From the October, 2003 issue of Touchstone

The African Cross-Bearers by John Ssebalugga Kalimi

The African Cross-Bearers

John Ssebalugga Kalimi on the Martyrs of Uganda

Winston Churchill used to refer to the lush and fertile country of Uganda as “the pearl of Africa,” and legend has it that God stood in Uganda when he created the world. It is also one of the very few African countries, if not the only one, whose political leadership took the bold step of inviting missionaries to come and teach their people the Christian faith. “I and my people are in total spiritual darkness. I invite missionaries to bring the light of the Gospel to my kingdom,” wrote King Mutesa I of Buganda.

In 1877 the Anglican missionaries from the Church Missionary Society (CMS) arrived in the country, followed two years later by Catholic missionaries from the society of the White Fathers. The arrival of the Catholic missionaries was not so pleasing to the CMS missionaries, and constant rivalry, politicking, and unnecessary bickering characterized the primary stages of church planting in Uganda, to the amazement of the king, who had invited the missionaries to bring light to his country.

Suspicious of their intentions, the king lost trust in the new religion, and although he blessed the missionaries’ evangelistic campaigns around the kingdom, he never totally committed himself and, unfortunately, died unbaptized. Mwanga, the very young son who succeeded his father as king of Buganda, was equally suspicious of the missionaries’ intentions.

Disobedient Boys

Christianity took firm root nevertheless, and young converts serving at the court of the young king began to decline to participate in some of the cultural ceremonies, believing them unchristian. To do so was unheard of, and whoever was found guilty of such disobedience could be condemned to death. The boys were constantly marked absent on the court roll, having escaped to go for instructions as catechumens. They renounced any form of cultural practice that involved worshiping anything other than God the Father of Jesus Christ. In particular, they declined the young king’s luring to engage in homosexual activities with them—a practice he had newly adopted from Arab traders.

Since such disobedience was quite unheard of in the Buganda Kingdom, the king and his chiefs took it personally, assuming that the boys were deliberately despising the king for being relatively young compared to his late father. After a series of incidents of continued “disobedience,” the king summoned the young converts and told them either to renounce their Christian faith, stop attending the catechumenate classes, and live, or to continue professing their faith and be killed. These fiery and pious converts chose the latter, fully convinced that choosing the former would be denying their Master, whose newly found relationship with them gave them assurance of a better afterlife.

Despite various interventions by friends and parents trying to convince the boys to change their minds, 45 boys and men chose not to betray their newly found Friend. “You have the capacity to kill the body but not the soul,” they reminded the king. “We would rather betray the earthly king than the Heavenly King of Kings.”

As a test of their faith and as a means of dissuading the others, the executioners picked the most talkative first. In front of the other boys, they cut off the limbs of some and left them for dead. They put many others on the fire—legs first, hoping they would change their minds and survive. All these brutal acts did not dissuade the others as long as the only way to survive was by renouncing their faith.

The climax of the martyrdom came on June 3, 1886, at a place called Namugongo. Over thirty young boys and men, both Roman Catholics and Anglicans, were burnt to death by being thrown, one after another, on the fire made out of the firewood they had been forced to collect from the nearby forest. These boys did not change their mind despite various attempts to make them think otherwise. As the fires consumed them away,

O that I had wings of Angels
Here to spread and heavenward fly
I would seek the gates of Zion
Far beyond the starry sky

was the lullaby that the young boys sang to their last breath.

The news of the martyrdom spread like wildfire. The king and his advisers were greatly amazed at the courage with which these boys gave away their lives as they unwaveringly sang to their deaths. Thus, that which was meant for evil was instead turned into a tool for evangelism, so that shortly thereafter, the majority of the chiefs converted to Christianity. The chiefs wanted to explore the mystery that had given such courage to the young boys. The conversions multiplied.

Today Namugongo is a popular symbol of the Church triumphant. It is a place where Christians converge every June 3 as pilgrims, coming to celebrate a faith built on the blood of these young converts. In addition, Namugongo is a tourist site. The magnificent shrine and the Bible College there are symbols of victory, continuity, and pride for the Church in Uganda.

The Martyr’s Calling

Present-day liberalism deplores celebrating martyrs’ feast days. I remember one professor who said that celebrating martyrdom is evil because it sends a message that killing is good. In fact, she went on to say that she does not celebrate Jesus’ death because

it propagates brutality. Jesus’ death is one form of human brutality, which should be condemned, in the highest degree possible. There is no way we can condemn Judas for betraying Jesus and then turn around and celebrate his death. Jesus’ death is murder, it was unfortunate, and it should be condemned. It should never be celebrated but mourned. The same is true of all so-called Christian martyrdom.

I believe that there are different ways of witnessing for Christ, and death is one of them. A martyr is a witness, and a Christian martyr is a witness for Christ.

Martyrdom is a calling, not something of our own choosing but a calling from above. It is not something we lead ourselves into by just being stubborn; it is a product of a conflict of interest between two different powers, one of which demands that you renounce your faith and live, or proclaim it and die. Some people, especially present-day martyrs, have emerged from circumstances where they had no choice but just got killed for being Christians—the Ugandan archbishop Janaan Luwum being one of many such modern martyrs.

Martyrdom is one of those things that the world cannot understand. It is the “craziness of the Christian faith.” Preachers of the “prosperity gospel” tend to portray Christianity as a boat sailing smoothly to heaven. But this is not true. Following Christ is so costly that it may lead to your losing your life for your faith. Jesus says that true discipleship requires carrying your cross and following him. Jesus never told us to sit on his cross as he carries us. We must carry it ourselves and follow him. Carrying the cross is costly. It is not easy. It is painful.

So if one is not careful, one can very easily turn into a Judas of the twentieth century—betraying the Master by not walking the journey of faith to the end. It is true that some crosses are plastic and light, while some others are wooden or metallic and heavy. In the process of carrying such crosses, many may stumble and fall, but Jesus says: Stand up, pick up your cross, and follow me.

Carrying the cross is so painful that many of us, every now and then, put it down and look elsewhere. Looking elsewhere, as Lot’s wife did, may cost one’s life. Whenever we turn away from Christ, we are acting like Judas. Once I saw a plaque that read thus:

It is so easy to betray the Lord Jesus. So easy that in every society, however small, there will always be a Judas. Pray that you are not the one today.

Martyrdom is such a high calling that those who endure it faithfully should be acknowledged and praised for their endurance unto death. Living in a politically stable country like the United States, people may not very easily understand how one can get killed for his faith. An eighth-grade child, having read how the innocent Jesus was dragged to his death, asked his teacher: “How come the Supreme Court did not intervene before Jesus was killed?”

Examine Yourself

The truth is that in this day and age, there are still many countries—the Islamic government of Sudan, which for twenty years has unabatedly persecuted the Christian South, to give just one example—where people have to choose between being persecuted for being genuine Christians or renouncing their faith in order to live in peace.

We may not be threatened by persecution in this country, but revisiting the issues of martyrdom forces us to examine the depth of our faith and assess how much we are willing to surrender for the sake of Christ. We are called upon to remember those other Christians in other parts of the world who suffer for their faith. We are required to pray for them. We are called upon to speak out openly in defense of the voiceless. We are called upon to pray for many people around the world who are being persecuted. Our prayer to God is that they may be faithful even unto death and receive the crown of eternal life.

We are called to examine ourselves and see how Christ-like we are in our faith (Romans 13:5). I came across another plaque, which read thus:

If you were taken to court accused of being a Christian, would the evidence lead to your conviction?  

John Ssebalugga Kalimi, a priest of the Anglican Church of Uganda, is rector of St. George’s Church in Dallas, Texas.

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