California megachurch pastor Rick Warren is back on the circuit to sell his updated version of “The Purpose Driven Life,” his New York Times best-selling book. Warren is also back on the hot seat by telling Piers Morgan of CNN that being gay is a temptation like wanting to “punch a guy in the nose.” Is it any wonder that young people have lost faith in our churches and call them “hypocritical and judgmental?”
Warren’s remarks could be dismissed if the impact wasn’t so dire. His long-time HIV/AIDS work in Uganda is again at issue as the country’s anti-homosexual bill is back in Parliament. The revived bill would imprison lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and anyone who supports dignity and rights for LGBT people. Ugandan politicians say the death penalty might be removed to make the bill seem more acceptable. So, while Uganda is on the brink of genocide against LGBT people, Warren—one of America’s most influential pastors—is hawking his book instead of being a leader.
To be fair, Warren stepped up in December 2009, during the last threat of state-sponsored violence against LGBT people. He issued a heartfelt plea to Ugandan Christian leaders “to love our neighbors as ourselves.” He called the law “unjust, extreme and unchristian toward homosexuals.” He received strong pushback from Ugandan faith leaders and has not spoken about it publicly since.
Although the law was not voted on at that time, it did not go away, and Uganda is again the flashpoint for anti-LGBT politics. This time, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, the new head of Uganda’s Parliament, resurrected the anti-homosexuality bill to make her mark. Kadaga could take the country down a path of persecution or she could be the next Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela by leading all of Africa toward a path of respect and civility rather than persecution and imprisonment for LGBT people and our supporters.
We have seen the change here in the United States. People of faith in all traditions supported marriage equality in unprecedented numbers in the recent election. Top African American faith leaders supported marriage equality and recently signed a statement called Hope In Uganda to challenge persecution in the name of religion.
Uganda is not the only place in Africa that is persecuting LGBT people but its relative freedom of speech has allowed organizations on the ground to support the dignity and rights of LGBT people up to now. U.S. citizens and advocates around the world follow the lead of the Civil Society Coalition in Uganda which recently urged groups to reach out to faith partners and civic leaders in Uganda to invite them to affirm all the families of Uganda—including those that include LGBT people.
The stakes are high. Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, spoke out against the recent efforts to revive the anti-homosexuality bill, said it well:
The most tragic chapter of Jewish history teaches all of us that the stripping away of human rights from any minority group can be a precursor to its targeted destruction. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a preeminent Jewish thinker and civil rights activist who deeply inspires me and my work, once said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” In other words, our silence equals death for others. To stand idly by is to be complicit with injustice.
Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day. During recent years, as the bill in Uganda dangled over the heads of everyone, Uganda’s HIV/AIDS rate started growing again. The combination of a shift to “abstinence and fidelity” strategies and the fear mongering around sexual minorities, turned Uganda from a model of prevention to one of only two African countries that has a growing rate of HIV/AIDS infection. In the New York Times, Canon Gideon Byamugisha, Anglican leader and AIDS activist in Uganda, said, “If you have an environment that stigmatizes them, then don’t expect people to use condoms.”
As the moderator of the Metropolitan Community Churcheswith ministries in 40 countries, I have seen the ravages of HIV/AIDS and the life and death consequences of prejudice against LGBT people in the name of religion.
Rick Warren and other high-profile evangelical Christians such as Joel Osteen, Bishop T.D. Jakes and Joyce Meyer need to take responsibility for their interpretation of the Bible and the power they wield in the religious world. It is time to speak out against this violence perpetrated in the name of Jesus.
Prejudice kills. Silence kills. Persecution kills.