The Problem with Uganda

Ugandan Flag

My dear readers, there is a problem with Uganda.

Last week the Ugandan Parliament passed a bill that outlawed homosexual activity. Over four years in the offing, the private members bill is now in front of the President for final approval (itself still in question) and is set to become law sometime in the new year. The Bill provides for a fourteen year jail term for engaging in homosexual activity, rising to life imprisonment for engaging in activity with minors or if you are HIV positive. It is even a crime punishable with jail for not reporting someone else committing this crime. That means that pastoral support for those who have engaged in homosexual activity is itself utterly compromised since the moment someone is told about sexual activity they have to report it.

But this is the not the problem with Uganda. That of course is not to say that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is a problem. It is obviously a problem; it is blatantly unjust, criminalising mere assembly let alone private consensual activity and as mentioned above, making pastoral support utterly impossible. No wonder governments and organisations around the world have spoken out about it, with the UK threatening to cut material aid to Uganda as a result. The Bill is nothing less than an outrage.

But as I said this is not the problem. The problem is that the Bill demonstrates a complete disconnect between Western and African notions of moral authority and shows the fragility of modern notions of democratic consent. The Bill is maligned in the West as being an infringement of human rights, but from the Ugandan perspective all that they are doing is shaping the moral framework of the country according to the will of the overwhelming majority. Look at it their way for a moment (however unpleasant you might find it) – no one who is homosexual is compelled to commit homosexual acts. Plenty of men and women who are predominantly attracted to people of the own sex function perfectly well in heterosexual relationships and there is nothing prescriptive in experiencing homosexual attractions that means you are destined to live as an open homosexual. Part of the problem they argue is that in the West young men and women are encouraged at a far too early age to identify with their sexual attractions and this leads them to forming sexual identities that aren’t necessarily the only choice available. In this context, what is wrong with outlawing behaviours that the majority believe are immoral as clearly the Bible teaches that they are? Such an action isn’t infringing on anybody’s human rights, rather it is actually protecting their humanity even if they don’t realise it.

Make of that what you want. Your most immediate response might be that what people do in private that harms no-one else should be their business. This certainly was in part the thinking behind the Wolfenden Report in the United Kingdom and the consequent Sexual Offences Act 1967 in England and Wales that legalised consensual homosexual acts between adults (at the time those aged 21 and above). It’s a popular position and almost taken for granted in this country, but just for the sake of the argument, why should it be valid? It seems obvious to us here in the UK and elsewhere in the West that private consensual acts are no-one else’s business, but in other parts of the world that isn’t the case. For some (for example in Uganda) there is a clear objective morality (found for Ugandans in the Bible which, ironically, was brought to them by Western missionaries) and it is the duty of the Government to guide people in the correct way to live. That means outlawing behaviours such as homosexuality which have eternal consequences. The government is actually protecting it’s population by banning homosexual acts and imprisoning those who engage in them because it dissuades them from activities which condemn them to hell and it gives them space to repent of their rebellion against God.

Some of you reading this are now cheering, others are looking for something to vomit into. I’m not necessarily interested in proposing you veer to one or other response, but rather that you understand the perspective of the Ugandans, even if you don’t agree with it. But as for those responses, to those of you who are cheering, I ask you to consider whether you really think transformative moral behaviour and spiritual regeneration is delivered at the threat of a jail term? Really? You think that? But on the other hand, for those of you who reel in disgust to the notion of a government that legislates morality for its people, why are you right and they are wrong? Is it because they have the Bible interpreted incorrectly? Well unfortunately you would very much be in the international minority on that issue. Or perhaps you believe that those in the west are more enlightened on this issue, that we have a firmer grasp of “human rights”? The problem is that most “human rights” are actually discerned by a majority vote these days. We have long since in the West rejected the notion of some objective form of moral authority beyond ourselves (traditionally God as he has revealed himself in the Bible) and we instead determine good by consent. Of course, the considered opinion of morality today is tomorrow’s prejudice (and vice-versa) and who are we to say that in a hundred years time we won’t legalise the obvious delights of polygamy (how could we have been so bigoted to prohibit it) but outlaw the evils of jammy dodgers (their demonic stickiness is just so obvious in hindsight). The point of course is that views change over times and even non-religious enlightenment doesn’t necessarily equate with a liberal attitude to homosexuality. And frankly, why should the United Kingdom’s majority morality overrule the majority morality of Uganda? Or vice-versa? Isn’t there something deeply ironic about people in the West (a majority) wanting to impose their morality on Uganda (a minority) in the place of a morality (from the Ugandan majority) imposed on the homosexual sub-population (a minority)? Doesn’t just thinking about it hurt your head?

You can see then the problem with Uganda. It has everything to do with homosexuality but actually it has nothing to do with homosexuality in the slightest. Rather it is a deep epistemological battle between old and new worlds, a struggle over the discernment of truth and the response to the truth discerned and a struggle over how wide the discernment process itself is. For some in Africa the time of just accepting a neo-colonial imposition of western majority consent morality has now passed and the moment for traditional revealed morality is here. For some in the West it is inconceivable that morality should be vested in any other place than personal consent. As long as these two paradigms exists in conflict, the problem with Uganda will never be solved.

But despite that, I’m sure we’ll have a go at it in the comment thread.

Please note, any attempt by commenters to infer on this blog or elsewhere as some have done that I support the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill will not go down well. You’re welcome to comment here on this issue, you’re not welcome to malign people elsewhere and then come here and expect to be welcomed with open arms.

Update

This piece by Chris Howles who is a missionary in Uganda is well worth a read.

So what is behind this bill, you ask? Simple. Traditional Ugandan views about sexuality. Uganda, with or without Christianity, is not a place that is readily tolerant of homosexual activity. This is true in the Christian community, the Muslim community, and the ‘traditional ethno-religious’ community (unaffected by any Western missionary work or imposition of ‘outside’ religion). In fact, in that latter community, I would imagine that the support of this law, and vehement and angry opposition to homosexuality, is even greater. To put it simply, this law comes from Ugandan culture. Not Ugandan Christianity. Christianity has barely impacted upon culture here.

Posted in Epistemology, Secular / Christian, Uganda