O God, whose Son the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep: We give you thanks for your faithful shepherd, Janani Luwum, who after his Savior’s example gave up his life for the people of Uganda. Grant us to be so inspired by his witness that we make no peace with oppression, but live as those who are seated with the cross of Christ, who died and rose again, and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. *
It seems that every so often when I’m reading the office for the day, I find myself reading about people who existed within my life span. It kind of amazes me, but then, the call of God and the responses to that call are not that uncommon even in the in this age.
Janani Luwum born in 1922 and was a schoolteacher just prior to his conversion in 1948. He rose through the ranks of the church from lay reader to becoming a priest in 1956. In 1969, after study in Britain, he was named archbishop of Northern Uganda.
It was a precarious time in Uganda. Not only were ordinary Christians in danger from 1971 on, when a dictator and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Uganda, staged a coup against his predecessor, Milton Obote, the Prime minister. The usurper was Idi Amin, and his name and reputation are still known today as one of the most lethal and cruel of dictators. He distrusted anyone who did not support him, and frequently those people disappeared without a trace. Soldiers were shot in their barracks because Amin feared they too might try a coup against him as he had done to his predecessor. Foreigners were forced to leave, and Christians were killed for little or no reason. It was a perilous time, a time full of fear and a time to keep your head down and try not to attract attention. James Kiefer gives a biography of Janani Luwum that speaks of his life and struggles.
The name of Idi Amin was very familiar in the 1970s for his cruelty, treachery, and brutality. It was hard not to see him in somewhat the same frame as a Hitler. In his 8-year rule, over 300,000 Ugandans were massacred, among them was Archbishop Janani Luwum in 1977.
When the casket containing his body was opened, the level of atrocity committed upon him was undeniable. His courage in speaking out against a corrupt and evil regime and his faith had encouraged his people. His faithfulness in the face of death had a powerful impact on the people of Uganda, and many who had forsaken Christianity returned to the faith, encouraged by the memory of Archbishop Luwum and others who had been martyred for their own faith.
I remember hearing about the atrocities Amin had called down on his own people. It was almost too sickening to read and hear about, but it was in the news with great regularity during those days of repression and oppression with a dictator who caused mass murder and genocide without compunction, without regard or even remorse. There were several in the world at that time, and now even now reading about the times when these atrocities were happening is still stomach churning and nauseating. But then there are those who like Luwum who stood up against all odds and in total danger of losing their lives for their cause. That is a reason for celebration. These were people who took the words of Jesus seriously, the words about caring for one another and loving their brothers and sisters even until death. He died a martyr’s death, and is considered a martyr for the faith today, especially in his home country of Uganda but now also recognized around the world.
We often run up against things that overwhelm us. This past week yet another school shooting took place, in Florida this time, and young people, the fruits of our generation and our children’s generation, the future leaders of our country, were mowed down for some almost inexplicable reason. This time, it was by of a young man of 18 years of age who believed a hate group that sought to create an all-white society. It’s sick. There have been a number of school shootings just since the first of the year and many young people have died because of people who wanted, like Amin, to rule their way and without any opposition. It is sad, and more than sad, it’s tragic. We haven’t seen another Amin yet, but that is not to say there is not one rising somewhere, and we cannot say where that somewhere is.
It’s not easy to be a martyr. By martyr, I mean people facing real danger, real life and death situations, not just people whose opinions and beliefs other people don’t accept. Martyrs pay with the price of blood that has been shed by the hands of evil. Luwum knew this and yet he continued, just like others have done. He trusted that God would care for him and would give him the strength and the ability to face whatever had to be faced so that others could be free and safe.
Every time I read of a new martyr that I have heard very little about, I wonder if I would ever have to face a similar situation or if I would have the courage of Luwum if I found myself in a similar situation. It is hard to know how any of us would react to facing evil and maintaining our faith as we face any instrument of death. Jesus showed us, and Luwum followed that example. His death gave us a new example of faith in action. I wonder, with all that’s going on in the world, all the turmoil, the deaths of innocents, and the wannabe rulers of the world growing in strength and cunning, if we will have to make that choice and face that evil.
I will try to keep Archbishop Janani Luwum in my mind as a person of faith, character, strength, and most of all faith. I think if I (and we) could look to examples of Christians like him, I (and we) might find the strength to try and overcome the problems that we face today in a world of violence, oppression, and fear.
May God bless Janani Luwum with peace that he did not have on earth and with a place with the angels surrounding the throne of God whom he trusted and never denied.
*Church Publishing Incorporated, 2016, A Great Cloud of Witnesses.
Image: Janani Luwum