The Martyrs of Uganda

Today, the Church remembers the Martyrs of Uganda, killed on this date in 1886.

Let us pray.

O God, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: Grant that we who remember before you the blessed martyrs of Uganda, may, like them, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ, to whom they gave obedience, even to death, and by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A reading from Matthew 24:9–14

Jesus said to his disciples, “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.”

The story of Christianity in Africa is messy, to put it mildly.  During the 33 year “Scramble for Africa,” European powers simply drew lines on maps, portioning off control of a continent that was not theirs for the taking, the Church played a lamentable role as missionary zeal mixed with political desire and a hunger for natural resources to create a toxic situation.

In Uganda, a nation claimed by British Empire, Anglican missionaries from the Church Missionary Society focused their attention on converting the King and his Court beginning in 1877.  When the sympathetic King Mutesa I died in 1884, his son, Kabaka Mwanga II took the throne.  Mwanga was concerned that his court was filled with pages who put loyalty to Jesus Christ ahead of loyalty to the king.  He feared that this religious influence would have a political impact as he felt the powers of Europe closing in around him.  On October 29, 1885, King Mwanga ordered the execution of Bishop James Hannington and his companions as they made their way from Lake Victoria out of fear of a British invasion.

Eight months later, on June 3, 1886, Mwanga ordered 32 young men, between the ages of 15 and 30, to be burned to death for their refusal to denounce their faith.  In the following months, many more were burned or tortured to death for their faith as Mwanga tried to eradicate the Christian faith and its European influence from his kingdom.

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous.  Under the threat of certain death for those who preached and sought out the preaching of the Gospel, Christianity began to grow in Uganda.  The example of martyrs, who walked to the flames singing hymns and praying for their enemies sparked a desire for such faith in many who witnessed those horrific events.  With no white, European missionaries to turn to, these new Christians were taught the faith by their neighbors, people who looked and spoke like them and shared their traditions, history, and customs.  As a result of this Christian faith that came from the voices of an indigenous population, today Uganda is the most Christian nation on the African Continent.

As inheritors of a Christian faith that has been used by empires to subjugate people, enforce political control, and rob people of their cultures, we should be cautious about thinking that Jesus is talking to us when he warns his disciples of the coming persecution.  Our faith tradition has often been the persecutor, not the persecuted.  We should, however, be all in on the commitment to endure in sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God throughout the world.  This Good News, as Matthew portrays it in his Gospel an impossibly simple one sentence sermon that Jesus preached again and again, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

If we are to learn anything from the Martyrs of Uganda, it is that the work of repentance is ongoing.  We must choose daily – and sometimes hourly or even minute by minute – to turn from the ways of self-preservation, anger, and bitterness and toward the way of love that Jesus showed us in this life and that the Martyrs of Uganda showed us in their deaths.  During these fearful and troubling times, may we all choose to follow the way of love and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

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