The ELCA’s Late Entry on Ugandan Anti-gay Law

By now you may have heard something about the anti-gay bill that’s been introduced into the parliament of Uganda. It offers severe penalties for the offense of “homosexuality,” up to and including death. For background on the bill, you might look here and here, and extensive coverage of the bill and surrounding issues can be found here.

While many other organizations, churches, and religious leaders have spoken out against this, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has been silent. Until Friday. The ELCA News Service sent out a press release Friday afternoon about a letter Bishop Hanson has written.

I find this rather late, disturbingly so.

The bill was proposed in October. In November it was getting significant attention by human rights organizations, traditional media, and a number of governments. Rick Warren, who has ties to some of the principles in Uganda, was asked about it on Meet the Press toward the end of November but demurred to say anything substantive about it. A couple of weeks later, after significant press and pressure, he came out with a statement that said he did not support the bill. In the mean time, various groups of religious leaders have issued statements objecting to and condemning the bill. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a clear and well written statement against the proposal in early December. Yet, Bishop Hanson and the ELCA have been utterly silent on this until the end of last week. It was also curiously timed to go out late on a Friday, the day that many organizations dump news they really don’t want to get much attention.

And then, what is it that gets released? It’s not a statement being made to the world around us, or to the members of the ELCA, calling us to human or Christian duty and ethical treatment of our neighbors. It’s not a statement providing theological reflection and teaching about this horrendous bill and the grave injustices it proposes. No, it’s essentially a thank you note to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the words of opposition she spoke in a speech at Georgetown University and any actions following up on those statements. Yes, it does express support for continued efforts by the United States government to raise the issue with the government of Uganda, but it barely tries to make any argument about why this is a matter about which the ELCA is “gravely concerned.” Rather than any real statement about it, it lists out a number of church documents, saying that the actions that are proposed to the Ugandan parliament would be against ELCA church social policies. To call this a wimpy hint at an argument is something of an understatement.

Further, Bishop Hanson’s letter mentions only one aspect of the far reaching bill, albeit it’s most heinous one. He only mentions that the bill includes the death penalty for the offense of “aggravated homosexuality” which includes activity by someone who is HIV positive or by “a serial offender.” A reader of Bishop Hanson’s letter may be forgiven if they come away with the idea that this death penalty provision is the primary objection to the proposal. Besides the “aggravated homosexuality” provision, a person convicted of simple “homosexuality” may be subject to life imprisonment. “Attempted homosexuality” is subject to a seven year sentence, and “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can earn a life sentence. Further, the bill requires that anyone who knows of any offense under the law to report it to authorities within 24 hours may be sentenced to three years in prison and fines. Advocacy for gay and lesbian individuals may also be subject to persecution under the law. The law also purports to apply to Ugandans living outside their nation. Among other things, this would mean that pastors could be liable to prison sentences unless they turn informant on any members of the congregation foolish enough to seek pastoral guidance for themselves or because of family members. Yet there is not a word about these other provisions.

And yet, this is from the leader of the same church that passed a social statement titled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” in August. That statement includes these words:

“While Lutherans hold various convictions regarding lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships, this church is united on many critical issues. It opposes all forms of verbal or physical harassment and assault based on sexual orientation. It supports legislation and policies to protect civil rights and to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, and public services. It has called upon congregations and members to welcome, care for, and support same-gender couples and their families and to advocate for their legal protection.

“The ELCA recognizes that it has a pastoral responsibility to all children of God. This includes a pastoral responsibility to those who are same-gender in their orientation and to those who are seeking counsel about their sexual self-understanding. All are encouraged to avail themselves of the means of grace and pastoral care.”

Can this church and its leaders not back up those words and apply them to situations like this in order to speak against an atrocity of law and injustice being proposed and back by lawmakers and advocates citing supposedly “Christian” points of view? Bishop Hanson is a leader which has called the ELCA to be a “public church,” one that speaks God’s Word to the world and advocates for all God’s children and for justice in the world. Yet, have the Presiding Bishop and the leadership of the ELCA been so cowed by the loud objections of those who disapprove of the changes in ministry standards that they can only speak up late and in round about ways when it comes to this horrendous situation in Uganda? Have they become that afraid to touch these issues? I sincerely hope the answer to this last question is “no,” but I am sadly lead to that very conclusion.


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