Before October, I don't believe I could have pointed out Uganda on a map, but since the introduction of an "anti-homosexuality" bill into its legislature, more and more people are becoming intimately familiar with this East African country.
The "Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009" would sentence gays and lesbians to jail terms. It would also proscribe the death penalty for some if they are convicted of "aggravated homosexuality" for having sex with a minor of the same sex or having homosexual sex while HIV positive. There have been reports that the death penalty provision may be dropped, but whatever happens, the bill will most likely become law in February.
The bill has not attracted attention simply because of the severity of the punishment for homosexuality. Thirty-eight of Africa's 53 nations outlaw homosexuality, including Kenya where a homosexual act can land you in prison for up to 14 years. Homosexuality is widely seen in Africa as a "Western import" – and not something that could ever occur on its own on the continent. As the author of the bill, ruling party member David Bahati has said, "Homosexuality is not part of the human rights we believe in."
What makes this bill of interest around the world is the uniquely Western influence from the American Evangelical community on Africa in general and Uganda in particular. Probably the most well known name to be associated with Uganda is Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren who has heavily evangelized in Uganda, calling it a "purpose driven country," after his bestselling "Purpose Drive Life" books.
Under pressure, Warren finally spoke against the bill, condemning it as "unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals." His statement came after a group of mainline Christians, including United Church of Christ General Minister Geoffrey Black, issued a statement saying that the bill, "degrades the human family, threatens the common good and defies the teachings of our Lord - wherever it occurs."
There is no doubt that the issue of homosexuality continues to polarize communities, even here in America where the Episcopal Church has lost some congregations because of their ordination of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson. Some of those congregations have put themselves under the leadership of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola - who has spoken out strongly against homosexuality. The UCC has had its own struggles with this issue as many churches chose to leave the denomination after the 2005 Synod vote that affirmed marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
For their part, Ugandans resent Western interference and criticism of the bill. A group of Ugandan pastors sent a letter to Warren, insisting that he apologize for "insulting the people of Africa" with his condemnation of the bill. Ugandan leaders insist they are following Biblical teaching by sentencing gays and lesbians to death or incarceration since homosexuality is "evil".
It's interesting to note, however, how Jesus handled a case that should have resulted in the death penalty for the offender. In John 8, a woman take in adultery was about to get the sentence proscribed for her crime, but instead of insisting on the letter of the law, Jesus insisted on mercy. That, too, is our call as Christ's followers: whether one believes that homosexuality is a sin or not, Jesus' example is clear - our response should always be one of mercy and not condemnation.
That's not an easy call to fulfill, however. Theology student Cody Sanders, writing in an opinion piece in the Associated Baptist Press this month, called for common ground on the gay and lesbian issue, challenging churches to at least agree that gay and lesbian people should not be violently assaulted for being who they are.
A look at the comments showed what a challenge that would be. Mark Osgatharp said such compassion is a tool of the devil: "All such calls for cooperation between the lovers of truth and the minions of Satan are just a way for Satan to make himself look compassionate and harmless and to infect the churches of the living God with heresy."
Such bloodlust though clearly violates Jesus' ethic of mercy. As people of faith, whether we agree on the issue of homosexuality or not, it is incumbent upon each of us to speak out wherever injustice is happening. As the apostle Paul reminds us, we are one body, and whenever one portion of the body suffers, we all suffer. We cannot sit idly by while the gay and lesbian portion of Christ's body is mutilated and murdered. Doing so constitutes a corporate sin of which we are all guilty.
The Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge is the associate pastor of Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia, SC and is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians.