a Ugandan bishop’s memorial – moving beyond a sterile debate
On Saturday morning I was involved in the London memorial/thanksgiving service for a Ugandan bishop who died a year ago, Dr Yustasi Ruhindi. I never knew him but on one occasion did meet him in Kampala. Still, i found myself profoundly encouraged and moved by the eulogies during the service – in classic Ugandan style, they went on for at least 80 minutes with 8 different speakers! But actually that was fine and appropriate. What came across was his remarkable servant-hearted leadership, his commitment to gospel ministry and a passionate concern to see gospel preaching and practical service whole-heartedly integrated. The picture (right) is of him at Kisiizi Hospital, an old mission hospital in his diocese North Kigezi, of which he was ex officio chairman (I’ve visited Kisiizi a few times – an inspiring place in the middle of nowhere in SW Uganda, surrounded by hills and powered by its own waterfall hydro-plant). But it went further than simply chairing committees. He was instrumental in getting WaterAid to come to his diocese to protect nearly 100 water springs to ensure they were put to good use. As a direct result of this, 250,000 people were able to get fresh water for the first time. We in the west presume to take the privilege of water in our kitchen sink as an inalienable right and get stroppy if the water board turns off the mains for repairs for just 4 hours. That was just one achievement; Bishop Yustasi was involved in starting schools and clinics across his diocese – but also spearheaded incredible growth in the church with the number of congregations in his diocese more than doubled. His was no mere ‘social gospel’ – it was a fully integrated gospel as committed to everlasting hope as it is possible to be, without ever losing sight of the needs of the moment (because you see, a need is a ‘need’ – not a western ‘want’).
Of course, there is something very positively African about this – none of this idiotic western dichotomy between sacred and secular – the whole of life is for God. So at one level the perennial debate about whether or not Christians should get their hands dirty in the public square/social activism/development work is a non-starter – African friends just look at you blankly when you try to suggest that you shouldn’t. But it is not simply a cultural difference. Titus is told by the apostle Paul that one of God’s supreme goals in giving us a gospel at all (Titus 2:14) is that we should become ‘a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good‘. It is fascinating that this is not defined or given boundaries. No list of spiritual gifts in the NT is exhaustive – and nor is there an exhaustive list of what constitutes the ‘good’. Surely there is no limit to that? Just as there is no limit in God’s goodness or self-sacrifice – he gives everything, and the cross is the limit only because there is nothing left to give after it.
Last week, I was talking to a friend who is involved in Christian ministry training and he made the simple but frightening point that evangelical Christians in this country seem to be forgetting ethics. It’s as if it is not our problem – that we just need to get people forgiven and heaven populated while the world can go hang. But this just will not do. Jesus did amazing things for people – and yes he had clear priorities and a mission agenda – but they were priorities NOT exclusive activities. And I can’t believe he ONLY healed people because of the lessons that could be drawn from the miracle – but because they were GOOD things to do! Sometimes, things are worth doing because they are RIGHT & GOOD, not because they might lead somewhere.
A vivid memory from our years in Uganda was what happened to some close neighbours of ours. A grandmother was looking after 5 grandchildren on her own (all AIDS orphans) in a very run-down shack opposite our front gate. The youngest child died just before his 3rd birthday – of cerebral malaria. My wife Rachel went round to see them and simply asked them if they had mosquito nets (most malarial mosquitoes come out between 10pm and 4am which is why sleeping under a net is one of the best prophylactics). Malaria is SO preventable and treatable – and yet is still Africa’s biggest killer far outstripping deaths from AIDS-related diseases. That in itself is criminal. So we bought them some mosquito nets (only a few pounds each) and helped them out when one of the other children came down with major fever. Not a big deal. The fact that this little family was Muslim was neither here nor there; the fact that they were poor, didn’t really speak English and we had no hope of understanding their dialect, and that they were not ‘strategic people’ (yeeuurrggghhh) didn’t even come into our heads. It was the GOOD thing to do – i’m not saying this to blow our own trumpet – merely that it was the least thing we could do as fellow human beings and people that God had undeservedly forgiven in Christ. And of course, if it had been my own children under threat, i would have busted my gut to help, as i hope that ANY evangelical would have done.
Which brings me to a book that i found supremely helpful and challenging: Good News About Injustice by Gary A Haugen. Uncle John Stott says in his preface ‘ I defy anybody to emerge from exposure to this book unscathed. In fact, my advice to would-be readers is “Don’t! Leave the book alone!” – unless you are willing to be shocked, challenged, persuaded and transformed.’ Too right. Haugen is a conservative evangelical (if those labels are important to you) who seems as passionately committed to the Christian good news as Bishop Yustasi was. But he is uniquely qualified to write this book as the former director of the United Nations genocide investigation in Rwanda after 1994. He is now president of International Justice Mission in Washington DC which exists to fight for justice to the oppressed around the world. Here he reflects on how his eternal hope enables him to persevere in his present involvement.
One could say that the notion of eternity is just pie in the sky, but as C.S.Lewis observed, either there is pie in the sky or there is not… If such claims are true, it just might change everything. If there were no pie in the sky, Jesus said, ‘I would have told you’ (John 14:2). But if Jesus does not rightly claim absolute divine authority for such statements, then not only is he not a good teacher, he is a cruel liar or a delusional psychopath of the first order. Moreover, if there is no pie in the sky, I frankly don’t have any earthly hope that is not immediately crushed under the weight of the empirical date of despair around me.
The pie in the sky is not, for me, a reason to escape from the needs of our world; rather, it offers the nourishment of spirit that has empowered Christians through the ages to serve those needs tirelessly, even unto death.
In the months after I returned from Rwanda, every time i entered a church service i found my mind subconsciously driven to horrible calculations about what it would take, and how long it would take to murder the entire congregation with machetes – as it happened in scores of churches across Rwanda. I hated thinking it, but there it was. Every time this left me looking to the ceiling, trying to blink back the welling tears so they would not stream down my face. The image of the broken waste of all those Rwandan women and children would overwhelm me, and yet, through nearly clenched teeth I would find my inner soul testify in the words of a hymn that would not stay down: “Crown him the Lord of life / Who triumphed o’er the grave / Who rose victorious to the strife / For those he came to save / His glories now we sing / Who died and rose on high / Who died eternal life may bring / And lives that death may die.” Good News About Injustice, IVP 1999, 117-118
Much more needs to be said of course – and it is a debate that will run and run inevitably. But is it not striking that in the midst of Isaiah’s very strong indictment of ancient Israel’s society (in which many of the injustices and crimes against humanity that are all too familiar to 21st Century readers of any newspaper), we find God throwing down this gauntlet: ‘Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong and learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. Come let us reason together’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’ Isaiah 1:16-18 We evangelicals love that last bit – it is one of our mantras and in many ways rightly so. But too often we dismiss the first part as a woolly liberal, social gospel, distraction. Which no doubt might have been one of the excuses of those in the cross-hairs of Isaiah’s sights. But being undeservedly forgiven by God must lead to an eagerness to good – ANY GOOD.