Roger Ross Williams, an Academy Award-winning documentary director and producer, is a product of an African-American home heavily populated by pastors. But as a gay man in a conservative situation, he has been estranged from his family and from his tradition. His latest movie, God Loves Uganda, reflects his deep ambivalence, grief, fear, and anger regarding the intertwined matters of faith, sexuality, identity, power, love, and respect.
God Loves Uganda has a distinguished pedigree, from Ford Foundation funding to Sundance mentoring to showings at film festivals, schools, churches, and other venues around the world. Last weekend, Williams and his film came to Vancouver, and I was asked to respond publicly at the showing in dialogue with him. I concluded that there is less here than meets the eye, even as what remains is plenty bad enough.
A documentary is supposed to do two things: show us something and, usually, prompt a response. God Loves Uganda does depict a horrifying development in that country: a bill that has come before the Ugandan Parliament (and, at the time of this writing, is still there) that seriously threatens the welfare of homosexuals. Indeed, this bill originally called for life imprisonment for anyone engaging in homosexual intercourse and for the death penalty for repeat offenders. The penalties have since been reduced, but the harshness of the bill remains and it might yet become law.
Moreover, God Loves Uganda correctly shows that the antihomosexual agenda there has been driven, in part, by some American evangelicals, notably Scott Lively, a very minor figure at home in the United States, and Lou Engle, one of the founders of the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and known to many more as the director of "The Call" prayer rallies. Furthermore, spearheading the church-based campaign against homosexuals is at least one American-trained Ugandan, Martin Ssempa.
Had Williams trained his considerable talents on exposing these extremists, he would have produced a tightly focused horror show. If he had widened his lens to include the way many more evangelicals, in Africa and in America, routinely speak of, and treat, homosexuals and homosexuality, he would have called many more Christians properly to account. Alas, however, God Loves Uganda pulls back too far. It blurs "American conservatives" with "American evangelicals" with young IHOP missionaries (whom Williams follows from commissioning in Kansas City to ministry in Uganda) with IHOP leaders' conservative sexual views with calls for public resistance to the legitimization of homosexuality with legislation to imprison and even execute homosexuals. With due respect to Brother Williams's understandable tears through which he sees this story, that is too blurry a picture.
Williams lionizes two Ugandan clergymen: Kapya Kaoma, now resident in Boston and a research associate at Boston University, from which he recently earned a Ph.D., and Christopher Ssenyonjo, an Anglican bishop who was expelled from his church for his championing of a strong pro-LGBT agenda. They both harp on the American roots of this issue, suggesting repeatedly that anti-homosexuality has been entirely imported from America and spread among a vulnerable Ugandan population by American clergy. Kaoma even calls Martin Ssempa "an American in African skin."
But who is really the American? Ssempa, a horrible, charming zealot, has been publically denounced by his American alma mater, Cairn University (formerly the Philadelphia Biblical University) over his involvement in this terrifying bill. (Consider, for a moment what it takes to make a university denounce an alumnus.) Meanwhile, Kaoma accuses American evangelicals of preaching a gospel that is not the gospel, but merely the extension of American culture wars to Africa. Yet Kaoma reflects nothing so much as the view of the world from within the most radically liberal quarters of the Episcopal Church in the United States. So does Ssenyonjo, a graduate of the ultra-liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. If any Africans reflect an American point of view in this movie, it is these two.
(Why Williams treats Kaoma as an expert on American evangelicalism remains a mystery to me. In fact, it would have been better for him to have interviewed Kaoma's own program supervisor, Dana Robert, who could have set him straight—or the former head of the religious studies department at BU, Stephen Prothero. Indeed, a short drive would have brought him to the office of the Professor of Evangelical Studies and now Dean at Harvard Divinity School, David Hempton. Any one of them would have provided a much broader and more carefully nuanced understanding of American evangelicals than the hyper- and hostile liberalism of Kapya Kaoma and Christopher Ssenyonjo.)
The film in fact largely fails to give us a proper explanation for why these evangelicals do what they do. There is no attempt to explain to the audience the Biblical basis for a conservative Christian understanding of sexual ethics, and only a few statements of their more general missionary mandate. What we do get is lots of footage of their worship, especially in its more extreme modes. There is something unsettling, even creepy, about a black filmmaker depicting white (and black) charismatic Christians speaking in tongues, writhing on the floor, and otherwise acting in strange ways with no explanation at all. If a white filmmaker had shown scenes of black Africans in similar modes but dressed in native costumes, we might well accuse him of racism, or at least of failing in the primary job of the documentary filmmaker: to make his subjects intelligible, let alone sympathetic.
In fact, these people seem unfathomable—even actually mad. To depict them thus is the functional equivalent of demonizing them … but "demonizing" is precisely the crime of which they are repeatedly accused in this film in regard to homosexuals.
From first to last, the anti-homosexuality campaign in Uganda is attributed to the imposition of Western values. But anti-homosexuality is clearly not a distinctive Western value. It is rife in tribal cultures in Africa and already in the outlook of Ugandans when the recent wave of American evangelical extremists arrived. Only such facts can explain the receptivity given to such people as Scott Lively (who apparently spoke for five hours with the Ugandan Parliament) and the resulting widespread and violent anti-homosexuality in government and popular media. By comparison, when evangelicals did dominate North American societies in the nineteenth century, sodomy was illegal, but was not punished by anything approaching life imprisonment, let alone the death penalty. So the tired trope of imperialistic foreigners corrupting the noble savages rears its head again and must once again be dispatched by a little careful thought.
I can only assume that Williams invested so much time filming this group of young IHOP missionaries because he expected them eventually to show themselves to be agents of the virulent hatred of such as Scott Lively. Yet they are not once shown to be preaching hate. A filmmaker with Williams's evident tenacity and passion surely would have shown this to us if it ever happened, so it must not have. Thus to link them with the disgusting likes of Lively has to be done via editing, not by actual association; by insinuation, rather than by documentation. In fact, Lively has nothing to do with IHOP. And even Lou Engle's antihomosexual ranting is never shown in this film to be echoed by the missionaries themselves.
Williams is obviously uncomfortable with charismatic worship and evangelical proselytizing, even as he is properly appalled by anti-homosexual legislation. But then HIV/AIDS gets added to this already incoherent picture, as conservatives are chided for advocating abstinence over the distribution of condoms—even though many Christians, in America and in Uganda, simply want abstinence to be advocated as clearly the best public health option, beyond it being the morally superior option, alongside of condom distribution as necessary harm reduction. This complex story is oversimplified into "abstinence versus condoms," with evangelicals placed entirely on the former side in a knuckleheaded dogmatism that puts lives in danger.
This nonfactual polarization is bad enough. But, weirdly, the film depicts (although Williams never seems quite to grasp) that the situation actually features two types of Westerners seeking to convince Ugandans of two types of Western sexual values: abstinence (conservatives) and toleration for homosexuality (liberals). So who, one wonders, is to be condemned for engaging in cultural imperialism?
Indeed, the film betrays more of this strange, ironic mirroring, particularly in the form of conspiracy theory: A nasty and powerful group of social deviants are recruiting young people, influencing governments, and hypocritically claiming to be all about love, just so they can impose their values on the rest of society. But are these shadowy, repellent conspirators the homosexuals—as the antihomosexual extremists say? Or are they the evangelicals—as the liberal clergy, and the film itself, suggest?
With such a congeries of disparate elements barely held together with ominous soundtrack music, some truly powerful footage, and skillful editing, what are we viewers then to do after watching this film?
Well, we here in North America can't do much about Uganda except feel outraged about what seems to be going on there. But the movie does show us Lou Engle participating in the Proposition 8 debate in California. So maybe we can channel our outrage after all…
Some people, alas, will be tempted to channel their outrage into hating evangelicals right here at home, those frightening people who are trying to wreck Africa and who, if they only could, would criminalize homosexuality here, too, and even kill unrepentant homosexuals. Such seems to be the unsubtle subtext of the film. More moderate evangelicals need to say, and say clearly, that to identify Scott Lively or Lou Engle as a typical American evangelical is like suggesting that Osama bin Laden was a typical Muslim or, closer to home, like suggesting that all homosexuals are like the most outlandish figures in Gay Pride Parades. We must speak up in public and both denounce and distance ourselves from such extremists, rather than muzzle ourselves in misguided charity for errant brothers and sisters, or we will see the gospel increasingly attacked as homophobic in just the way these people are.
Beyond making clear who we aren't, moreover, we need to keep working at making clear who we are. It is always easier to communicate a position with no tension, at either extreme: "homosexuality is just fine" or "homosexuality is just terrible." Those of us who are willing to make allowances for civic pluralism in North America today while still advocating biblical principles of sexual wellbeing have a tough, but necessary, communication challenge.
That challenge begins, again, with recognizing how we are seen by increasing numbers of our neighbors as reflected in the mass media. I am truly sorry for Brother Williams's pain surrounding his homosexuality and what it has cost him in his family and church. This film is a testament to that suffering. Yet when a skilled filmmaker trades in guilt-by-insinuation and especially in a way that provides little understanding but instead provokes contempt, fear, and loathing—what some might nowadays call a "phobia"—we no longer have the genre of "documentary," but of "propaganda." Nonetheless, this film is being widely celebrated.
Yes, homophobia is bad. But so is evangelophobia. And what might have seemed just a decade ago to be a ridiculous and paranoid parallel doesn't seem so now.
It certainly didn't seem so to me once I finished my remarks at the Vancouver film festival and the questions, comments and, yes, denunciations began from the audience.
John Stackhouse holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College. His most recent book is Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (Oxford).
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