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Fighting oppression with faith: Archbishop Janani Luwum’s supreme sacrifice

Archbishop Janani Luwum put his very life on the line to defend those who could not fight for themselves

History has over and over again singled out a few mortals who dared to stand up for justice while living under oppressive and bloodthirsty governments. Uganda commemorates one of such people in the month of February each year. Archbishop Janani Luwum under the dark clouds fomented by former President Idi Amin Dada of Uganda. As Amin killed, maimed, tortured, terrorized, and harrassed his subjects, Archbishop Luwum stood nobly and gallantly in the gap, pleading, cajoling, insisting, and demanding a more just society. When in the end Amin could no longer tolerate the clergyman’s much-revered status in Uganda, East Africa and around the world, he snuffed life out of him.

Like Archbishop Luwum did, quite a number of Africans have had to pay the supreme price for their faith. Yet, many of these heroes remain unsung; their stories unknown and uncompiled across the continent and around the world. There is now a deep and urgent need for Africans of faith to learn from the stoicism of their ancestors in using their belief as a vehicle for the betterment of their societies.

Prior to answering God’s call to priesthood, Janani Luwum was a teacher. His conversion experience in 1948 at his teaching post caused him to weep so loudly that his neighbours ran to him, thinking he had lost someone very dear. Soon after this spectacular conversion experience, Teacher Luwum became convinced that he wanted to do much more for God and His people. So in 1949, he quit his job as a teacher and went to study at a theological seminary to become a minister of the gospel. Seven years after enrolling in the school of theology, Janani Luwum became a priest.

As a priest, Reverend Luwum’s love for God’s people and dedication to service were legendary. Using his bicycle, he was able to make the rounds of 24 congregations, located within a 40-mile radius, in his assigned district. Given his outstanding performance, the mother church in England was quick to notice the Reverend gentleman’s commitment to God and his people. Between 1958 and 1965, Reverend Janani Luwum spent some years in some of England’s notable theological colleges, where he gained an even greater understanding of the Church of England under which he was serving.After he finished his studies, Archbishop Janani Luwum finally went back to Uganda at a time many African countries had just gained their independence. He was chosen to be the provincial secretary of the Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Boga-Zaire. At this time, Africa was much more integrated and united.

But today, one of Africa’s greatest challenges is ethnic divisions. The divide-and-rule legacy of the colonialists has become so embedded in the country that many devastating wars in the region have been fought across ethnic lines. Some of these wars have been fuelled by people of faith whose hatred for other ethnicities (and faiths) runs so deep that their Christian injunction to love takes backstage. During the Rwandan genocide, many priests were instrumental in both urging people towards hatred of the Tutsi, as well as organizing for their massacre.

The archbishop was very much concerned with building a united church, devoid of ethnic cleavages. He wanted to dismantle the ethnic cleavages which the colonialists had used as a divide-and-rule strategy. Across all the places where he was vested with authority, Archbishop Janani Luwum tried to build unity across ethnic barriers. He was quoted as saying: “One of the problems that frustrate the church’s programs is a lack of unity of purpose. This is tearing us apart in many areas and instead of the church growing more and more together, the church is becoming more and more divided. My prayer is that the Good Lord will help us move away from selfish motives in favour of collective benefits and efforts which are of [a] more lasting value. It has been said that ‘united we stand, divided we fall. One wonders if the hardships and frustrations we have passed through during the years have not been a result of our divisions.”

The immediate post-independence period in Africa was characterized by political instability: coups and counter-coups characterized the landscape. At the root of much of this instability were the colonial powers, whose celebrated exit from their former colonies was, for the most part, superficial. The erstwhile colonialists covertly sought continued control of the resources of African states, and sought to maintain political relevance. It was in this kind of atmosphere that Luwum was appointed Bishop of the newly formed province in Northern Uganda.

In 1971, Idi Amin Dada seized power from Milton Obote, the second President of independent Uganda. The military coup was followed by bloody purges of opponents and threats of a bloodier consequence for would-be opponents. Terror filled the pulpit and the populace. Preachers disappeared for quoting Scripture, which Idi Amin considered unacceptable. Many ended up in detention centres, tortured for their faith. Archbishop Luwum was constantly engaged with security operatives, pleading for the lives of his colleagues.

In 1974, Archbishop Janani Luwum was elected Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boka-Zaire, and his status rose exponentially both regionally and globally. He was much respected for his humility, love for people and respect for authority. Yet, the Archbishop did not shy away from speaking the truth in his sermons. His people were being stripped daily of their dignity and brutalized by their government, and the Archbishop could not keep silent in the face of such inhumanity.

By 1976, Idi Amin had had enough of Archbishop Luwum’s fame. While he was preaching over the radio in December of that year, the president ordered the state-owned radio station to cut off the archbishop’s voice. Idi Amin would go on the radio later to accuse the archbishop of treason. It was obvious that the archbishop’s days in Uganda were numbered. Mary, his wife, pleaded with him to flee like most of his friends, but the archbishop refused; he would never abandon the sheep entrusted to his care by the good Lord. As long as there was still even one single Ugandan still living in the country, he would never leave the country, he reportedly said.

The death knell of Archbishop Luwum was sounded in February 1977, after he convened a meeting of Anglican archbishops in Uganda. It had become necessary as the atmosphere in Uganda was thick with fear. Security officers were beating, kidnapping, and wantonly barging into and looting the homes of citizens, including that of the archbishop. His house was raided at 1:30 a.m. one fateful night, and for 90 minutes, security agents ransacked his home in search of evidence to prove his disloyalty to the president. Finding nothing, they left the archbishop and his family traumatized. Arising from the meeting of archbishops, the dignitaries submitted a formal letter of protest to the government of Idi Amin. In part, the letter said, “We have buried many who have died as a result of being shot and there are many more whose bodies have not been found. The gun that was meant to protect Uganda as a nation, the Ugandan citizen, and his property, is increasingly being used against the Ugandan to take away his life and his property.”

Soon after writing the letter, the Archbishop told a critic, “I do not know for how long I shall be occupying this chair.” “I live as though there will be no tomorrow… While the opportunity is there, I preach the gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present government, which is utterly self-seeking.” In February of 1977, Idi Amin openly accused Archbishop Luwum of plotting with the former president, Milton Obote, to overthrow his government. It was the news of the day across Uganda’s state-controlled media, which reported that a cache of arms had been found near Luwum’s home as evidence.

The day after the accusation was made public, Idi Amin summoned a meeting of church leaders and officials of his government to make a formal complaint against Archbishop Luwum. On that very day, the archbishop was taken away by security officials. It was reported that before he was taken away, Archbishop Luwum told a ministry colleague, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.” The next day, the government announced that he had died in a car crash the day before.

At the time his life was snatched away, Archbishop Janani Luwum was a deeply revered gentleman of the collar, whose global reputation had long shielded him from Idi Amin’s boundless, endless, bloody fury. Over 45,000 Ugandans attended the archbishop’s funeral service, while many churches in Africa and around the world, including Westminster Abbey in London, held memorial services for him. Archbishop Luwum’s death galvanized strong international disdain against the government of Idi Amin. Within two years, Idi Amin was deposed by invading Tanzanian forces.

Archbishop Janani Luwum’s love for his people and his country serves as an inspiration to Christians all over the continent of Africa today. Africans will have to transcend the consignment of their faith to prayers, fellowship and other spiritual practices. Faith without works is dead. The good work that people of faith have been called to is “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” To share our bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into our home, to clothe the naked when we see them and to not turn away from our own flesh and blood (Isaiah 58:6-7).

In his lifetime, Archbishop Janani Luwum put his very life on the line to defend those who could not fight for themselves. Archbishop Janani Luwum is now a part of the great cloud of witnesses using their earthly lives to testify to people of faith across Africa today as to how to live and conduct their affairs. The Archbishop lived a simple life that was committed to the service of God and humankind. His moral convictions, ethical excellence, and fearless devotion should be emulated by all peoples of faith across Africa and beyond, towards the betterment of society.


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