There is much to draw one to Uganda: spectacular foliage, stunning scenery, and welcoming and generous people everywhere. These same qualities led Winston Churchill, a century ago, to describe this country as the Pearl of Africa. Independence from Britain in 1962 ushered in a time of hope and of visionary thinking for the good of all Ugandans. Among its architects was a teacher, Milton Obote, who became the country’s first Prime Minister, under the presidency of the traditional Bugandan tribal king. The founding vision of “a great and united nation,” coupled with the republic’s initial stability, made it a magnet for those fleeing oppression and violence in neighboring states. Uganda quickly came to host hundreds of thousands of refugees from Rwanda, Congo, and Sudan.
A great vision has the power to guide a nation toward achieving wonderful things. But it can also serve as a convenient excuse for horrible behavior. For Obote, national unity provided a cover for silencing opposition to his policies. Initially, dissidents were imprisoned on the basis of “creative” interpretation of existing law. Then, to consolidate power, Obote directed Idi Amin, his army chief of staff, to depose the president. Opposition parties were eventually banned, their members driven into exile and their property seized. The stage was set for Amin’s own power grab.
Amin took oppression in the name of unity to a whole new level. Asian “foreigners,” who constituted a fair part of the country’s business class, were banished and their assets confiscated. Outspoken critic Archbishop Janani Luwum, along with countless other Christians, became 20th-century martyrs. Uganda, once a destination for the oppressed and the marginalized, spewed hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries.
Amin’s fate was sealed by his ill-conceived attack on Tanzania in 1978. The new enemy, along with many exiled Ugandans, responded forcefully, and Amin fled to Libya. A power-obsessed Obote returned from exile in Tanzania. He ascended once again to the presidency, this time through a rigged election, and was deposed in 1986 by the military commander Tito Okello.
In the meantime, a new movement was on the rise in western Uganda. Beginning with 27 followers, Yoweri Museveni raised up what became the National Resistance Army (NRA), a formidable fighting force. Driven by dismay about what a potentially great nation had become, by 1986 they had defeated the now ragtag Ugandan army. With Museveni’s assuming the presidency, the dark age of Obote-Amin oppression was finally over.
Inspired by a renewed vision of national unity and greatness, Museveni somehow managed to avoid the temptation to autocracy. His NRA, once in power, granted amnesty to members of the defeated national army, and many were given jobs in the public sector. Political opponents were offered posts in the new government, and Asians expelled by Amin were invited home. Perhaps these decisions were motivated by political expediency; maybe they were just the right things to do. In any case, 300,000 exiled Ugandans returned to join in the work of nation-building, and the Pearl of Africa again attracted refugees from neighboring countries.
Independent Uganda began with a great vision. Reprehensible tactics in pursuing it, however, caused a hemorrhaging of exiles and refugees. As I contemplate Uganda’s recent experience, I’m struck by its very broad similarities to that of the Episcopal Church. Our public dream, for some time now, has been one of ever-increasing inclusiveness. It’s a compelling vision indeed. But we’ve often used that vision as an excuse for silencing opposition — on vestries, at diocesan conventions, and on up. We’ve creatively interpreted church law to the degree that clergy can, without hearing or trial, be convicted of abandoning communion, and renunciations of ministry that have never been made can be “accepted.” Such innovations come with a cost. Increasing authoritarianism and decreasing church membership appear to go hand in hand. Under the canon of “inclusiveness,” we’ve created exiles by the tens of thousands, and we seem to create more every day.
Uganda ceased to bleed refugees when it recalled itself to its founding vision. Real unity, of course, is the fruit of persuasion and of compromise, and not simply of driving out opposition. And so it can be for us in the Episcopal Church. Our inclusive vision needs renewal; we need to stop using it as an excuse for excluding people.
It’s fine to be legally right, as the church probably has been in some of its multitudinous property disputes. It takes grace and Christian charity, however, to apologize anyway to those who have been injured or offended by our actions. Perhaps we might consider making amends to those whom we believe have done us wrong. And what a powerful witness of reconciliation we could make by creating spaces within the church for those who believe we have cast them out. Only arrogance and pride stand in our way.
The Episcopal Church has been blessed with a spectacular liturgy, stunning buildings, and some very welcoming and generous people. There is much to draw one here. Renewing our inclusive vision to include those whom we’ve managed to exclude might well begin to reverse our steady output of Episcopal refugees. Then again, maybe it’s just the right thing to do.
The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. James the Apostle, Tempe, Arizona. This essay was first published in the April 28, 2013 issue of The Living Church.