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Learning from Luwum

Forty years ago today, on 16 Feb 1977, Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum’s body was discovered, murdered by Idi Amin’s forces and under his orders. His death was a critical moment in Uganda’s post-colonial history. What had led to that point and what are some of the lessons to learn?

Throughout Amin’s time the semi-established Anglican Church of Uganda had to learn to live without the traditional privileges of position and to stand firm in the face of suffering and turbulence. Rather than retreat, the Church responded with renewed vigour, particularly in northern Uganda where, united by a common threat, believers worked together, and historic rivalries and divisions were overcome.

The understanding of what it meant to be a church in opposition was strengthened when Janani Luwum, the Bishop of Northern Uganda, was elected to the position of Archbishop. Luwum, a fierce critic of the atrocities of Amin’s regime, brought a bold voice of protest to the very heart of the Church. It was a voice that Amin tried to silence with accusations of political involvement, allegations that eventually led to Luwum’s arrest and brutal death. But he went to that death as a martyr, sacrificially standing firm for freedom in Christ, and leading his people in the way of the suffering servant.

Prayers are underway today at Janani Luwum’s birthplace in Mucwini, Kitgum district, where, incidentally, some of the first local BUILD training in northern Uganda was conducted. Led by Uganda’s Archbishop, Stanley Ntagali, together with 26 other bishops and thousands of believers, they are remembering Luwum’s legacy of Christian endurance in the face of brutality and injustice, and his tireless commitment to peacebuilding. Given the significance of Luwum’s death in Uganda’s history (evidenced by the fact that there is a public holiday today in remembrance of him), those same lessons continue to have relevance today.

As a result, they are embedded in Module Ten of the BUILD curriculum, a study of Revelation and apocalyptic under the title, The Victorious Christ and Leaders that Endure. One unit draws together some of the learning with a focus on persecution and martyrdom. The unit begins by looking at the events in 1877, a century before Luwum’s death, when the gospel came to the court of the Kabaka or King of Buganda in the south. With a change in Kabaka in 1884, the nascent church faced the fire of persecution and martyrdom, and through it experienced the birth of a robust indigenous church. The learning unit ends with events a hundred years later, those surrounding the death of Janani Luwum. Through reflection on them it underlines the message of Revelation using the module’s key verse, Revelation 14:12, which recognises that the whole book is a call, “for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”

Today, of all days, is a day to remember that same call to be faithful, not only for the Church of Uganda and the surrounding provinces where BUILD training goes on, but for the Anglican Communion and God’s church worldwide, in turbulent times. And it is a day to commit to the sort of biblically faithful training that will strengthen the Church to face the future, knowing its ultimate security in Christ, the first martyr, or faithful witness, who is also “the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).