The proposed anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda has created tension between American Christians who have condemned the legislation and Ugandan Christians who don't want to see homosexuality become an acceptable practice.
Several American pastors and leaders have condemned legislation in Uganda that, if passed in its proposed version, would punish homosexual acts between adults—including touching "with the intent of committing the act of homosexuality"—with life imprisonment. The punishment for "serial offenders," homosexual sex with minors or the disabled, or homosexual sex while being HIV-positive, is death.
Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye, assistant bishop of Kampala in the Church of Uganda, says that American Christians should not make such public pronouncements on the bill.
"The international community is behaving like they can't trust Ugandans to come up with a law that is fair. No! No! That is not fair!" he told Christianity Today. "When the Western governments or Western churches or Christians speak loudly about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of this bill, you actually begin to fuel the idea that homosexuality is the product of Western culture."
Without giving his position on the bill, Niringiye said that it attempts to make the law consistent, since raping a minor is punishable by death. Sexual assault is currently defined in the law as between a male and female, he said. Homosexuality and adultery are already considered crimes.
The reaction from Christians in America creates tension for Ugandan Christians, says the Rev. Dr. Christopher Byaruhanga, professor of historical theology at Bishop Tucker School of Divinity and Theology at Uganda Christian University.
"You see there's a kind of imperialism and a kind of relativism from the West," said Byaruhanga, who is doing a fellowship for a year at the John Jay Institute in Colorado Springs. "They don't understand our ethics in the country of Uganda and they are trying to impose what they believe."
Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, issued a statement of concern about the bill, urging the United States government to "grant adequate access to the U.S. asylum system for those fleeing persecution on the basis of homosexuality or gender identity."
"If the head of the Episcopal Church says anything on the bill in Uganda, you think anybody would listen to her? She is already in consecration with someone who is openly homosexual," Byaruhanga said. "Anything that comes from this end has no credibility because of what is going on in the Episcopal Church and what is going on in the American society as far as homosexuality is concerned."
Bloomberg reported last week that the death penalty and life imprisonment will be dropped from the bill. The Church of Uganda has not taken an official position on the bill, and Niringiye said the church expects to give a statement to parliament by January 20.
Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren condemned the proposed legislation in an "encyclical video" on December 10, where he said, "I oppose the criminalization of homosexuality."
"As an American pastor, it is not my role to interfere with the politics of other nations, but it is my role to speak out on moral issues," Warren said. "It is my role to shepherd other pastors who look to me for guidance, and it is my role to correct lies, errors and false reports when others associate my name with a law that I had nothing to do with, completely oppose, and vigorously condemn." (A spokeswoman for Warren said he is declining to do any interviews on the topic.)
Warren also said that he had disassociated himself from Ugandan HIV/AIDS activist Martin Ssempa. Ssempa responded to Warren in a letter, which Ssempa sent to Christianity Today.
"The [election] of Mary Glasspool, a lesbian, as a bishop in Los Angeles without any condemnation from you, has increased the widening gap between the Global South church in Africa and the Global North church in Europe and America. In these increasingly dark days, we encourage you not to give in to the temptation to water down what the Bible says so as not to offend people," Ssempa wrote. "Since the Bible says that the giant of homosexuality is an 'abomination' or a great evil, you cannot achieve the peace plan without a purpose-driven confrontation with evil."
Ssempa wrote that the Uganda Joint Christian Council task force will support the bill with the amendments, including a less harsh sentence of 20 years instead of the death penalty for pedophilia or "aggravated homosexuality." The task force also recommends that counseling and rehabilitation be offered to offenders and victims.
Warren was not the first American Christian to speak against the proposed legislation. Grove City psychology professor Warren Throckmorton has been voicing opposition to the bill for several months. Exodus International was one of the first groups to respond, saying that the legislation could hurt its ministry.
"While we do not believe that homosexual behavior is what God intended for individuals, we believe that deprivation of life and liberty is not an appropriate or helpful response to this issue," Exodus leaders wrote to President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. "Furthermore, the Christian church must be a safe, compassionate place for gay-identified people as well as those who are confused about and conflicted by their sexuality."
Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University Timothy George, and Princeton University professor Robert P. George said in a statement that the bill "is a source for grave concern."
"The harshness of these proposals is, we believe, inconsistent with a Christian spirit of love and mercy," they said. "Measures must be taken to encourage faithful marital love and to discourage sexual immorality of every type. It is critical, however, that these measures be shaped in a just and Christian manner, and not in a punitive spirit. Harshness and excess must be avoided."
Colson told CT that he spoke against the legislation because it addresses human rights, a universal, moral question. "When you’re talking about human rights and liberty, they’re inherent to the presentation of the gospel. I wouldn't see this as singling out anyone," he said. "If you put a person in prison for life for an act of homosexual behavior, that is horrendous, that is so harsh. It’s totally contrary to the Christian understanding of the compassion."
Colson said the statement was created after he helped draft the Manhattan Declaration, a call to reaffirm Christians stance on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty. "Those of us who have a platform and those of us particularly who are talking about marriage at the moment have an obligation to speak out on it," he said. "There will be differences, and some people will call it meddling. But that’s okay. We'll get by."
If the death penalty were removed from the bill, Colson said he is not sure whether he would still oppose the law.
"I can’t say that I think civil prohibitions against homosexual behavior are morally wrong. I can’t say that because we had the anti-sodomy law for years in America for years. If I lived in those states, I probably would not have probably voted for them, but I could understand why people would legislate in this area, even for public health reasons," he said. "I think I would be opposed to legal sanctions against people who are private, consensual sexual behavior."
Julius Twongyeirwe, national director of Proclamation Task, a Kampala-based pastoral training ministry, said that Ugandan Christians generally support the bill.
"The law works to minimize the effects of sin, but it doesn't fix the problems of the heart," Twongyeirwe said. "It is so that people think in terms of consequences and draw back from attracting a penalty like that. If it is done with a minor and someone who is careless enough to transfer AIDS to a minor, it would scare them enough."
Fred Wantaate, pastor of Full Gospel Church Makerere in Kampala, said that Christians in Uganda are not divided on the bill because most of them support outlawing homosexuality.
"Homosexuality, like burglary, prostitution, murder, and other behaviors considered harmful to our society, are crimes in Uganda," he said. "Appropriate laws must be formulated to counter all harmful behavior."
Wantaate said that most Ugandans have not had the chance to study the bill in its entirety and may not be aware of some of the extreme clauses that were proposed.
"It is alleged the bill has a clause about 'aggravated homosexuality' or 'aiding and abetting homosexuality' being a capital crime punishable by death, or homosexuals being treated as terrorists," he said. "If that were true, the punishment in that case would be inappropriate and extreme."
(The bill as submitted refers to "aggravated homosexuality"—homosexual sex with a minor, a person with a disability, while infected with HIV, or with someone under one's authority—as punishable by death. "Aiding and abetting homosexuality" carries a seven-year prison sentence.)
Media reports have connected the bill to a March conference in Uganda, at which three Americans condemned homosexual behavior and promoted therapy for same-sex attraction.
One of the men, Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries, said that it is insulting that reporters would connect the bill to the Americans.
"That's really a racist perspective that these guys are pushing, somehow that a couple of little known American commentators on cultural issues, that our opinions can outweigh the combined resources of a sovereign nation on an issue," he told CT. "It's as if the Africans are unable to shape their own public policy, and somehow they're swayed by foreign influences."
Lively said that he thinks the law is too harsh, and that it should focus on rehabilitation instead of penalties.
"It's important that we not allow this to harm Uganda and the Ugandan Christians," Lively said. "The law as it's crafted, if it were put into effect, would bring the entire weight of the international Left against their country."
History plays a large role in how Ugandan Christians respond to homosexuality. In 1885, a group of 45 Anglican and Roman Catholics were executed after several pages rejected a king's sexual advances. Ugandan Christians honor them as martyrs on June 3 each year.
(This story has been updated to reflect Colson's interview with CT.)
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today also posted a full interview with the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye, assistant bishop of Kampala in the Church of Uganda.
Reactions from Rick Warren, Martin Ssempa, Warren Throckmorton, Exodus International, and other leaders are available on various websites.
Recent reports on the Ugandan legislation include:
Why Catholics aren't speaking up in Uganda about anti-gay bill | It's impossible to understand how many Ugandans approach this debate without appreciating the depth of their resentment of outside interference—a legacy, obviously, of their colonial experience (John Allen, National Catholic Reporter)
Obama, Clinton reject Uganda's gay Bill | International opposition against Ndorwa West MP David Bahati's proposed anti-gay law continued to grow steadily, drawing support from such unlikely quarters as the White House (The Monitor, Uganda)
Uganda: Nsibambi Advises Clergy On Impartiality | The Prime Minister, Prof. Apolo Nsibambi, has urged religious leaders to be impartial when advising the Government on controversial issues (The New Vision, Uganda)
Ugandan MP Defends Controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill | Bahati on Warren: "It's unfortunate that a man who has inspired millions of people around the world for a long time would be blackmailed to disappoint them. It's a pity that he has opted to please the world instead of God." (Voice of America)
Support Our Work
Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month