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Kevin ClarkeJune 02, 2023
sun settingPhoto by Dan Cook, courtesy of Unsplash.

A Reflection for the Memorial of Saint Charles Lwanga and companions, martyrs

Find today’s readings here.

Jesus and his disciples returned once more to Jerusalem.
As he was walking in the temple area,
the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders
approached him and said to him,
“By what authority are you doing these things?
Or who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mk 11:27-28)

“By what authority” do you work these miracles and forgive these sins and treat these sinners, Jewish authorities demand of Jesus. The “chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” use words to hide their true intention—which is to humiliate Jesus and diminish his teaching authority—and, when pressed, they will not even attempt to clarify their rhetoric.

Caught in a trap of their own design, they elect to bluff their way through; “We don’t know.”

Jesus answers in kind. “Neither will I tell you.”

Maybe we can’t say who or what has authority over us or under whose authority we do ill or good in the world. The words we use are often little help. Perhaps the actions we take will define where “authority” comes from in our lives.

Charles Lwanga and the Christian martyrs of Uganda faced the ultimate punishment under what was considered the proper authority of their place and time, but no one would say they were martyred under a just authority, one derived from God.

Charles Lwanga and the Christian martyrs of Uganda, whose feast day is celebrated today, faced the ultimate punishment under what was considered the proper authority of their place and time on June 3, 1886, but no one would say they were martyred under a just authority, an authority derived from God, deployed wisely and mercifully.

Lwanga was a court authority who had responsibility for the lives of the pages in the court of Mwanga, ruler of the Babandan kingdom in what is today central Uganda. He personally converted and baptized many of the pages who, according to the law of that time and that court, were completely subject to the whims of the king.

According to many accounts, the Ugandan martyrs were put to death not just because of their conversion to Christianity but also because their new faith compelled these members of the royal court to defend their own human dignity and resist sexual assault intended by their king, Mwanga, a man who up to that moment had temporal authority over them. By any measure, the decision to execute Lwanga and these boys and young men was cruel and unjust.

Ironically, in contemporary Uganda, modern authorities have authored a measure that is similarly harsh and unjust as the caprices of Mwanga. President Yoweri Museveni has used his authority to pass into law a measure that prescribes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” People convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. Early consideration of the bill seemed to point to the desire to outlaw people simply because they were lesbian or gay or bisexual. Indeed, homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries.

Who has authority; how is it wielded? Authority can be judged not only by the words and spite and malice that sometimes briefly blow life into it, but by the deeds that derive from it.

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