale for anti-gay norms and laws, attitudes and values. Finally, the opposition of the West to anti-gay norms, laws and behavior is seen by many African governments as just a new version of colonialism: to shove down the throats of the people of Africa the "decadent" and "immoral" lifestyle of the West, including homosexuality. As a result, Western governments took stock to see if their "interference" would help the situation or merely increase the nationalist feelings in Uganda. It seems to me that the tide turned as gays and straight supporters mounted ever greater pressure on their governments and that Uganda "backed down" once Western nations threatened to withhold financial aid.

What about the international religious community? They too had the same concern as governments about whether their speaking out would help or hinder passage of the bill. For the churches, the decision was doubly difficult: they had only moral suasion and no money to withhold and for two important religious communities, namely the Roman Catholic Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion, there were internal issues that had to be considered.

The Anglican Communion.
Uganda is an anglophone nation and the Anglican church there is quite significant. Many, if not most, of the Anglican bishops (E.g. Ugandan bishop Joseph Arbura of the Karamoja Diocese) in Africa hold very conservative positions regarding sex, especially regarding gay marriage, gays and women as priests and, especially active gays as bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury was caught between this group and, for example, the practice of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., most of which accepts and supports gays and a minority of parishes that wish to join African Anglican dioceses or the Roman Catholic Church. After much private communication, On December 12th the Archbishop Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said in an interview with the Telegraph (a London newspaper) [See sixth paragraph in the interview]:
Overall, the proposed legislation is of shocking severity and I can't see how it could be supported by any Anglican who is committed to what the Communion has said in recent decades. Apart from invoking the death penalty, it makes pastoral care impossible - it seeks to turn pastors into informers.

Finally, the Archbishop of York (UK), John Sentamu, himself a Ugandan spoke out publicly on December 24th, saying, "I'm opposed to the death sentence. I'm also not happy when you describe people in that kind of language you find in this private member's bill, which seems not only victimizing but also a diminishment of the individuals concerned."

The Roman Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church has its own difficulties with homosexuality but is unalterably opposed to capital punishment and the harassment or oppression of innocent individuals. Although the Church speaks of homosexuality as "objectively disordered" (whatever that really means), it clearly accepts that gay orientation is a "given"  for gays. This means that some people are simply born with a homosexual orientation, period. On the other hand the Catholic Church teaches that the only legitimate sex is between a married male and female. (There are a number of Catholic moral theologians, and a majority of  Catholics in the U.S. who do not not accept this position).

The Vatican felt it had to condemn capital punishment and the harsh punishments in the law and affirm its teaching that gays should be treated with respect and compassion as are any other citizens. The Vatican, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, realized the danger to priests, counselors, social workers, etc. if they were required to report homosexuals to the authorities and, themselves, face prison. As often happens with the Vatican, its position was made indirectly but officially. In a statement to the UN Panel on Anti-Gay Violence, on December 10th, the Rev. Philip J. Bene, the Vatican's Legal attache said,

Thank you for convening this panel.... My comments are more in the form of a statement rather than aquestion.

As stated during the debate of the General Assembly last year, the Holy See continues to oppose all grave violations of human rights against homosexual persons, such as the use of the death penalty, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The Holy See also opposes all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.

As raised by some of the panelists today, the murder and abuse of homosexual persons are to be confronted on all levels, especially when such violence is perpetrated by the State...

Finally, after the Anti-Homosexual bill was tabled in the parliament, the Catholic bishops of Uganda made a public statement. Admittedly, it was not as clear, direct and forthright as some hoped for. Dr. Cyrian Kizto Lwanga, Archbishop of Kampala, began the statement with, "We, the Catholic Bishops of Uganda, appreciate and applaud the Government's effort to protect the traditional families and its values." [After following this debate and the language used, I wonder if this opening statement is not a code for, "We affirm the idea of keeping the fact of being homosexual illegal]. He continues,

The recent tabled Anti-Homosexuality Bill does not pass a test of Christian caring approach to this issue. The targeting of the sinner, not the sin, is the core flaw of the proposed Bill. The introduction of the death penalty and imprisonment for homosexual acts targets people rather than seeking to counsel and to reach out in compassion to those who need conversion, repentance, support and hope...

Furthermore, the Proposal to prosecute those who fail to disclose information regarding homosexual acts puts at risk the breach of confidentiality and professional ethics of persons such as Parents, Priests, Counselors, Teachers... at a time when they offer support and advise [sic] for rehabilitation of homosexuals. The Proposed Bill does not contain clauses encouraging homosexuals to be rehabilitated.... [All bold print in the original].

This is a rejection of the bill, at least a rejection  of the death and harsh punishment of homosexuals as well as protection for parents, priests and others who have knowledge about homosexuals. However, the statement clearly proffers an explanation of  homosexuality as something learned or chosen and therefore in need of "rehabilitation." I wonder what kind of support and advice the bishops have in mind: to learn to be "chaste." One can hope it doesn't hearken to "restorative therapy" as recommended to the Ugandan Government by three invited conservative Evangelical preachers. In any event, the Ugandan Bishops' statement seems at the very best to be lukewarm.

Recent examples of Gay marriage and homosexuality in "Catholic" Latin America:
We Do: Mexico City Blazes Trail with Legalisation of Same-Sex Marriage. (22 Dec 2009)
Vatiacn: Gay: deserve respect, compassion.
Argentina men become first same-sex married couple. (29 Dec 2009) (Pic, without DSL may load slowly)

Other Religious influences.
On December 7th, sixty-six U.S Christian Leaders issued a public statement opposing the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009 in Uganda. It says in part:

Our Christian faith recognizes violence, harassment and unjust treatment of any human being as a betrayal of Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves. As followers of the teachings of Christ, we must express profound dismay at a bill currently before the Parliament in Uganda.

....Regardless of the diverse theological views of our religious traditions regarding the morality of homosexuality, in our churches, communities and families, we seek to embrace our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as God's children worthy of respect and love.

The first signers of the statement were Thomas P. Melady, Former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda and the Vatican; Ronald J. Sider, President, Evangelicals for Social Action; and Jim Wallis, President, Sojourners.

This statement is welcome, as are those by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Catholic bishops of Uganda, for clearly opposing the severe penalties against homosexual persons and those who know and/ or support homosexual persons.

However none of these statements speak to or supports decriminalization of homosexuality or homosexual behavior. This is a challenge that most Christians have not yet faced; nor have they seriously been able to dialogue about other fundamental issues related to the very nature and morality of homosexual behavior.

Conservative Evangelical Protestants in the United States and in Uganda, itself, have spoken out in favor of the bill or have remained silent about it. However some, like Rick Warren have spoken out against the excessive punishments in the bill. Still Warren and many other Evagelicals maintain strong opposition to homosexuality. At best, they espouse the idea of  "love the sinner, hate the sin." Like the Ugandan Catholic bishops?

Four Evangelical clergymen are now trying to distance themselves from the three-day conference they presented in Uganda to thousands of police, national politicians, teachers and others in March, 2009, one month before MP David Bahati first introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The following list of articles discuss this issue further, some including hateful and vicious comments made about homosexuals:
Americans' Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push (NYT 4 Jan 2010)
Hate Begets Hate NYT editorial 5 Jan 2010
R.W. Johnson: The Battle Over Homophobia in Africa  (National Post, Canada. 12 Jan 2010

My Reflections.

1. It appears that the death penalty, and possibly the requirement to report homosexuals, with be removed from the proposed legislation; that is a battle won but not the war. Uganda will still have a host of harsh anti-homosexual laws as do many other African nations, some of which have the death penalty.

2.The leading nations of the "West" (since the fall of the Soviet system and the move toward market-based economics in China, more suitably called the "The North") and two (Anglican and Catholic) of the three (Pentecostals) most important Christian communions in Uganda, spoke in opposition to the harsh penalties in the law. This may have been politically prudent to help lessen an outcry from Africa that this move was merely a new form of colonialism and to assuage the ire of their own more conservative hierarchs and members. In my opinion, none of the groups placed their responses in the larger context of society. 

3. Here the immediate issue related to this extremely inhuman proposal  is, and let us put it plainly, to kill homosexual people. But an underlying issue is how the countries of the South and North will relate on a whole host of issues, only some of which are related to sex (E.g. the AIDS epidemic, the use of condoms, the nature of marriage and the family).

In the area of what Catholics call "social justice" issues there is great potential for disagreement and conflict between North and South. In Uganda more than a few leaders railed against the North for interfering with their culture (the homosexuality issue) and said the North ought to be more concerned with "justice issues" such as economic development, the plight of the poor, and the environment. However, many in Africa, and Latin America even more so, are negative on globalization, the capitalist system, and modern forms of democracy, and especially the supremacy of the United States and its spreading of a degrading materialistic and highly individualistic culture.

4. Somehow real homosexual people seem to have been left out of the equation. Reading all the material I have on this issue, other than a few mentions of "compassion" for "them," no one's head or heart seemed to take into account that homosexuals are people just like every one else. Gays are born, live and die just like everyone else, Homosexual persons have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else, Many engage in selfless, altruistic behavior and some do not-- but not any more or less than heterosexuals! Most of all, LGBT individuals have the same goal in life as straights: to be happy and, in the end, to have lived a life well lived. Gays want to love and be loved just like others do; gays are not sex-crazed, selfish people who seek only their own pleasure. Unless one has shared an intimate connection to a homosexual person, it is often difficult to get beyond stereotypes and homophobia. I am sad that the the kind of values, attitudes and behavior that arise out of real intimacy with gays (certainly not always, and perhaps, almost never physical) is not more common. I'm sad too that the public statements by government and religious bodies did not show at least some appreciation for LGBT people as people. Finally, I look forward to, and will continue to work for the day when a distinction between gay and straight will enter conversation no more frequently than whether one is left or right handed. That will be the day when any two people who love each other can express that love and, perhaps, marry each other; that will be the day when no one will be oppressed by harsh and negative laws that say gays are "different."


  1. Sebastian,

    I find myself believing that the Roman Catholic Church is afraid of losing its perceived power and is trying to turn the clock back in fear of the future. I being a convert to Catholicism lost family ties as well as friendships to become a Roman Catholic and I have found myself suddenly abandoned on sea of rules and regulations. If the Vatican II reforms were not in place I would have never converted to begin with. I have only been around Vatican II theology and I will not belong to a church that is so backwards thinking and so rule happy. I have devoted 20 years of my life to my church and community and I now feel so betrayed, disappointed, and disgusted that I no longer care to fight the systematic reversal of Vatican II. We as humans have a short time in this life and I am not going to spend it fighting for a church that only cares for its own power and institutional rules. I have not come to this decision lightly and despite that I will no longer worship with people I love as much as my own family I cannot continue to call myself a Roman Catholic and still be true to my conscience. I thank you for insights and wisdom. I wish you well in your journey and may God bless you and yours.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comment. Although a "cradle Catholic," I caught the sense of "betrayal" that you feel. yes, power is a critical element of the revisionist trend. And, yes, the Vatican is very afraid of contemporary culture. Some even believe that Vatican II caused the problems we now face in the Church. My thought is that current problems (e.g. vocations to priesthood and religious life)would be much worse if there had never been a Vatican II.

    In the end, I'd hope that you'd hang in there, maintain your commitment to the "People of God," and look for support from "Vatican II Catholics."

    In the end however, if you finally decide you must, in good conscience, leave the Catholic community, I, and other "good" Catholics will respect your decision.


Comments most welcome.