June 3rd is a national holiday in Uganda, commemorating the murder of 26 young men in 1885 who refused to recant their new Christian faith when the Baganda King, Kabaka Mwanga II, decided that their allegiance to King Jesus threatened his supremacy. Dozens of others were similarly killed for their faith over a period of about two years, including the Anglican missionary, Bishop Hannington, who had been sent to establish the protestant church in Uganda. The current Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Henry Luke Orombi, says:
Tertullian’s oft-quoted statement “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” is the story of the faith in Uganda. On his first visit to Uganda in 1885, the Englishman and missionary bishop James Hannington was martyred as he tried to cross the river Nile into central Uganda. . . . Before they killed Hannington, on October 29, 1885, he is reported to have said, “Tell the Kabaka that I die for Uganda.”
Less than a year later, on June 3, 1886, the king of Buganda ordered the killing of twenty-six of his court pages because they refused his homosexual advances and would not recant their belief in King Jesus. They cut and carried the reeds that were then wrapped around them and set on fire in an execution pit. As the flames engulfed them, these young martyrs sang songs of praise. Far from eliminating Christianity, the martyrdoms had the opposite effect: If the faith of these martyrs was worth dying for, then it must also be something worth living for. Christianity began to spread like wildfire.
An inspiring and sobering story, and one that repeated itself in the 1970’s when other faithful Ugandans were murdered by Idi Amin because their loyalty to God superseded their tolerance of his crimes. As missionaries we still upset the balance of power, we are a destabilizing force in many ways, people whose very existence challenges the traditional system of cause and effect, check and balance, calls into question the word of the dictator when it conflicts with the word of God. We should strive to study the culture and respect and preserve most of it, to introduce God’s word in appropriate ways. But it is the courage of the citizen, the ordinary man or woman who makes a life and death choice, that changes the country. Bishop Hannington and others introduced truth, but it was the lives and most particularly the deaths of these young men that set Uganda on a path of change. Ironically, we tend to think that major dramatic power-display miracles would be the way to convince a nation to embrace Christianity, would be the mark of God’s presence. But in the case of Uganda, the victory came through death, through what looked like defeat as a powerful king cruelly disposed of those who dared to take a stand for faith.
We work and pray, but it is the death of the martyrs, from chief page Charles Lwanga in 1885, to Archbishop Janani Luwum in 1977, to our friend Dr. Jonah Kule in 2007, that yields growth and change and life. The way of the cross.