One or two people have asked for an online text of today’s sermon, so I am posting that here. I will try and use this as the site of some of my occasional writings – either blog postings per se – or as a place to put written material that arises for other contexts.
Thanks for reading – comments are welcome and will be read and responded to.
Sunday 24th November 2013
Christ the King
On the west front of Westminster Abbey, above the level of the door, are ten niches – they were designed for figures of saints when the front was completed at the end of the 15thC, but somehow they were never filled. At the end of the last century, while the west front was being restored, the decision was taken to commemorate ten 20C Christians – all of whom had died because of their faith. In other words, who were martyrs.
The word has taken on unattractive resonances more recently – Islamist “martyr operations” means in terrorist speak people who commit suicide and who take as many others with them as they can. But the word has quite another meaning for Christians: its root is from the word marturos – meaning a witness, and it means someone who is not prepared to compromise their faith not even under the threat of death.
The Westminster Abbey martyrs are an interesting mix of the famous and the unknown. We have all heard of Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero. But one is a victim of domestic killing – Manche Masemola was a catechumen of 16 whose parents killed her in 1928. Wang Zhiming, a Chinese pastor, was executed in front of a crowd of 10,000 at the height of the Chinese cultural revolution. One died from inter-religious killing – Esther John, who died in Pakistan in 1960. They are Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican.
An astonishing seven of them died because they would not surrender their ultimate allegiance to the powers of this world, to the political rulers or systems of their day. How appropriate then, that on this feast of Christ the King, we should remember one of the Westminster 10, the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga (Zaire), Janani Luwum, who died on February 16th 1977.
Janani’s life and career is quickly told. Born around 1922 (date of birth unknown – not unusual in that time) in Mcwini in Kitgum district – in the north of Uganda near Sudan border, Janani was like lots of lads you can still see in Africa – a goatherd. But he did well at school and became a teacher. Converted to Christianity in 1948 he was soon preaching and was in trouble with local authorities for his message was disturbing the trade in local bars. The church sent him to theological college a year later in the east of the country. He was there a long time by modern standards, but was deaconed in 1955 and priested in 1956. Then followed thirteen years of working as a parish priest, a theological college principal and then as Secretary to the Province before he was consecrated Bishop of Northern Uganda in 1969, and then Archbishop of Uganda in 1974.
Luwum’s vision of the Christian mission, of what it meant to acknowledge the kingship of Christ, was broad and holistic. Tall, and notably gentle, but extremely hard-working and energetic, he was deeply committed to the development of the nation and of the part that the Church had to play in that. His was the first ever 10 year development plan that the Church had ever known. He looked for and supported all number of opportunities for young people’s education and development, both academic and practical. He was open-handed and open-hearted to refugees from both Rwanda and Sudan. He founded schools, health centres, hospitals, a dairy farm. To support all this activity he was also a shrewd businessman, investing in properties and businesses.
His connection with Southwell is tangential, but comes in two guises: when he was preparing to be consecrated bishop he was sent to study at the London College of Divinity – which we now know as St John’s College, Nottingham. And while Bishop of Northern Uganda his Diocesan Chancellor was a bright young Ugandan lawyer, and Chief Magistrate of Gulu District, one John Sentamu, now our Archbishop. Personally, I am a canon of the cathedral at Boga-Zaire, which was in his province when he was Archbishop.
In 1971 the then President Milton Obote was chased from office by an ambitious army officer, Idi Amin. Amin was unscrupulous and cruel – and, with power in his hands, and quite unconcerned about human rights, he set about plundering “the Pearl of Africa” for his own ends. Britain experienced the impact of his hurricane when he expelled all the Asian residents of Uganda at 90 days notice in 1972. His method of dealing with opponents was to make them disappear, permanently. The rule of law was ignored, and it became impossible for any effective political opposition to operate. With over 70% of the population having an allegiance to Christian Churches, the leadership of the churches became ever more important as providing one of the only means of offering any protest.
Janani was not afraid to speak out to another northern Ugandan, Amin. A Christmas broadcast in 1976 critical of the President was censored before the Archbishop had finished speaking. His home was raided on the President’s orders in the middle of the night on Feb 5th 1977, the soldiers allegedly looking for weapons. None were found. The Anglican bishops gathered, and wrote to the President a letter of protest at this and other violations of law. Janani took it to Amin personally. He knew, for he said as he signed it “that I am signing my death sentence”.
Amin arrested him at once. He was hauled before a public rally and accused of gun running and supporting ex-President Milton Obote. Taken away to the Nile Mansions Hotel, he was never seen again. It was reported that he had died in a car accident while trying to escape his captors. But nobody believed it. After a considerable delay his body was returned to his family in a sealed coffin. It was opened, of course, and the Archbishop was found to have been shot in the chest and through the mouth.
The church that had lost their Archbishop responded in a most extraordinary way to the announcement of the archbishop’s death. A funeral was arranged at Namirembe Cathedral, the spiritual home for Ugandan Anglicans, set on top of one of Kampala’s hills. A grave was dug, and tens of thousands of people streamed up the hill to attend. But no body was produced, and after a while the retired Archbishop Erica Sabiti spoke of the empty grave and the hope of resurrection. The crowd responded by bursting into the hymn Tukutendereza Yesu, the hymn of the Ugandan martyrs of the 1870s.
There was, understandably, an international outcry as the news spread. The murder of Janani marked, perhaps, the zenith of Amin’s regime. Before two years had passed he was gone, chased from power to die a lonely death in Saudi Arabia in 2003 – and denied burial in Uganda.
I’ve detained you with this extraordinary life because it is not well known – and it deserves to be. But I want to say two things that I believe Janani still speaks to us. First of all, he is a martyr who died because he would not keep silent. He would not keep silent when others in Uganda did, and when it would have been much easier and safer to pretend that religion was one thing and politics another and that it was not his place to speak. He spoke, because he was impelled by his faith in Christ to do so. And he was not a fool – he knew that speaking as he did would probably end his life.
We live in a situation of extraordinary ease, and almost total public security. We can say or do fairly much anything that we like. But all of us will have faced times when there is a choice before us. A choice to speak or to be silent, to collude or to confront, and, while the choice that confronts us may apparently have nothing religious about it, its moral character, and our moral response will be informed (or not) by our Christian conscience. Behind those moments lies the challenge to be faithful to Christ, or to deny him. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, when the goats are sent away from the King it is not because they were not religiously faithful at a critical point – but because they were not just, they failed to act justly in feeding the poor and clothing the naked and so on. In the early centuries the choice ofr Christians was stark – worship the Emperor or worship Christ. The choice is obvious – though the decision might be agonizing. The faithfulness for whose sake we should say ‘thus far and no further’, or for which we should speak out, is as likely as not to be clothed in non-religious form.
Secondly, Janani was a man who loved Christ and urged upon people constantly the call of Christ. But his devotion was expressed in his commitment to all the people of the country and his passion was for the development of the country as a whole. In these very different days we hear some religious leaders calling for the protection of religious freedom. And the protection of these freedoms seems sometimes to be more important than all else. But the witness of the martyrs, and that of Janani Luwum in particular is that fidelity to Christ will mean fighting for the good of all people, not just your own people.
As we enter Advent may the testimony of the martyr Janani Luwum call us to a deeper, and to an unafraid faithfulness to Jesus Christ, the Faithful Witness, the First and the Last. Amen.