When Christians Irresponsibly Embrace Leaders and Legislation

In the past week or so I’ve read several stories that illustrate the dangers of Christians becoming too close to political leaders. First, there has been a lot of news coverage commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. This is one of the most shameful events in recent memory, and the world’s passivity added sins of omission to the brutal sins of commission. Worst of all, this slaughter of innocent people occurred in a country in which over 90 percent of people claim to be Christians, and takes pride that the East African revival of the early 20th century was born there.

[caption id="attachment_1211" align="alignright" width="240"]BRUXELLES photo by dinornis on Flickr and licensed by http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode BRUXELLES photo by dinornis on Flickr and licensed by http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode[/caption]

The current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has led the country since the genocide. He has been embraced by many Christians in Rwanda—as well as around the world—as a strong, courageous leader who is, essentially, on God’s side. Prominent American Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who serves on Mr. Kagame’s advisory board, recently hosted the Rwandan president at his Southern California church, and praised him, saying, “I have never met a leader like Paul Kagame, he is an uncommon leader in an uncommon country.” He went on to say, “God chose a nation the world turned its back on during its darkest hour to give the world a new model.”

The problem, however, is that Kagame’s tenure in office has not been without serious problems. A recent Wall Street Journal article points out that Kagame’s armies systematically killed thousands of Hutus in recrimination, shut down critical news outlets, and launched military attacks in the Congo, which continue to this day. A recent New York Times editorial, while acknowledging the progress made since the genocide, observes that “civil and political rights in Rwanda are severely restricted. Dissidents and opposition political leaders are subject to harassment, detention and torture. Several have disappeared or been killed.” So, while it is important to honor the victims of the genocide, lament the failure of the international community to intervene, and celebrate the amazing progress Rwanda has made over the last 20 years, we must be careful how our embrace of political leaders might tacitly communicate support for all of their actions.

As a Christian, and specifically as an Anglican Christian, I find myself in a difficult place. The Anglican Church in Rwanda has a close relationship with President Kagame and his ruling party, and the Church of Rwanda has had an instrumental role in the founding of the Anglican Church in North America, of which our congregation is a part. So, while I want to honor the Rwandan leaders who have been so gracious to us. I also feel that, in good conscience, I cannot embrace Mr. Kagame in the way that many of my brothers and sisters both in Rwanda and the United States have done because I do not want to give the appearance that he is above reproach.

Another East African country, Uganda, has also been in the news recently after the passage of the so-called “anti-gay law.” The law criminalizes homosexual relationships, forbids the gathering of self-identified gays and lesbians, and, finally, requires private citizens to inform the authorities of known gays and lesbians.

Many leading American Evangelicals, who have a strong presence in Uganda, have, unfortunately, been blamed for the law. While most American Evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage, it is simply false that they orchestrated passage of this law. To accuse them of doing so betrays Africans as gullible pawns in an Evangelical conspiracy to outlaw same-sex marriage. In fact, Rick Warren, to his credit, released a YouTube video in 2009 in which he strongly denounced the law, and along with other leading American Evangelicals were publicly opposed to the law that was recently passed.

Our denomination, and the congregation that I serve, have a deep connection to the Anglican Church of Uganda. Their leadership was essential to our founding, and the relationships we have in the gospel are an important part of our life today. In addition, Anglican Church in North America shares many of the concerns around the move to redefine marriage. This relationship, rooted in common commitment to the gospel, makes it difficult to implicitly criticize these brothers and sisters, but on this issue I believe that Christians must speak out.

To their credit, the Anglican Church of Uganda (ACoU) refused to support the death penalty for certain homosexual acts (interestingly enough, the ACoU is on record as opposing the death penalty in general). It also opposed requiring clergy and medical professionals to report “known homosexuals.” Once these portions of the law were removed, however, the ACoU endorsed the legislation. While ACoU leaders have said they want to provide a place where gays can receive “counsel and healing,” it is unlikely that a gay person would take them up on the offer when the church has also supported imprisoning individuals in gay relationships.

Our close relationship with the Church of Uganda makes “guilt by association” nearly impossible to avoid. It would be logical to draw the conclusion that, since the Anglican Church in North America has not spoken out against this law, we would support passing laws like this in our country. And, if we do say that we wouldn’t support such laws in the United States, that begs the question of why we would tacitly support them in Uganda.

Ephraim Radner, a very orthodox Episcopal priest and professor of theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto addressed the difficulty of relationships with African Anglicans in the most recent issue of First Things. After making a robust case for the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, he laments that conflicts over gay Christians have been approached in a juridical, rather than pastoral, way. He observes that, because of the juridical realignment within Anglicanism, which was caused by legislative decisions by both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, North American Anglicans have been reluctant to speak out against Kagame or the legislation in Uganda because they “dare not rustle their relationship with the state-aligned Rwandan Anglican Church and its long-standing fight against American Episcopalian apostates.”

On the situation in Uganda, he points out that the “legislation and its enactment have been explicitly condemned by most Christian churches,” yet he expresses concern that many conservative North American Anglicans are “quietly protecting the fundamental thrust of anti-gay legislation” and they “justify this by the need to resist the radical slide into gay marriage and the rest.” He observes, correctly in my view, that “there is no gospel in this.” If Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality is indeed “core doctrine,” it must be accompanied by “core witness,” and it is difficult for me to see how imprisoning gays and lesbians bears witness in any way to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to rethink how we relate to both governments and, importantly, other ecclesial bodies with whom we are aligned.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Sarah Palin recently gave a speech in which she stated that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” Palin, in my mind, has often been unjustly (irrationally?) criticized by many in the media. However, she also identifies herself as a Christian, and white, conservative Christians have been some of her biggest supporters. It is essential, then, that we quickly protest her likening a method of torture to a Christian sacrament.

Mollie Zeigler Hemmingway, a politically conservative Christian, writes that “waterboarding is the opposite of traditional Christian baptism. It does not work forgiveness of sins. It does not give eternal life in Christ. It is not voluntary.” Rod Dreher, another politically conservative Christian, writes, “For us Christians, baptism is the entry into new life. Palin invoked it to celebrate torture.” The fact that the audience cheered these comments makes the matter even worse.

Beyond the theological scandal of likening torture to baptism, this—like a categorical embrace of Mr. Kagame or the anti-gay law in Uganda—harms the church’s witness. If we really want to be taken seriously as we engage the world’s problems and constructively engage with political leaders, we need to be wise enough to acknowledge the problems of political leaders, even leaders who have done impressive things, like Mr. Kagame, or leaders with whom one agrees on many issues, like many white, conservative Christians relate to Ms. Palin.

This is especially important when these leaders claim to be Christians and, when pushed to repent and recant, they reject the counsel. If we want to develop an honest, credible witness to secular people, to gay people and their friends, family, and neighbors (which, today, at least in urban areas, is a sizeable percentage of non-Christians), tacitly supporting legislation criminalizing homosexual relationships and requiring citizens to report “known homosexuals” to authorities out of deference to our co-religionists in Africa will not only fail to reflect the heart of Jesus, but also make developing relationships of trust with the gay community and their allies incredibly difficult, if not impossible, especially with the church’s historical record of persecuting, and, in some cases, even killing, gays and lesbians.

And if we want to engage Muslims for the sake of the gospel, remaining silent when a leading political figure who identifies as a Christian perverts the meaning of a Christian sacrament in the context of torturing Muslims gives room for the worst “crusader” stereotypes that Muslims have of western Christians, which obviously makes sharing the incarnational, non-violent, self-sacrificial love of Jesus incredibly, if not impossibly, difficult.

Yes, conservative Christians have been at the forefront of helping Rwandans rebuild their country, they’ve been concerned by the move to redefine marriage in the West, and they’ve become accustomed to defending Sarah Palin against irrational criticism from many secular liberals. However, when Christians uncritically embrace political leaders who act in ways that are inconsistent with the gospel, and when Christians tacitly support laws that stigmatize groups of people, our capacity to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his heart for the world is compromised, sometimes irreparably.

I’m reminded of a great quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the role of the church vis-à-vis the state: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” Through the uncritical embrace, either actively or passively, of leaders and laws that contradict the gospel, the church abandons the call to be the state’s “critic.”

As we seek to engage constructively with political leaders, especially those who claim to be Christians, for the sake of the common good, we must maintain a critical distance, creating space not only for embrace and blessing, but also resistance and protest. In these cases, resistance and protest are necessary; the question is whether we are up for the challenge.