Thursday, February 17, 2022

Protest and Politics - A Christian's sacred task?


Ecclesiasticus 4.20–28

Watch for the opportune time, and beware of evil,

   and do not be ashamed to be yourself.

For there is a shame that leads to sin,

   and there is a shame that is glory and favour.

Do not show partiality, to your own harm,

   or deference, to your downfall.

Do not refrain from speaking at the proper moment,

   and do not hide your wisdom.

For wisdom becomes known through speech,

   and education through the words of the tongue.

Never speak against the truth,

   but be ashamed of your ignorance.

Do not be ashamed to confess your sins,

   and do not try to stop the current of a river.

Do not subject yourself to a fool,

   or show partiality to a ruler.

Fight to the death for truth,

   and the Lord God will fight for you.


John 12.24–32

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’  The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’  Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’



Today, we mark the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum – a modern-day martyr.  Luwum was born 100 years ago, in 1922 at Acholi in Uganda.  His childhood and youth were spent as a goatherd but he quickly showed an ability to learn when given the opportunity. Soon after he became a teacher, he was converted to Christianity and was eventually ordained in 1956, becoming Bishop of Northern Uganda in 1969 and Archbishop of Uganda in 1974.

Idi Amin had come to power in Uganda in 1971 (as the result of a military coup) and his undemocratic and harsh rule was the subject of much criticism by the Church and others. As you will know, his rule was characterised by great violence; it is estimated that around half a million Ugandans lost their lives due to Amin’s policies.  He also used the technique of blaming ‘outsiders’ for his country’s problems, (a common technique of despotic rulers).  This led to the expulsion of an entire ethnic group – around 50,000 Asian Ugandans.  Interestingly, many of these fled to the UK, where some famously set up corner shops. By virtue of the long hours they were prepared to work, ignoring the customs of half-day closing, of not trading on Sundays or late at night, Asian shop-keepers ultimately transformed the entire British attitude to shopping.

But let’s get back to Archbishop Luwum.  In 1977, Luwum delivered a note of protest, on behalf of the House of Bishops to Idi Amin.  It was a protest against the Amin’s policy of arbitrary killings and the unexplained disappearances of his political rivals.   Soon afterwards, Archbishop Luwum and two of Amin’s own government ministers were found dead following an apparent car accident. It emerged quickly that they had, in fact, died on the implicit instructions of the president.  Their bodies were riddled with bullet holes.  Rumours abounded that Amin himself had pulled the trigger.

Luwum’s enthusiasm for the good news of Jesus, combined with his willingness to stand up for Godly principles in politics, led him to his martyrdom on this day in 1977.  His life, and his death, stand as an important outworking of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading we’ve just heard.  Luwum understood that it is sometimes necessary for Christians to risk their very lives in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus said ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.  This was so true, of Luwum.  Had he not stood up against Amin, he would perhaps have been remembered only as someone who had silently gone along the prevailing, poisonous politics of his time, like many church leaders who prefer ‘a quiet life’.  But, by being willing to let his grain of seed fall to the ground, Luwum inspired millions of Ugandans to resist Amin’s tyrannical rule, and millions of others around the world to be prepared to call out injustice wherever it is found.   

Luwum’s reputation as a shining example to all Christians was cemented when his statue was included among the ten modern martyrs on the West front of Westminster Abbey.

Our other reading for today comes from the book of Ecclesiasticus, otherwise known as the Wisdom of Sirach.  It’s late book, written only a century or so before Jesus came to earth – and as such is treated with honour by the church, but not part of the official ‘canon’ of ancient Scriptures.  Amongst its wisdom we find phrases like those we just heard, which are certainly worth pondering.  My eye was drawn, most especially, to this line:

“Do not subject yourself to a fool, or show partiality to a ruler.”

Archbishop Luwum would most certainly have known this text – or at the very least, its truth found reflected in other Scriptures.  He refused to subject himself to the foolish ruler of Uganda.  He refused to show partiality to Idi Amin. 

There is, I think, a tendency in all human politics to align ourselves to one particular party, or ruling elite.  We quickly learn, from that party, that all other parties are full of evil, devious, people who want to destroy our way of life.  Nothing that our opposing parties say is worth hearing.  There is no wisdom to be found in them.  They are all idiots, or seditionists, who want to ruin our country.

Of course, the truth is something else entirely.  No one party, or political ruler, has a monopoly on wisdom.  Nor will any one party get every decision right, or wrong.  Our leaders are just like us, in fact:  imperfect human beings, who see through a glass darkly.

The sacred task of the Christian citizen is to have the courage to stand up against any political idea which runs counter to the principles of the Kingdom – from whichever political camp that idea emerges.  How far each of us is prepared to go in that task is a matter between each of us and God.  There is a spectrum of protest on which we all stand; nearer one end or the other. 

At the very least, we are called upon to cast our votes wisely.  For some of us, however, our sacred call may mean signing a petition, or taking part in a protest.  For others (especially those of us who are skilled with words) it will mean writing letters of protest to politicians.  For some, it may mean standing for political office, as members of our congregation have done, and indeed are doing.  For some, it may even mean being prepared to let our own grain of truth fall to the ground through martyrdom, so that by our example, much fruit may flourish.

Archbishop Luwum stood at that far end of the spectrum of protest, against the rule of a fool.  His example, however, leaves each of us with a question, and a challenge:  where do we stand?  What will we do today, this week, right now, to cast our own grain of Kingdom truth into the ground of earthly politics.  Which Kingdom principles are being ignored, or stomped upon, by our politicial leaders?  And what are we going to do about it?

            So let us remember Archbishop Luwum with gratitude: giving thanks for his witness and his willingness to give everything for the Kingdom; and for his example to us all.



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