Some Adventist related news came from Uganda recently and I find it particularly disturbing.
Pastor Balsious Ruguri, church president for East and Central Africa, came out in support of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. The bill, which is colloquially known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, makes it a crime to engage in homosexual activity in the country. Penalties include life imprisonment and the death penalty in some cases.
Furthermore, the bill can be construed to require people to report homosexual activity that they know about. (Here’s a copy of the original draft.) Within the week this news was first reported, more disturbing news about the situation came to light. Spectrum, an Adventist journal and website not officially connected to the Adventist Church, reported that Pastor Ruguri is on the board of directors for the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), an organization that advocates for the separation of church and state internationally.
The Adventist Church promised to give an official statement two days after the statements were reported, but did not release a statement until four days after. In the statement, Pastor Ruguri claims that he was misquoted. To its credit, the church reaffirms the stance that despite its moral objection to homosexual conduct, the church does not support discrimination or acts of violence based on sexual orientation.
I’m going to assume that state sanctioned killing would be amongst the acts of violence that the church would condemn. However, Spectrum also reported today that another paper quoted Pastor Ruguri quotes expressing similar ideas on the same day as the original statements.
It almost goes without saying that it is at best problematic for a church president to come out in support of this bill. First there are church-state concerns that should be readily apparent. Separation of church and state should not only protect the autonomy of churches to believe and act as they wish, but it should also protect the state from the imposition of the church in matters of conscience. If this important protection is neglected then we get exactly what we have here – church officials attempting to place their moral weight behind legislation.
Christian churches should not become involved in using the force of legislation in order to ensure that people follow biblical mandates. Moreover, for any pastor to support a law anywhere that could sanction the killing of any intrinsic group of people is unconscionable. We should all be outraged that any Christian minister would support such legislation. As IRLA stated in its Declaration of Principles, the most basic rule of religious liberty is the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
I don’t think Pastor Ruguri was living that out in his support of this type of legislation. Now some could argue that Pastor Ruguri was misquoted. Maybe he was. However, I find it odd that in his quotation in the church’s official statement, he does not denounce the bill, but says that he “hasn’t seen [it]” and “cannot condemn homosexuals to death or to hell."
These statements do not seem to be a direct repudiation of what the papers have reported, and they are certainly not a condemnation of the bill itself. Therefore, I am working under the assumption that Pastor Ruguri is not necessarily against a bill that criminalizes homosexual conduct.
Unfortunately, I am not surprised by any of the actors in this situation. I am not surprised by this pastor, or by the church dragging their feet in making a statement, or by the milquetoast statement they actually gave. (Someone noted, by comparison, that it only took the church 24 hrs to put out a statement about Angus T. Jones a month ago.)
How can we expect an Adventist pastor to have respect for the principle of separation of church and state when we show so little respect for it here, in America, where the concept was invented? How can we expect a pastor in Africa to care about the rights of homosexuals when the Adventist rhetoric in America is at the very least tinged (and more often saturated) with homophobia and hate?
While the measures in Uganda are more extreme, the underlying principles are the same ideas that led to Adventists for Prop 8 just over four years ago and the types of statements that I heard (and heard about) in this recent election cycle pertaining to gay marriage.
We cannot expect for Adventists in other areas of the world to live to a standard that we do not ourselves keep. Religious liberty in the Adventist church for the last 10-15 years has been untruthful to the principles of separation of church and state that have been its very foundation. The shift in church-state philosophy largely coincides with the movement to gain more civil rights for homosexuals in this country. All Pastor Ruguri did this week was follow our example, and what really bothers me is the sneaking suspicion that some of our religious liberty leaders here wish they could follow his.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Jason is a Harvard Law graduate and a PhD candidate in Church-State Studies at the Dawson Institute at Baylor University. He is currently working on his dissertation about a Christian theology of church-state separation, and enjoys blogging about religion, politics, and questions of religious liberty.