Turning on the news, you can’t help but notice what a short step it is for political leaders to become dictators. Cruel dictatorships have wracked the African continent, perhaps even more destructively than Western colonisation. Countless millions of Africans have fallen victim to brutal human rights violations at the hands of their own governments and leaders. Those who speak out are often imprisoned without trial, abducted or tortured. Some simply disappear without a trace.
It’s a short step for political leaders to become dictators.
How Can The Church Respond to Dictatorship?
I am from Zimbabwe, and stories of brutal attacks have left me with one question. How should the Church respond to this growing threat of dictatorship? Is there a way for the Church to respond that both upholds God’s command to submit to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7), and seeks justice?
In my search for an answer I stumbled upon a small book by Bishop Festo Kivengere, I Love Idi Amin. It was the title that grabbed my attention initially. How could anyone publicly declare their love for such a cruel dictator? For Idi Amin is one of the greatest tyrants in Africa’s history. Under his leadership, people were brutally violated and many lost their lives. Uganda lived in terror under Amin’s regime. Yet Festo Kivengere professed to love this man, to the extent that he was willing to publish a book about it. What was going on here?
The Evil Deeds of A Dictator: Idi Amin
As I read the book I discovered that Festo Kivengere was a leader in the Church of Uganda when Idi Amin rose to power through a military coup in January 1971. Throughout Amin’s reign, Festo, together with some of his fellow religious leaders, sporadically confronted Amin. They respectfully expressed their disagreements with his decisions and actions. But these confrontations led to the assassination of Bishop Luwum, the leader of the Anglican Church of Uganda. Amin was undoubtedly behind this.
Idi Amin is one of the greatest tyrants in Africa’s history
Following Luwum’s death, intense persecution arose against the church leaders. The persecution was so severe that it eventually forced Bishop Kivengere to go into exile overseas.
From Hatred, To Love
Naturally our response to anyone who is abusive and cruel towards us is hatred and bitterness. In fact, this was Bishop Kivengere’s initial response. But he recounts the moment he had an encounter with the Lord while he was in Britain that helped him love Idi Amin. It was after this encounter that he, with the help of Dorothy Smoker, penned his book I Love Idi Amin.
Festo Kivengere professed to love this man, to the extent that he was willing to publish a book about it.
Kivengere tells the dramatic story of how God used pain and suffering to build a new man and a new Church in Uganda. It is a story of triumph and the bringing of glory to God.
A Christian Response To Dictators Today
Inspired by this story, I have drawn out two practical lessons for our 21st century African Church. These lessons are regrettably necessary for Christians living on the African continent. For we are confronted by the ever-increasing threat of evil dictators. Thus it is my hope that these lessons will inspire the Church to confront this challenge in a truly Christian way.
Lesson #1. Maintain The Gospel Priority
One fascinating detail in many African states confronted with the threat of dictators and tyrannical governments is that these leaders are often connected with the Church. Some profess to be Christians, even attending church. On the surface, this sounds like an incredible opportunity for the Church. But in actuality, this has often worked against the Church and its witness. For state interference more often than not mutes the Church’s voice, compromising its integrity by forcing its hand.
State interference mutes the Church’s voice, compromising its integrity by forcing its hand.
On the contrary, Jesus calls Christians to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). This means witnessing to the gospel message and being a gospel-shaped community of people. This is impossible when loyalty to Christ is shared with a dictator or government. Tragically, in the process, Christian leaders become accomplices to politicians and even embroiled in large-scale evils.
To Whom Is Your Primary Allegiance?
For example, Bishop Nehemiah Mutendi—while addressing church members at their centenary celebration—publicly declared his allegiance to Robert Mugabe saying, “As inscribed in the Bible, we are a product of the leadership. We are similar with them (Zanu-PF). ZCC is a revolutionary church just like Zanu-PF is a revolutionary party.” Clearly Mutendi believes that the ZCC is primarily identified with the revolution rather than Christ. The extent of this compromise is staggering. For the Church should have been speaking out against the atrocities committed by those in power, not celebrating them.
The Church should be speaking out against atrocities committed by those in power, not celebrating them.
These words serve as an example of how Christian leaders compromise their witness, to the point of identifying themselves primarily with a revolution rather than Christ. This inevitably tends towards compromise. The Zimbabwean Church never stood against the atrocities committed by those in power. But, instead, Bishop Mutendi and his church have become major beneficiaries of the government.
This then begs another question: How can the Church regain its place in such a world and faithfully maintain its mission and mandate?
Pursue The Church’s Mission, Not The Dictator’s
Bishop Kivengere’s recount of how the Church triumphed under great persecution provides us with invaluable guidelines for the Church today. From his testimony, we see that from the onset the Church understood and maintained its purpose and mission. They did not get carried away by the excitement that followed General Amin’s ousting of President Obote. At that time, and then later under Amin’s dark reign, they perceived gospel opportunities and pursued gospel fidelity.
So Kivengere writes, “The country is more at ease since the coup! So we can only thank the Lord, who put His hand over our country. Pray that we may wake up to our responsibility to share the love of God while there is still time.”
No matter how good or bad things are politically, the Church must always uphold the gospel as its priority.
As the rest of Uganda saw an opportunity for political and economic change, the Church saw a gospel opportunity to share God’s love. This stood them in good stead when Amin’s reign turned tyrannical.
The lesson for us is simple. No matter how good or bad things are politically, the Church must always uphold the gospel as its priority.
Why Keep The Gospel Central?
From the Ugandan Church’s later engagement with the dictator Idi Amin, we can note three important results of always keeping the gospel central to the Church’s identity. Firstly, it gives birth to a new and living hope. Secondly, this correct identity fosters unity among Christians. Thirdly, this focus draws unexpected people to hear the gospel message.
Let me explain what I mean by each of these statements more fully.
1. The Gift of A New Living Hope
While everyone facing a dangerous dictatorship hopes for political transformation, the hope that God offers in his gospel is a living and lasting hope (1 Peter 1:3). This hope supersedes a temporary ray of hope from political transformation. It is a solid hope that has the ability to transform beyond the political arena; God’s gospel hope transforms the human heart.
True and lasting transformation cannot result from mere political shifts. We need God to rend hearts rather than governments. And we need a hope that transcends this fallen world.
True and lasting transformation cannot result from mere political shifts.
This hope liberates God’s people from fear. Yes, they might still find themselves constantly looking over their shoulders and running from the threat of persecution. However, the conviction that will ground them is that they know and can share the gospel of lasting hope and true transformation. This urgent need will drive the Church on, over and above their fears and earthly hopes.
Seeing Hope In Action
Kivengere saw this hope in action. He records how in the face of great persecution and discomfort, many troubled Ugandans “drew their strength from God and went out to live their daily lives in peacefulness and hope, sharing God’s love with those they met, even though this was a time of widespread fear… There was joy and praise in the Spirit as people found liberty. People started to read God’s Word with an urgency of needing to know what he wanted us to do in our situation.”
This is a remarkable testimony to the power of the gospel. For it does not merely have the power to reconcile people to God but also has great power to bring peace even in the midst of great trouble. Once this peace is established among his people, their prayers become less for government change and more for national repentance. They are even empowered to pray for their oppressive dictators, from a place of genuine love and forgiveness.
I had to ask forgiveness from the Lord and for the grace to love President Amin more. This was fresh air for my tired soul.
Kivengere recognised this in his own heart. “My hardness and bitterness toward those who were persecuting could only bring spiritual loss. This would take away my ability to communicate the love of God, which is the essence of my ministry and my testimony. So I had to ask forgiveness from the Lord and for the grace to love President Amin more. This was fresh air for my tired soul. I knew I had seen the Lord and had been released: love filled my heart.”
2. Fostering Unity Among Christians
When believed, the gospel can break denominational barriers and divisions among God’s people. For it is an invitation to gather at the foot of the cross, not at the doorsteps of a particular denomination. This unity may not result in political transformation, but it is another compelling witness to the power of the gospel.
The gospel is an invitation to gather at the foot of the cross, not at the doorsteps of a particular denomination.
God’s work brings harmony. Kivengere pointed to this during the period of deep persecution under Amin: “We praise God for the news we are getting from our country… churches are fuller than ever. People are responding to the love of Christ.”
3. Drawing Unexpected People To Christ
Not only does gospel priority unify the body of Christ, when our hope is lived out and enjoyed in community it is powerfully attractive. For in I Love Idi Amin, Kivengere speaks about the unexpected gospel opportunities they had while facing their oppressive dictator. Muslims actually invited Christians to share the gospel in their mosques. “The whole atmosphere was so changed in one town, that the Muslim sheikh came one evening to the team saying, “We hear you are speaking things about God that have changed the lives of people in our town. Would you be willing to come on Friday to our mosque, at our time of prayer, and speak to us these words?”
If the Church will not keep the gospel central it will fail in its witness and disintegrate into factions.
Following God’s Agenda
If the Church will not keep the gospel central it will fail in its witness and disintegrate into factions. Thus, no matter how ruthless the dictator, the Christian Church must keep their eyes fixed on Jesus. He is the one who defines our purpose and mission (Hebrews 12:2). And we must continue pointing people to him because God’s primary agenda has never been an earthly political one, it’s to reconcile a people to himself (Colossians 1:17-19). The gospel is the only agent for this reconciliation. Therefore, in the face of dictators, grave injustice, persecution and even death, the Church must maintain its gospel priority.
Lesson #2. Lovingly Confront The Evil
But commitment to the gospel does not mean silence in the face of evil. Just listen to how Kivengere confronts Idi Amin: “Your Excellency, I am troubled about the announcement of the public execution of the men who have been arrested… You have often said that you fear God and God created human life in His own image, and therefore, I plead that these men be given a chance to defend themselves… So when you think of taking a life, first give it as long as possible before you take it away.”
Commitment to the gospel does not mean silence in the face of evil.
These were his words when a military tribunal ruled to publicly execute men who had been arrested for subversive activities.
We see two things here. Firstly, Kivengere boldly and unapologetically confronted Idi Amin’s reign. Secondly, this confrontation was seasoned with grace.
Confront Evil & Injustice Boldly
When the power of the gospel has gripped our hearts it frees us from the fear of man and directs us to boldly, but graciously, confront the evils he commits. This is driven by a great and biblical fear of God. So, when tyrants unleash evil schemes and terror on the sheep, the shepherds should not remain silent and locked in their prayer closets.
Christians should respond boldly to the injustices of any dictator or oppressor. Rarely does the Church unapologetically confront or speak against evil in the political realm. Tragically, dictatorships are thriving throughout African on threats and intimidation. But haven’t we already seen how the Church can be liberated from fear?
Christians should respond boldly to the injustices of any tyrant or oppressor.
Recently, in Zimbabwe, the Church has on occasion confronted the government and spoken against violence and injustice. Unfortunately, their voices were quickly silenced. As is usually the case with these confrontations, they attract persecution. Most Zimbabweans can remember pastor Evan Mawarire’s public opposition to the Robert Mugabe regime. Being bold can be costly.
Be Freed From Fear
Yet a person will only confront such powerful evil when they are persuaded of God’s goodness. It is only when we are convinced that God’s promises are real, that he cares for us, that we will boldly oppose powerful political forces. Otherwise the stakes are just too high.
When our hearts are engulfed by God’s powerful presence and promises we will not fall prey to fear. We will discover and express some of the courage that Kivengere and his colleagues displayed.
When our hearts are engulfed by God’s powerful presence and promises we will not fall prey to fear.
He testifies, “No one of us knew what was ahead but there was growing conviction in our hearts that some of us would lay down our lives before the ills of our country were healed. Nevertheless, we were praising God for the presence of Jesus Christ with us. It makes all the difference in the world to see Him seated on the right hand of God, far above every power and authority, absolutely in control.”
Confront Your Oppressors With Grace
Though we oppose injustice because of deep sympathy for the suffering masses, we must also exemplify gospel love. That is, our confrontations must also stem from the deep conviction that God’s gospel has the power to change people’s hearts, even dictators’ hearts. For they too are men and women in desperate need of the gospel message we carry.
God’s gospel has the power to change people’s hearts, even dictators’ hearts.
Thus we must speak out both angered by their evil and aching for their repentance. This is how we ought to proclaim the truth, boldly and graciously. When we oppose dictators it must be an exercise of compassionate, as well as confrontational, love.
Loving Our Dictators Today
I humbly admit that this is far from an exhaustive treatise on the subject of the Church in the complex African political environment. I am aware of the increasing threat of political instability across the continent and I don’t underestimate the challenge this poses for African people. But this only makes Kivengere’s work and example all the more necessary today.
Of course his writing is not extensive, nor was he writing for your particular context. But these two lessons provide us with a foundation on which we can build and extend. We are hugely indebted to these African heroes of the faith like Bishop Festo Kivengere. So let me close this article by quoting him one final time:
We should lovingly pray for those dictators… As long as they are still alive they are still redeemable.
“We should lovingly pray for those dictators. We owe them the debt of love, for they are part of those for whom Christ shed His precious blood. As long as they are still alive they are still redeemable. Pray for them that in the end, they may see a new way of life, rather than a way of death.”