How American Evangelism Triggered the Murder of Gays Overseas

Christian extremists in Uganda’s parliament are hoping that hunger and high gas prices will provide the cover they need to finally subject gay men to punishment of biblical proportions. They have introduced a bill, up for vote on May 11, that seeks life imprisonment for gay sex and, for repeat offenders, the death penalty. Last year, similar legislation was averted by international outrage. President Museveni was afraid of losing valuable aid dollars, and after outcry arose across the West, with Barack Obama calling the law “odious,” Museveni prevented the bill from coming to a vote. 


Stopping the bill was insufficient to save the life of one Ugandan, David Kato, who was beaten to death with a hammer in January.  Kato was Uganda’s most outspoken gay rights advocate and had received many death threats before he was killed. 

In the winter months before his death, one newspaper ran a front page photo of Kato with an anti-gay rant and a banner urging “Hang them.”  Last spring I traveled in Mozambique, where a full-page article in a local paper interspersed Bible verses, exhortations to spiritual living, and similar anti-gay vitriol. Although leading fundamentalists like Albert Mohler appear increasingly resigned to “tolerance” here at home, across Africa the marriage of Christianity and homophobia appears to be thriving—thanks in part to an American tendency to take our outdated wares and social movements overseas. 

Two years ago, I wrote an article that asked, “If the Bible Were Law, Would You Qualify for the Death Penalty?” It described some of the thirty six causes for capital punishment listed in the Good Book, including cursing parents, witchcraft, being raped (only within the city limits), adultery, and of course, homosexual sex.  Mercifully, even the most old school American Christians seem to ignore the Bible on these points.  But one of the unfortunate consequences of Americans exporting biblical literalism to developing countries is that people in those countries take the Bible literally – including the parts we all, missionaries included, wish they wouldn’t. In Nigeria, American Pentecostalism has fused with local animism and resulted in children being beaten and burned as witches, just like the Bible prescribes.

In Uganda, American evangelism may be similarly responsible for Kato’s death and the proposed law.  In March 2009, frustrated by their inability to block the gradual inclusion of gays in the universal human rights umbrella at home, Evangelical leaders traveled to Uganda and led incendiary workshops seeking to increase Ugandan fear that gay men are a threat to straight marriages and children.  It would appear that Uganda’s already fractured and restive society is reaping what the American missionaries have sown:  further contention and violence. 

“I don’t want anyone killed,” said Mr. Schmierer, one of the Evangelical leaders who traveled to Uganda two years ago.  “But I don’t feel I had anything to do with that [Kato’s death].”  Many evangelicals, those who see the Bible as literally perfect, find it almost impossible to imagine that the Bible itself could be responsible for inciting violence or that those who preach biblical inerrancy could be complicit in that violence.  And yet other Christians, those who see the Bible as the imperfect record of the imperfect struggle of our spiritual ancestors, find this causal chain quite plausible.  According to theologian Thom Stark (The Human Faces of God), the biblical record attributes divine sanction in places to some of the worst of Iron Age impulses, including human sacrifice.  Unless we understand those writings in their human context we are bound to glorify passages that instead should teach us about the darkness in the human spirit.  And glorifying human darkness puts us at risk of enacting it. 

It is troubling that of the many offerings that might have been carried to Africa by American Christians in the service of the Great Commandment, what has been carried instead are seeds of homophobia that produce fear, hatred, and death. It will take many voices raised together to reverse the damage done.  I hope those voices will be raised this week (petition here) and again next year, and for as many years as are needed until Uganda’s gay community can live in love and peace.

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