Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion
Dana L. Robert
240 pp., 36.99
Holy Space in Uganda
The most interesting chapter in Dana Robert's beautiful new book Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell) describes the relatively recent cult around the feast day of Bernard Mizeki, a Mozambican missionary and martyr who evangelized the Shona of southern Africa in the 19th century. For some time, white Anglicans observed his June 18th feast day with English reserve. And then, amidst the rejection of colonialism, the observance became Africanized, Bernard a symbol of indigenous African Christianity. Gatherings of hundreds at the place where he died became gatherings of hundreds of thousands, where "the mountainside is alive with worship to God." Some aspects of this long weekend celebration are alarming, as with any (humanly) unplanned new movement of the Spirit. For example, one of the many pilgrims seeking healing, already being frail, will likely die during the feast. When this happens it is said that Bernard's spirit takes one person with him in revenge for his martyrdom! Such excess enthusiasm is to be expected alongside vast multilingual communion services, healings, exorcisms, theatrical reenactments of his life, and more.
One might take this enthusiasm to be typical of "African religion"—with the sort of sneer westerners once reserved for animists and Muslims. But with Africa as Christianity's future (as Robert and others prophesy), and such respectful treatments of its layered sophistication as hers, what more faithful thing can we say about such observances of the faith as the cult of Mizeki?
On a recent trip to Uganda I discovered a dramatically different Anglican way of observing revered founding missionaries: in almost total silence. And I saw a very different Roman Catholic way of remembering the same missionary founders. Could Africa's greatest gift to the church catholic through time and space be the blurring of such lines as these ("Catholic" and "Protestant") in a new conflagration of the Spirit?
We all know why Catholics and Protestants have different conceptions of holy space. The Reformers rightly worried that if an object or material space could hold holiness like a ziplock holds water, then people would revere bones, statues, and cathedrals instead of Jesus. Catholics have always responded that material things are blessed since God became matter in Christ and that it is not inappropriate to reverence the church, the eucharist, and the saints in continuity with this fleshy God. Both sides have strong cases.
Last summer I asked (the obviously Catholic) Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala, Archbishop emeritus of Kampala, whether the Methodists were growing in his country. He said, "If it is a religion, it is growing in Uganda." Around 80 percent of Uganda's 30 million people are Christian, with about 1/3 each belonging to Rome and the Anglican communion.
The foundational story in Ugandan Catholicism is that of the Uganda Martyrs. In the mid 1880s, Catholic and Anglican missionaries from France and England were finding some success among the pages who served at the court of the Kabaka, the king of Buganda (that kingdom is still the most powerful of several kingdoms that make up the modern republic of Uganda). A previous Kabaka had been open to Christianity, if a bit confused as to why the English mission agency and the French White Fathers couldn't get along. But his son, Mwanga I, listened to traditionalist religious leaders and Muslims who warned the Christians just wanted his throne. Did not his pages not pray that some other kingdom would come? The Kabaka expected his pages, like sycophants (politics is always politics), to cheer him when he returned from a hunt. Once when they failed to do so, he was enraged to learn they were at the missions. The pages who converted also began resisting the king's sexual advances. Finally Mwanga was alerted that a new mission was approaching from the east. Unfortunately for the Anglican missionary-bishop Hannington, Bugandan legend said a usurper would come from that direction. Once Bishop Hannington was dispatched, the Kabaka's Catholic prime minister, Joseph Mukasa, defiantly told the king he was wrong to kill the bishop. At last the Kabaka demanded that the Christians in his court choose him or Jesus. Forty-five of them, about evenly divided between Catholic and Anglican, chose the King of Kings over the King of Buganda, and paid with their lives: by torture and then slow burning—feet first, to give them a chance to recant. They sang praises to God instead.
The story is important in both Anglican and Catholic communions in Uganda. But Catholics do a bit more to show it. Actually a lot more. Most of the Catholics we met were named for a Ugandan martyr (Ugandans choose their children's surnames in addition to their first names, so they have more names to dole out). Countless institutions like schools, shops, and of course churches are named for Sts. Kizito, Mukasa, Lwanga, Mathias Murumba, and more. The story appears in Catholic stained glass and painting from the greatest to the most humble churches. And the Feast of the Uganda Martyrs is celebrated every year on June 3 with an attendance of some one million people from all over Africa. Dozens of bishops attend and co-preside. These gather near Buganda's Calvary, Namugongo—once Buganda's place of execution. An outdoor pavilion has been built for the throng around the pond where the executioners used to wash after their gruesome work. Pilgrims now bottle that water, once mixed with the blood of martyrs, to drink and bathe in.
The Catholics have built a magnificent shrine at Namugongo. It is shaped like a traditional Bugandan hut, with 22 pillars reaching to the heavens, symbolizing the 22 Catholic martyrs. If from the outside it looks unfortunately like an enormous lunar module, on the inside it looks like heaven, with oceans of dark mahogany. The altar is built over the spot where one Charles Lwanga died, and his bones and ashes are visible if you kneel down low enough (not a bad posture for any Christian). A photo on the wall shows Pope Paul VI kneeling to kiss the spot, as millions have since his visit. "Two hundred and thirty popes came and went before one visited Africa," a tour guide told us, explaining the continent's love for the pope who canonized of the Uganda Martyrs. A number of nuns seem to spend all their time at the shrine, like Simeon and Anna in the temple, awaiting their savior.
To say the Anglican shrine was a letdown would be a vast understatement. The Anglicans had no commemorative structure until the announcement of Paul VI's upcoming visit in the late 1960s. So they built a historic reconstruction of the event. Statues of martyrs bound in reeds lie in a hut, as though about to be burned. In another corner of the yard sits a re-creation of the executioner's hut. A plaque says a certain tree grows in the spot where a previous tree stood which had been a site of torture before the martyrdoms. Another commemorates Paul's visit. Other plaques teach of famous conversions: the executioner of the Ugandan martyrs and eventually the kings of Buganda who succeeded Mwanga.
The church in the place is in pitiful shape. The cross above the steeple is crooked. Windows in plastic, not stained glass, are shattered. Pews are arranged haphazardly. Chickens and dogs wandered the yard. No tour guide was even present when we arrived, so we showed ourselves in. Even if one wanted to kneel or pray, there is no place to do so. This is Protestantism to the nth degree: historical re-creation, stories of famous conversions, and no provision to hallow ground or bones.
Things were little better at the magnificent Anglican cathedral of Namirembe, one of the grandest ecclesial structures in east Africa. I went in and asked to see the tombs of Bishop Hannington and of his successor and fellow martyr-bishop Janani Luwum, killed for standing up to the dictator Idi Amin. In a beautiful gesture, he was originally buried beside Hannington—one Episcopal opponent to tyrants at rest by another.
The receptionist at the cathedral glared in response to my question. "Luwum has been moved. Hannington is out back." I went looking for the cemetery and found it in disarray. Vines grew over stones. The grass was not cut. There was far more mud to traverse than sidewalk. I couldn't find the man whose last words were "Tell the king I die for Uganda." I almost gave up, till I saw his stone off to the side, out of view, with nothing to distinguish it from any of the other graves. At least his last words were etched there. Perhaps the dying words explain the lack of reverence: they can be interpreted a bit too messianically for Protestant taste.
Anglicans have long claimed that their church occupies a middle ground between Protestant and Catholic, with elements of each. To my mind, why be Anglican at all if not to worship with smells and bells—and, among some Anglo-Catholics, with Latin and bones? But the Church Mission Society that evangelized East Africa was as low-church as one can be, and that heritage persists in Ugandan Anglicanism.
Ugandan Anglicans are right to be wary of pagan elements in drinking holy water and kissing bones. Catholics themselves have pastoral admonitions they'll make against moments of excess, even if they don't heed them as often as we might like. It would be hard to argue against money going to evangelism or feeding Uganda's legions in poverty. But I felt deprived of a place to pray at Hannington's grave, a kneeler at the Anglican Uganda Martyrs shrine, maybe even a place to touch reminding me of the quite physical death of the martyrs in imitation of Christ.
The glory of the story of the Uganda Martyrs is that it is so deeply ecumenical. It is as important in Ugandan culture as the Virgin of Guadalupe is in Mexican, yet it is so much more approachable than La Virgin for Protestant sensibilities. We might be able to understand or sympathize with Guadalupe, at best. But I actually fell in love with the story of the Uganda Martyrs. I can see why one would name a child, a church, a school after them.
If you have a story like that of the Uganda Martyrs, why not make some space, both literally and figuratively, for others to love the story and ask for the grace to imitate it? Zimbabwean Anglicans have done so in spades—setting aside an entire mountain with which to remember what God has done in Bernard Mizeki. Perhaps we in today's west, for not the last time, have something to learn here from African Christians.
Jason Byassee is executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.