Religious leaders and call to justice in Uganda

It is now recognized that to bring about justice or fairness in Uganda will require inclusiveness, full participation, solidarity and compassion. In other words it means involvement of all sections of society: religious and traditional leaders, political and civil society leaders, security forces, youth, students and women. Religious leaders in Uganda have a special responsibility to end injustice because they interact directly or through networks with the population and appreciate its suffering better than most observers and are therefore in a position to recommend appropriate and location specific short and long term action-oriented solutions. The Christmas sermons in 2011 were very powerful in this regard. You need to build on that solid foundation in 2012. To facilitate your work and remove some possible obstacles in relations between religion and politics let us review in a historical perspective the work of religious leaders and theologians to end injustice.

Religion is in many ways about justice and compassion and a search for ways and means to end the suffering of the have-nots even strangers. That is what the story of the Good Samaritan is all about. From time immemorial religious leaders and theologians have championed the cause of victims of injustice – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the landless and the oppressed. Religious writings have reminded us that God created the earth and all its contents for all people to share fairly. Saint Ambrose was emphatic when he observed that the earth belongs to all and not only to the rich. We have also been reminded that everyone has a right to basic goods and services such as food, clothing, shelter and healthcare along with the means to obtain them. These include equal opportunity, quality and relevant education and gainful employment in decent working conditions. In his letter of 1891 titled Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), Pope Leo XIII supported the right to organize trade unions and to strike for fair wages and decent working conditions. Later popes wrote their own social encyclicals on the fortieth, seventieth, eightieth, and ninetieth anniversaries of Rerum Novarum’s publication.

USA’s Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently told a story about Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. With reference to Christian values Saint Thomas Aquinas added that with diligent rulers there should be a sufficient supply of the necessities for a good life for everyone. However, Francis of Assisi warned that pursuit of money and power too often leads to corruption and by implication to an unjust society. When the British government wanted more money and imposed a poll tax in the 14th century on peasants that were already over burden with other charges they refused to pay. With the assistance of priest John Bull and peasant leader Wat Tyler, they revolted and the poll tax was dropped. When Margaret Thatcher imposed it again it led to a revolt that contributed to her loss of office as prime minister of Britain.

During the French revolution a priest led preparations of the Third Estate (the commoners) in the negotiations with the privileged First Estate (the clergy) and Second Estate (the aristocracy). Many of the constraints on the commoners (peasants and middle class) were removed. In Latin America religious leaders played an important role in the decolonization of the region. In recent times church leaders have been in the forefront of liberation movements to end ownership of wealth by a small group while the vast majority of the people who create that wealth live in abject poverty. To end inequality many church leaders and theologians incorporated the Good News of Jesus and the Church’s teachings on social justice into the innovative and influential Liberation Theology, meaning liberation of masses from oppressive and exploitative minority forces preferably by peaceful means. The 1971 Synod of Bishops called for political and social action to address the influence of the new technological order that has concentrated wealth, power and decision making into the hands of a small group. Archbishop Oscar Romero was one of the religious leaders known as the voice of the voiceless. Liberation theology has become a powerful tool for political change in many developing countries where inequality and oppression have become intolerable, thus virtually erasing the boundary between religion and politics. The role of late Pope John Paul II in the liberation of his home country Poland from the clutches of communist oppression is too well known to be repeated here. Suffice it to note that it too represents another example of combining religion and politics for a noble and worthy cause.

In many parts of the world Christians are coming forward to deliver services of mercy without judging those being helped say as lazy or people not worth helping, and expecting no rewards. Mother Teresa and her order of sisters symbolize an outstanding example of the work of mercy. Her mission is to help the poorest of the poor who fall between cracks of social structures. Her model of mercy represents the spirit of compassion that should be emulated or consolidated by all faiths.

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been described as a model of social change. He tirelessly challenged the apartheid system of racial segregation and called for its total eradication. Blacks were mistreated and suffered humiliation, indignity and poverty. Tutu combined political action with religious beliefs to end apartheid. He did not only want people suffering under apartheid to be helped under the model of mercy (addressing present symptoms of injustice like hunger, providing direct service to individuals with temporary results and urging the haves to share with have-nots) but also wanted the entire unjust system eliminated under the social action model (addressing the underlying causes of injustice, focusing on changing social structures in the long run and involving haves and have-nots working together). To break the back of apartheid regime which had refused to accommodate the needs of blacks, Tutu encouraged strikes, rallies and marches, other forms of non-violence and sanctions from other countries to exert maximum pressure on the apartheid regime. He received a Nobel Prize Medal as an affirmation that his work for human rights and fundamental freedoms was instrumental in contributing to the creation of a just society. He told his listeners that whites were not going to be free until blacks were. Majority rule was gained in 1994. Thus, Mother Teresa’s and Archbishop Tutu’s models of mercy and social action respectively complement each other and need to be applied simultaneously.

Because of unhappy involvement of religion in Uganda’s politics since the 1880s, Museveni in his swearing in address on January 29, 1986 drew a sharp distinction between the roles of religion and politics. He stressed that “Religious matters are between you and your god: politics is about the provision of roads, water, drugs in hospitals, and schools for children”. Therefore he did not want religion in Uganda politics from then on. Fair enough. But when these goods and services are not provided by politicians running the government religious leaders have a responsibility to remind political leaders. If adequate delivery does not follow or the situation gets worse, religious leaders as shepherds of their flock have a legitimate duty and right to empower them politically to replace the regime that has failed to deliver or to champion the cause for regime change by democratic means. The illustrations above have amply demonstrated that religious leaders and theologians in Uganda like other leaders in the rest of the world have a noble duty to combine religious teachings and beliefs and political action to pressure authorities to act commensurate with the challenges at hand. Corruption, sectarianism and mismanagement under the NRM regime have caused untold suffering which many religious leaders talked about in the Christmas sermons in 2011. The government does not appear to have heard what you preached or has ignored it. In that case you cannot sit idly by when your flock continues to suffer and you should not fear to act simply because you will be declared an opponent or enemy of the state.

Mohandas Gandhi who led India to independence observed that an opponent in a conflict is not always bad simply because he/she opposes. Therefore religious leaders in Uganda should not fear opposing the NRM regime as you represent the suffering voiceless flock as Archbishop Desmond Tutu did for black South Africans. He won a prestigious Nobel Prize Medal for his social action work to end apartheid. Because apartheid regime did not respond positively, the Archbishop encouraged his flock to embark on civil resistance until majority rule arrived in 1994. Similarly, if NRM does not respond positively and adequately to the demands that have been presented, you have a right to participate in non-violent campaigns which include as already noted demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, non-cooperation and civil disobedience and calling for sanctions from member states of the international community. The world is watching to see how you build on the powerful Christmas sermons you delivered last year.

Eric Kashambuzi

Secretary-General, UDU