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Not Surprised


Last week, the big news in Adventism came from Uganda. On Monday of that week Pastor Balsious Ruguri, church president for East and Central Africa, came out in support of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. The bill, which is colloquially known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, makes it a crime to engage in homosexual activity in the country. Penalties includelife imprisonment and the death penalty in some cases. Furthermore, the bill can be construed to require people to report homosexual activity that they know about. (Here’s a copy of the original draft.) As the week passed, more disturbing news about this situation came to light. Spectrum reported last Wednesday that Pastor Ruguri is actually on the board of directors for the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), an organization that advocates for separation of church and state internationally. The Adventist Church promised to give an official statement on the issue that day, but did not release a statement until Friday. In the statement Pastor Ruguri claims that he was misquoted. To its credit, the church reaffirms the stance that despite its moral objection to homosexual conduct, the church does not support discrimination or acts of violence based on sexual orientation. I’m going to assume that state sanctioned killing would be amongst the acts of violence that the church would condemn. However, Spectrum also reported today that another paper quoted Pastor Ruguri expressing similar ideas on the same day.

The initial criticism of such statements is obvious. For a church president to come out in support of this bill is problematic, and not just for the apparent church-state reasons. Any sitting pastor supporting a law anywhere that sanctions the killing of any intrinsic group of people is unconscionable. We should all be outraged that any Christian minister would support such legislation. As IRLA stated in its Declaration of Principles, the most basic rule of religious liberty is the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I don’t think Pastor Ruguri was living that out in his support of this type of legislation. By the way, let me say here that some could argue that Pastor Ruguri has been misquoted. Maybe he has. However, I find it odd that in his quotation in the church’s official statement, he does not denounce the bill, but says that he “hasn’t seen [it]” and “cannot condemn homosexuals to death or to hell.” These statements do not seem to be a direct repudiation of what the papers have reported, and to they are certainly not a condemnation of the bill itself. Therefore, I believe that it is safe to assume that Pastor Ruguri is not necessarily against a bill that criminalizes homosexual conduct.

My response, based on this assumption, is “Are we really surprised by any of the actors in this situation?” Yes there should be anger and outrage that this happened, but I cannot see any reason why any of us should be surprised by either this pastor, or by the church dragging their feet in making a statement, or by the milquetoast statement they actually gave. (Someone noted, by comparison, that it only took the church 24 hours to put out a statement about Angus T. Jones a few weeks ago.) How can we expect an Adventist pastor to have respect for the principle of separation of church and state when we show so little respect for it here, in America, where the concept was invented? How can we expect a pastor in Africa to care about the rights of homosexuals when the Adventist rhetoric in America is at the very least tinged (and more often saturated) with homophobia and hate? While the measures in Uganda are more extreme, the underlying principles are the same ideas that led to Adventists for Prop 8 and the types of statements that I heard (and heard about) in MD on a panel about gay marriage.[1] Adventism is a uniquely American religion at its core; it has been exported around the world. We cannot expect for Adventists in other areas of the world to live to a standard that we in America do not ourselves keep. Religious liberty in the Adventist church for the last 10-15 years has been untruthful to the principles of separation of church and state that have been its very foundation. The shift in church-state philosophy largely coincides with the movement to gain more civil rights for homosexuals in this country. All Pastor Ruguri did this week was follow our example, and what really bothers me is the sneaking suspicion that some of our religious liberty leaders here wish they could follow his.

[1] My summaries of that panel discussion can be found here and here.

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