The Martyrs of Uganda are celebrated on June 3rd. While the feast is not well known in the West, it is a big day in much of Africa. Martyrs Day on June 3 is a national holiday in Uganda. The men who were martyred were Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians and this year marked the 50th anniversary of their canonization by Pope Paul VI.
The story of their death is hair-raising. The Satucket Lectionary on the Holy Women Holy Men website says:
On 3 June 1886, thirty-two young men, pages of the court of King Mwanga of Buganda, were burned to death at Namugongo for their refusal to renounce Christianity. In the following months many other Christians throughout the country died by spear or fire for their faith.’
These martyrdoms totally changed the dynamic of Christian growth in Uganda. Introduced by a handful of Anglican and Roman missionaries after 1877, the Christian faith had been preached only to the immediate members of the court, by order of King Mutesa. His successor, Mwanga, became increasingly angry as he realized that the first converts put loyalty to Christ above the traditional loyalty to the king. Martyrdoms began in 1885. Mwanga first forbade anyone to go near a Christian mission on pain of death, but finding himself unable to cool the ardor of the converts, resolved to wipe out Christianity.
Their deaths was the spark that began a remarkable expansion of the Christian Gospel in eastern and central Africa. It is a story of remarkable faithfulness in the face of the violence and power of the state.
But the story of the Ugandan Martyrs has changed. Their witness is no longer remembered in terms of the resistance of the faithful to the demands of a human king. Instead, their story has been used to justify homophobia and violence . Because in addition to demanding that the thirty-two men renounce their Christian faith, King Mwanga also demanded that they submit to him sexually. As a result their story is used to justify both hatred of homosexuality in general and violence against gay and lesbian people in particular.
The transformation of their story from a story of sexual violence exercised by king into a moralistic story against homosexuality is similar to how the church of the Middle Ages, the Victorian era and even in our time, transformed the story of first Christian women who were martyred…women who were often called virgins.
In the early church there was a strong connection between a woman’s chastity and martyrdom with several examples of women choosing death over rape or forced marriages, and so on.
One the hallmarks of the early church was that it was a place that accepted “widows” and “orphans,” who were not simply women or children whose husbands and parents predeceased them, but who were women and children cast off by society because their bond to that society was severed either by the death of–or very often the whim of– a man. A woman whose husband put her out and whose father and brothers would not take back was a “widow.”
Similarly, the children of a man who would not accept paternity–the child of a mistress or a slave or conceived through rape or simply not accepted in the family (like an expensive girl-child)– were put out to fend for themselves in the society of the Greek and Roman world.
Slavery was one answer to this. Not the chattel slavery that we think of, but a high-order indentured servitude. People, in short, could and did become property.
The early church offered a place and a status to women and children by welcoming and caring for the widowed and orphaned. The idea that a woman could choose chastity over involuntary sex with a person not of her choosing, and this choice was considered not rebellious but virtuous was a radical aspect of the Christian gospel. Paul’s affirmation that in Christ there is no “slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female” but that all are one in Christ takes on a particularly radical and poignant perspective in this context.
In this context, “virginity” was not so much about sexual restraint as the refusal to allow others to choose when, how and with whom a woman may exercise her sexuality. Early church saints and martyrs like Cecile, Agatha and Agnes were choosing not to participate in a society that made women the property of some man, in a world where sex was a sign of domination and power instead of intimacy.
The impact of their witness was lost when chastity and virginity became more about morals and regulating women’s bodies in later times but understanding their original context can help us in understanding what to make of the Martyrs of Uganda.
For one thing, in the story of the king demanding sex with these Christian captives, there is very little connection with how we understand homosexuality (as an orientation) or marriage (as an equal partnership based on mutual love and mutual commitment) or even healthy sexuality today.
Like the early Christian martyrs, what the Martyrs of Uganda refused was the power of an earthly king who wanted to demonstrate his power over these slaves–and the powerlessness of the Gospel–by attempting to have forcible sex with helpless victims. What they refused was the use of sex as a expression of power–in this case political and religious–through the humiliation of rebellious subjects. Their refusal was an affirmation that in Christ each person has inherent dignity and worth. As they went to their gruesome deaths singing and praying, they proved that God’s power builds up while human power degrades.
Their witness is a powerful example today where sexual violence is widespread in conflicts all over the world.
Participants at last week’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, agreed that faith communities can have significant influence to end the sexual violence that still takes place all over the globe.
Faith leaders and faith-based organizations have a vital role to play in engaging their communities in both the prevention of, and response to, sexual violence in conflict..
…faith communities are often at the center of communities and able to be first responders in times of crisis. They can challenge the attitudes associated with sexual violence and address perceptions that can lead to inequality and the spread of violence.
Those who use the witness of the Martyrs of Uganda to condemn homosexual persons, or to denigrate same sex marriage or as an excuse to persecute GLBT persons miss the power of the original witness of the Martyrs of Uganda. They reduce their deaths to a story of paranoia and social control. In short, they accomplish precisely was the Ugandan king failed to do in 1886.
Instead, the Martyrs of Uganda are a powerful example of how the Church can—and does—stand against sexual violence of all kinds and in all places.