By David Waters
As Episcopalians in America were electing their second gay bishop, their Anglican cousins in Uganda were embroiled in controversial legislation that would put those bishops in prison for life, or condemn them to death.
The legislation being considered by the Parliament of Uganda, which outlaws “any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex,” punishable by life in prison or death, threatens to further divide Episcopalians, some of whom have left the U.S. church and aligned with the Anglican Church of Uganda and other anti-homosexual African communions.
U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a statement of concern about the Ugandan legislation: “The Episcopal Church joins many other Christians and people of faith in urging the safeguarding of human rights everywhere. We do so in the understanding that ‘efforts to criminalize homosexual behavior are incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,'” Schori wrote.
The Anglican Church of Uganda has not taken an official position on the legislation, although church officials have said they could not support the death penalty. But Anglican Bishop Joseph Abura of Uganda condemned opposition to the bill. “Christianity in Africa is under attack by Gays and Christians in Europe and the Americas,” he said. “Africans do not need Europeans to teach them what the Gospels say … The vice of homosexuality through the necessary laws in place can be checked.”
Homosexuality already is illegal in Uganda: The Penal Code bans “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature,” with a possible penalty of life imprisonment, but prosecutions are rare because the standard of proof requires that offenders be caught in the act. According to Foreign Policy magazine, the proposed legislation would make it easier to catch and prosecute offenders:
“In addition to outlawing ‘any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex’ with penalties up to life imprisonment, the proposed bill criminalizes attempted homosexuality, the aiding and abetting of homosexuality, and promotion of homosexuality — each carrying a possible prison sentence of seven years. Failure to disclose an offense is also punishable by a fine and three years in prison. And anyone with knowledge of crimes committed is obligated to report them to the authorities within 24 hours. The legislation also creates a new category of offense, ‘aggravated homosexuality,’ which is punishable with death. The latter crime would include having homosexual sex with a minor or someone with a disability or having homosexual sex while HIV positive (the bill makes no distinction about whether offenders must be knowingly infected to qualify.) “
In addition to Episcopalians, other U.S. religious leaders also are taking sides (or not) on the Ugandan legislation.
Monday, 64 Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical leaders (including Jim Wallis but not Rick Warren) expressed their “profound dismay” about the bill. “This bill is an affront to human dignity and offensive to Christians around the world who take seriously Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves,” said Thomas P. Melady, a former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda and the Vatican who signed the statement coordinated by Catholics in Alliance and Faith in Public Life.
Meanwhile, megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who church has extensive AIDS ministries in Uganda and other African nations, declined to condemn the legislation. A request for a broader reaction to the proposed Ugandan anti-homosexual laws generated this response: “The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.” On Meet the Press this morning, he reiterated this neutral stance in a different context: “As a pastor, my job is to encourage, to support. I never take sides.” (UPDATE: Warren has since issued a full statement condemning the bill.)
Should Christian leaders in America “interfere” in the political decisions of other nations? Or are Christian leaders called to speak out about moral and biblical issues everywhere, no matter where they happen to live?
Update: A prominent member of the Ugandan Anglican church, Canon Gideon Byamugisha, has joined condemnation of the anti-homosexuality bill, saying it will breed violence and intolerance. “I believe that this bill [if passed into law] will be state-legislated genocide against a specific community of Ugandans, however few they may be,” he said.