The feast of Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda and Martyr, 17 February 2015
Contemplative Eucharist, Peace Chapel, Cathedral of the Incarnation, Baltimore, MD
“Now is the day of salvation. As servants of God we have commended ourselves through great endurance . . .We are treated as impostors, and yet are true . . .as dying, and see—we are alive; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (Second Letter to St. Paul to the Corinthians 6:2ff)
We, who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, hold hands with a great and continuous line of martyrs, and in particular, those like Janani Luwum, killed for their Christian witness by tyrants and reigns of terror. The Christian Gospel begins with the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem and the beheading of John the Baptizer, has as its climax Our Lord’s death and resurrection and Pentecostal anointing of the disciples, and afterwards the martyrdom witness of Christ’s disciples spans from Stephen and most of the Apostles, to Agnes, Polycarp, Alban, Beckett, Cranmer, Bonhoeffer, Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr, Janani Luwum, and now those beheaded on the Mediterranean shores of Libya.
In the front of Westminster Abbey in London a statue of Janani Jakaliya Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda killed 38 years ago today stands with 9 other 20th Century martyrs. They give witness to roughly a quarter million Christians, known and unknown, martyred each year. Following the advice of G. K. Chesterton, let us attempt to chip away the statue’s plaster and cement and find the living faith and witness of this man whose life we honor today, a great son of Africa and brother in Christ, with whom we hold hands.
He was born in 1922 in Mucwini, Uganda among the Acholi people, not one of the dominant tribes in Uganda. As a young boy Janani helped out as a goatherd and shepherd before his parents were able to raise the fees to send him to primary and secondary school. A scholarship enabled him to study & graduate from a local teachers college. He taught in a primary school. In his tribe and region he was a well-educated and respected person. In 1948, aged 26, he converted and was baptized a Christian. Quickly he was identified as a fervent, inspired believer and evangelist, and called to divinity school studies, first in Uganda and later in England. He was ordained a priest in 1956, served in parishes and then as headmaster of Buwalasi Theological College before being consecrated Bishop of Northern Uganda in 1969.
Christian missionaries planted the Gospel in Uganda around 1877 and the blood of Ugandan martyrs, who are also commemorated in our calendar of saints, helped nurture the faith. In 1900 Uganda became a British colony and protectorate, gaining its independence in 1962. The first Ugandan president, Milton Obote, who finally brought stable rule to the country in 1966, was overthrown 5 years later in 1971, by General Idi Amin. A reign of terror ensued—first, thousands of imagined “enemies” of the new regime were killed; next came the expulsion of all wahindi, those of Pakistani and Indian ancestry and largely small merchants, originally brought to East Africa by the British as indentured servants, and then in 1976, Amin’s terror became focused on Christians. Living in Kenya and other East African countries in the 70’s, everyone’s advice was the same concerning travel into Uganda: it’s open hunting season on all foreigners.
In this time of chaos and increasingly random, horrific violence, a new Archbishop of the Province of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire was installed in 1974. Only the 2nd African elected to this position, the new Archbishop was named Janani Luwum. At the time, Daniel Ellsberg says of Luwum:
He was, by all accounts, a fairly traditional bishop, not by temperament suited to role of prophet. He had drawn criticism from some members of the Uganda church for his efforts to maintain friendly relations with the dictator Idi Amin. Biting his tongue, the archbishop would frequently say, ‘We are with you, your Excellency, with all that you do that is good.’ As Luwum saw it, his calling was to steer clear of ‘politics’ and look after the welfare of the flock.”
[”Janani Luwum” in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for ouy Time, by Robert Ellsberg©1997]
This changed in late 1976 and early 1977.
Amin increased the harassment and suppression of church leaders. Luwum and others protested, demanding a meeting with the President, during which Amin strongly reprimanded the Archbishop. In early 1977 there was a small army-led rebellion against Amin. He responded by killing thousands including every person in the village of the former president, Milton Obote. A few days later, the internationally known Ugandan Anglican bishop, Festo Kivengere, preached a sermon before a huge congregation, including government officials, entitled “The Preciousness of Life.” “He denounced the arbitrary bloodletting and accused the government of abusing the authority that God had entrusted to it.” [Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, Martyr,” by James Kiefer, on Internet Website]
Luwum’s house was raided under the pretext of a weapons search and Amin accused Luwum of treason. On February 16th, Luwum and two Christian government leaders went to Amin in protest and were arrested. . As the Psalmist declared: I will speak of your decrees before kings, and shall not be put to shame; I find my delight in your commandments, because I love them.” [Psalm 119:46,47] A public, kangaroo-court mock trial ensued. In an exchange recorded in the Anglican Communion News service and reminiscent of the Good Friday Passion narratives, Amin said to the crowd: “What shall we do with these traitors?” The crowd and soldiers replied: “Kill him now.” As they took Archbishop Luwum away, he turned to other bishops and said: “Do not be afraid. I see God’s hand in this.”
The next day, the government announced Luwum’s death, attributing the cause of death to a car accident when the victim attempted to escape. Some weeks later his body, in a sealed casket, was returned to his wife Mary Lawingo and 9 fatherless children. Villagers opened the casket and discovered multiple gunshot wounds in Luwum’s body. Time Magazine cited witnesses claiming to have seen Amin personally shoot Luwum. A huge crowd gathered in Uganda’s capital, Kampala for a memorial service. Afterwards Luwum’s family and several church leaders fled the country. Twenty-five thousand newly-inspired Christians turned out 4 months later in June, 1977 to celebrate 100 years of Gospel witness in Uganda.
“Before the release of Luwum’s body and in defiance of government orders,” Ellsberg adds, “a funeral service for Archbishop Luwum was conducted in the Kampala cathedral. Standing over an empty grave, Luwum’s predecessor and 1st African Archbishop of Uganda Erica Sabiti, repeated the message of the angels on Easter Sunday, ‘He is not here . . .He is risen.’”
Two days ago in Mark’s Gospel, three disciples, in the presence of the transfigured Jesus, hear the voice of God proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” When Our Lord said that those who follow him must be prepared to take up their cross, the deepest truth of God’s love and promise of eternal life was being revealed. Tomorrow we begin a 40 day Lenten spiritual encounter focused on taking up our cross, imitating Christ and being raised up in His present and eternal love. The saints and martyrs will pray for us. Sorrowing yesterday, rejoicing now, they reach out to hold our trembling hands. Amen.
Rev. T. James Snodgrass