In the Westminster Abbey gallery of 20th century Christian martyrs, Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, represents Africa. On the night of February 16-17, 1977, as the archbishop stood up to his government and spoke up on behalf of his suffering people, he received martyrdom at the hands of Idi Amin.
For a hundred years, Uganda had seen the passion of Christ through his people: sharing in his suffering and in the joy of the resurrection that transcends it.
As Jesus inaugurated his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, he declared that today these words of the prophet Isaiah have been fulfilled in your hearing:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
If the church has anywhere been called to share in the ministry and mission of Christ, in his passion and in his joy, it is here and now – here and now for Janani Luwum was Uganda in the time of Obote and Amin; for us it is here and now where we are today. And as he was called, we are called, to embody Christ in our own time and place, knowing that God is with us, before us to lead us, beside us to guide us, within us to inspire us, as we seek to serve him in this world.
During the 1880s, four decades before Janani Luwum was born, Christianity came to Uganda through Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries. Many of them and the people who responded to their message became martyrs straightaway, as the ruler of that time saw them as a threat.
In 1886 King Mwanga had 32 of his own followers, Christian converts, stacked like cordwood and burned. As they died, they sang praise to God and prayed for their persecutors. The killings did not have the intended effect: the Ugandan people, seeing the example of the martyrs, sought out the few remaining Christians to learn about the gospel - and the faith spread like wildfire.
We celebrate Uganda's 19th century martyrs beginning with James Hannington, and we celebrate its 20th century martyrs beginning with Janani Luwum.
Born in Acholiland in northern Uganda in 1922, Janani Luwum initially thought to become a schoolteacher. When, like his father before him, he converted to Christianity, he began immediately to share the word and speak out for God's justice for the people in the land. He became a figure of peace and reconciliation as he sought to give the gospel African expression. He encouraged his church to become economically independent and take its place among the churches of the globe as an equal partner in mission. He worked for the poor, for education and the alleviation of suffering. And he worked for justice.
Among his legacies are the leaders he helped to train, including the present archbishop of Uganda, Henry Luke Orombi, and the archbishop of York, John Sentamu. Thirty years after the death of Janani Luwum, Dr Sentamu, in his Martin Luther King memorial lecture on 20 January 2007, gave God's people a call to action that has implications beyond the walls of the lecture hall - or the church:
“We must do battle with the four modern demons of our time: Idolatry, materialism, militarism, and race-ism...
“We do not educate our opponents by refusing to sit down with them... The belief that we should not be in communion with those against whose views we are passionately opposed benefits neither side. The walls of ignorance and enmity are built higher still in the refusal to even attempt to win over our opponent but rather to prefer to walk our own way convinced of our own righteousness...
“The Christian response is grounded and formed in the words of Jesus: Love one another... This is the love that turns the other cheek, the love that stands in the face of suffering and refuses to be cowed, this is a love so strong that it bursts forth from the grave leaving behind it an empty tomb.”
As we move from Epiphany to Lent, from the season in which God illuminates us with the knowledge of his love embodied in his Son, to a season of preparation for welcoming and worshipping Christ in praise and practice, let us remember the Christian witness and example of Janani Luwum and the martyrs of Uganda, and make our own response to the gospel as bold as love.