Our friends at ACET graciously loaned us God Loves Uganda, a film tracing the relationship between the atrocious (and recently overturned) Ugandan "death penalty" bill for "repeat practitioners" of homosexuality and the imported evangelical missions movement.
I'd heard bits and pieces about this film for awhile, with slight interest, as it followed a fringe megachurch* on the outskirts of my hometown, but I honestly didn't pay much attention when it was released. Everyone knows this group is a little wacky, I thought. It never occurred to me it might have any bearing on or relation to our work, or my hometown, or the American evangelical community at large.
But I was wrong. And even a couple of months later, I'm still struggling to put words to my thoughts. I mean, who can really touch on all this is about, the complexities and the history and the trauma? Or even our own complicity?
Naive or Incendiary?
The film begins as we follow a short-term missions team from this controversial mega-church based in Kansas City. Tracing their footsteps, while mirroring them with the increasingly dangerous dialog about the gay community, sex education and a nation-wide AIDS crisis, the filmmakers sought to show the effect American Christians had in criminalizing gay behaviour in Uganda, including introduction of the death penalty.
While the team's arrival seemed to coincide with the feverish elevation of the Ugandan anti-gay movement, there did not appear to be an infallible link between this culturally naive group of young adults and the parliamentary battle to rid the country of gay people.
To be fair, the team's seemingly vague awareness of the cultural wars at play was troubling. A large part of entering world missions, even on a short term basis, requires one to actively investigate, engage and grow within the culture. Either their ignorance was put on to escape answering questions or they were vastly underprepared for the their ministry.
There is another proposition, though, and one in which I believe the filmmakers were trying to insinuate: is this hate speech? Is preaching what one believes the Bible says on any number of sins - particularly sexual sins - akin to a hate crime? Is it homophobic, is it incendiary? And if so, does this act alone assume responsibility for the anti-gay movement in that country's context?
Yes, they were preaching what they believed God had to say about sexual purity and sin. And yes, their vocalness on this one issue (I'm sure they spoke on other spiritual matters, though a 2-hour documentary can only show us so much) was ill-timed and unwise at best, inflammatory and antagonistic, at worst. But I'm not sure their obviously authentic devotion correlates with the actions of a handful of extremely onerous Ugandan pastors* and political figures.
Who used whom?
The film also presents two American instigators of the discriminatory and violent anti-gay bill. These men are fringe figures at best, having not much presence or pull in the US evangelical scene. In fact, I hadn't heard of either of them before, and I've been submerged in the American Evangelical subculture all my life.
Though I abhorred their rhetoric, these men should not be treated as examples of modern American Christianity, just as the Ugandan pastors profiled don't represent all Christians in Uganda. They were certainly there on a mission - one which I detest - to dehumanize, criminalize and damn an already marginalized, already at risk segment of society. A mission that a few national pastors were all too willing to embrace and capitalize on.
One wonders who used whom in this death-bill scenario: frustrated American preachers whose sermons fell on deaf ears in their homeland, spreading a homophobic message to open and willing ears on the brink? Or the few dodgy Ugandan pastors who were already in the midst of cultural turmoil and openly expressed their need for mouthpieces - and money - from the US? Or the filmmakers, in need of a connection and placing the weight of judgment on an impassioned group of young American Christians?
A demanded response
God Loves Uganda was affecting and thought-provoking. It was obviously a film made with loving care, with a discerning eye trying to connect the dots between evangelism and extreme persecution. It shows the relationship between Christianity and cultural contextualism, between sin and society. It did a tremendous job sharing Ugandan stories: introducing us to the spiritual leaders who had been persecuted for questioning the systemic issues; pastors who had been excommunicated for supporting gay rights; advocates who were murdered just for being gay.
But it was not an easy film to watch. Awkward ignorance, cruelty and brief, graphic sexual images enhanced the shock factor, opening my eyes to a country that is in despair and confusion. It was infuriating and heartbreaking and demanded a response.
It demanded I look to myself and see where my motives lie, where I use my voice, where I misuse my power. And it revealed the extreme importance of how we treat context, how we import our own prejudices and passions without even realizing it. A film like this calls us all to heighten our awareness of our own privilege, to be aware of how we can be taken or mistaken; how we can use others, or how they might use us. It also begs us to consider how we treat LGBT people in our midst, in our communities and especially in our churches.
Do we love? Or do we condemn?
I can't say that young team of missionaries went to Uganda to spread hate and damn gay lives. Maybe they unintentionally did so, failed by their leaders and unaware of the minefield they were stepping into. But the underlying message of evil American missionaries moving to an unsuspecting developing country to inflict intentional harm and chaos cuts me to the quick.
That message is not the story I see every day.
It is not the norm. It is the exception... the disturbing, unique exception. For the first thing we learn before moving overseas, before the ministry training and cultural engagement, before we can even step foot beyond our doorstep:
God loves Uganda. And Ireland. And America. And so on and so on and so on.
And so must we.
PS - I appreciated the bonus features, which gave us insight into an array of discussions and Q&A with the director, as well as a short film profiling the "Pastor Wars" within Uganda.
PPS - If you're Ireland-based, I'd love for you to visit ACET's website on how to support their wonderful work in coming alongside those who have been affected by HIV.
*PPPS - I have opted to not name names in this post for two reasons: one, because of the relationships I have and value back home where the church above is based. And two, because I only know the people (the Ugandan pastors and the two male American missionaries) as portrayed through the movie. I feel like I can't write about them with authority based on the film alone. So I'm being vague on purpose. Names, places and dates are all available in the documentary. Thanks for your understanding.