When I traveled to Nairobi a few weeks ago I stayed in a Christian guest house where many of the visitors were or had been involved with missions. These were largely humanitarian based – conflict resolution or education or health care – but they all had religion infused in them. The mission statement of the nonprofit organization was explicitly related to God and bringing Jesus Christ into the lives of the Kenyans that they were helping. Some of the Americans that I spoke with were evangelical, but not all of them. For some, showing Christ’s way was the most important while for others it was simply a guiding principle in their own lives.
I mention this so that I can note that I am far from oblivious from the religious movements that are occurring across Africa and how interrelated American churches are with many of those movements. However, it was not until I saw the documentary “God Loves Uganda” that I found myself concerned about those movements. Although it is impossible to trust everything you hear in a documentary–a friend of mine who is a media studies major noted that documentaries are the most distrustworthy kind of film–this one laid out at least part of a story that was downright scary.
According to director Roger Ross Williams, the American conservative movement based out of churches such as the International House of Prayer (IHOP) has been expanding dramatically over the past 20 to 30 years and while they do support the construction of hospitals and schools across the developing world, the money also comes with the exportation of American values. The value that the film highlights as particularly destructive is the anti-gay sentiment that Americans know in our own discussions about gay rights and single sex marriage but that in Uganda has translated into an anti-homosexuality bill that calls for the death of anyone caught in a homosexual act.
The film follows Americans who go to Uganda to proselytize including a group of American college students who travel for three months to convert people and teach Ugandan orphans how to pray; an American woman who has been living in Uganda, mentoring Ugandan ministers and evangelising; and an American who traveled to Uganda and was given five hours in front of the Ugandan parliament in Kampala in support of the anti-gay bill. There are also two Ugandans who are highlighted, a conservative minister, trained in the US, whose anti-gay message is popular in the country, and a Catholic priest who has been excommunicated because he was against the bill.
Like any documentary, the director’s choices force viewers into one conclusion, namely that the Americans in the film are bringing their values to the Ugandans and the result of this value exportation is the harrassment and even murder of pro-gay activists and gay Ugandans. While the film makes it easy to blame the Americans for the bill currently in front of parliament and emphasizes the potentially destructive nature of evangelism, it also took away all agency from the Ugandans in the movie. It seemed as though the Ugandans were entirely unable to make their own choices or have any agency in the matter. Although Christianity is not originally from Uganda, they have indigenized the religion through widespread acceptance of it–85% of Ugandans are Christians, 12% Muslim–which means that we cannot only blame Americans for what the Ugandans do.
“God Loves Uganda” is a documentary that is well worth your time if you are looking for more information about the anti-gay bill or why Americans evangelize across Africa and the developing world, but its message ought to be taken with a grain of salt.
See the trailer and clips from the movie at the official website.