In Honor of Charles Lwanga

Tuesday, June 03, 2003



Today, June 3, is the feast of a Black African Roman Catholic martyr named Charles Lwanga of Uganda. This is an important feast to East Africans from the sub-Sahara, and an important milestone in ecumenical relations, since Charles Lwanga's companions included Anglican martyrs.

Since the days of the Muslim conquest of North Africa, Christianity has largely been associated with White Europeans, and the original universalism that gave Catholicism its name was nearly lost. The African slave trade and the effects of colonialism have also contributed to a Euro-centric view of Christianity. Today, with the feast of Charles Lwanga and companions, the world-wide Church celebrates our African culture and Afro-centric Christianity.

Racism is anti-Christian, as we see in Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. At the foot of the cross, there is neither Black, nor White. There is neither protestant nor catholic. We are all one in Christ Jesus.

In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization..., Tomas Cahill suggests that Saint Patrick of Ireland may have been the first person in history to condemn the institution of slavery, and there were Catholics opposed to race based slavery even in the fifteenth century. However, it was not until Pope Leo XIII finally condemn slavery in 1890 in Catholicae Ecclessiae that the Vatican was clearly opposed to slavery. Leo was further confirmed at the Second Vatican Council, which came along and lumps slavery in the same paragraph with abortion and other grave evils as an offense against human dignity. The Council also condemned colonialism, and we have seen a new interest in our African Christian heritage in Catholicism. See Did the Church Support Slavery? for more detail on the issue of slavery.

The Christian faith has a long history in Africa. Indeed, the history of the Israelite people prior to the advent of Christ has a history in Africa, and geographically, the land of Palestine was long considered the edge of the Egyptian empire in the ancient world.

Two of the rivers mentioned in the Garden of Eden according to the Genesis account of creation may have been in Africa. These rivers are the Pishon and the Gihon running through the Havilah and the land of Cush (see Gn 2:11-13). Havilah was an ancient name of Egypt and Cush has long been associated with Ethiopia, though some scholars argue that the people of Cush also crossed into the southern peninsula of Saudi Arabia, across the Red Sea from East Africa. We see here evidence of an oral tradition behind the texts that acknowledges humanity's origins in Africa as well as the Middle-East.

Thus, the original ancestors of the whole human race may have been people of color who inhabited not only the Mesopotamian region, but the lands of Egypt extending southward along the Eastern coast of Africa into the sub-Sahara. Modern science also confirms that humanity likely had its origins in sub-Sahara Africa.

The Egyptian empire, perhaps the oldest empire on earth, first arose in the south among the Nubians and developed northwards. Archeology reveals that Africa was the place where most devleopment in metal work and fine art originated.

The stone cuttings and bronze work from the period of Hammarabi reveal that the people of Mesopotamia may have had Negroid characteristics, and the dark-skinned castes of India and south-east Asia extending to the Black peoples of Papua New Guinea and the Aborigines of Australia reveal that Africans may have been the earliest global explorers.

The end of the Book of Genesis and the beginning of the Book of Exodus places the Hebrew people back in Egypt for a period of about 400 years. Exodus 12:38 explicitly states that the Hebrews escaping slavery were of "mixed ancestry". It is possible that the slaves who escaped were mutli-racial. In Numbers 12:1, we find evidence that Moses' wife was a Cushite woman, meaning she was likely related to those of African descent.

During the monarchy of Solomon, the Queen of Sheba came to hear the wisdom of the king (see Kings 10:1, 2 Chron 9). She is referred to in Mt 12:42 and Lk 11:31 as the Queen of the South who stand in judgment of the generation of Israelites who rejected Christ. Some scholars argue that the mysterious woman in the Song of Songs, attributed to Solomon, refers to this Black woman from the South and may be the Queen of Sheba. I am as dark-but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem. As the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Salma. Do not stare at me because I am swarthy, because the sun has burned me. (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

The Israelites kept up relations with people of Africa throughout the Old Testament era. Indeed, the prophets often warned that people of Israel and Judah were trusting too much in the power of Egypt and not enough in the power of Yawheh. Chapter 44 of the prophet Jeremiah is directed at Jews living in Africa who had abandoned worship of the true God to make offerings to the Queen of Heaven (likely Isis). While this may seem to speak against Africans, bear in mind that it points out that the Jews found a natural affinity with Africans, and many sought to live among the Africans. Furthermore, by the period of the Maccabees, Egypt and the Jews already living there were sought as allies against Greek conquest and the pagan influences initiated by the Greek conquerors.

Genetic traits once considered unique to the Levite tribe of Jews have been found among Bantu tribesmen in South Africa, where the tribes hold according to oral tradition that they are Jewish!

Though a minority view, some African American scholars have suggested that Jesus Christ was a man of color. Certainly, most Western scholars would agree that the Jesus of history was likely darker skinned than Northern Europeans, just like the people of the Middle-East today. However, based on Revelations 1:14-15, it is claimed that Jesus may have had features more closely resembling Negroid features. The hair of his head was like wool, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace . The argument is that hair like wool speaks to the texture of his hair, rather than the color, and feet like bronze is to be taken literally as brown skin.

In the Book of Acts 8:27, the Apostle, Phillip, encounters an Ethiopian court official and converts him to Christianity. According to ancient legend, this official of the Queen of Ethiopia then led the Queen to Christianity and the Ethiopian Church considers itself an Apostolic Church to this day. The Copts in Egypt trace their origins to Matthew, and the Church in Alexandria, Egypt, traces Apostolic succession to the Evangelist, Mark, who is said to have authored the second Gospel. These churches all preserved the seven sacraments and the basic traditions of the Creed of Nicea. In many ways, the Apostolic Churches of Africa more closely resemble Roman Catholicism than the Protestantism that is popular in North-Western Europe and North America.

In the Apostolic churches of Africa, there was historically a strong sense that Egyptian mythology had paved the way as a preparation for the Gospel. Saint Augustine, of Hippo, North Africa, saw the Osiris myths and the monotheism of ancient Egypt, as well as the myths of Greece and the Middle-East as a foreshadowing of what would be revealed in Christ.

The African Church boasted many of the greatest saints of the early Church. Among these saints were Pope Saint Victor who was Bishop of Rome from 189 to 199, Cyprian of Carthage, Anthony of the Desert, and Saints Perpetua and Felicity who are mentioned in Eucharistic prayer number I of the Roman Mass. These African saints are still revered among Roman Catholics today, and much later, Black saints have been added to the list such as Benedict the Moore and Martin De Porres.

The people of Africa have always been a deeply religious and spiritual people, and even those who have never heard the gospel have a deep reverence for the God of gods variously known as Chi, Ra, Muungu, Allah, or other names depending on geographic region. The Africans have also long known the connection between the living and the dead and respect due to our ancestors. Intuitively, the African grasps what Roman Catholics have argued against Western Protestants for the last four centuries. Seeking the intercessory prayers of our ancestors in faith in no way denies the unique intercessory role of Jesus Christ as the one ultimate mediator between the Father and humanity. Just as we ask our living friends and relatives to intercede for us in the Church, so too, we can ask our ancestors to pray for us.

When he took it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones. (Rev 5:8)

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel. (Rev 8:3-4)

As we have seen above, after the Muslim conquest of the Middle-East and North Africa, the Christians of Europe were essentially cut off from their African roots. Ethiopian and Coptic Christianity have survived the centuries, but were limited in their missionary efforts due to the Muslim threat.

Unfortunately, it was the slave trade and colonialism that would re-introduce Christianity to Africa south of the Sahara. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, missions were founded that have sprung churches that trace their history back over 500 years. Once Western Christianity abolished slavery, Christians became the most ardent supporters of human rights in Africa, as seen by the Anglican Doctor Livingston.

In the twentieth century, both Evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have become the fastest growing religions in sub-Sahara Africa. One of the most exciting things to happen in Catholicism in Africa has been the evolution of African liberation theology. The fruits of this movement are just beginning to ripen. See Thoughts on Liberation Theology for more detail on this subject.

In the Unites States, most Americans of African descent have been raised in the Protestant tradition. However, since the Second Vatican Council permitted the Mass to be adopted to local languages and cultures, there has been a growth of African American Catholicism. Most urban areas now offer several "gospel Masses" where African American music, spirituality and history is blended with the Roman Catholic tradition. Saint Charles Lwanga, though not an American, provides African Americans with a saintly model who is Black and non-European.

Charles Lwanga, also known as Karoli Lwanga, was born in 1865 at Bulimi, Buganda, in the country of Uganda, in East sub-Sahara Africa. He was a member of the Ngabi clan and became a servant of King Mwanga. He joined the Roman Catholic Church in June of 1885, and was burned to death a year later under the Mwangan persecution of Christians. He was canonized a saint by Pope Paul VI in Rome on October 18, 1964. His feast day is celebrated with his companions on June 3. He is considered the patron of African Catholic Youth Action, Catholic youth, converts, and victims of torture.

Here is a brief account of Karolini's martyrdom taken from Charles Lwanga's Martyrdom

Christianity was still quite new to Uganda, Africa, when a Catholic mission was started in 1879. The priests were members of the Missionaries of Africa. Because of their white religious habit, they became popularly known as the "White Fathers." King Mwanga did not know what Christianity was all about. But he became angry when a Catholic, Joseph Mkasa, corrected him for the way he was living. The king had murdered a group of Christians and their Anglican bishop. The king was also involved in homosexual activity. He was especially interested in his court pages. King Mwanga's anger turned into resentment and hatred for Joseph Mkasa and his religion. A few of the king's ambitious officers fueled his fears with lies. Joseph Mkasa was beheaded on November 18, 1885. The persecution had begun. Before it was over, a hundred people died. Twenty-two of them would be declared saints.

With the death of Joseph Mkasa, Charles Lwanga became the chief religion teacher of the king's Catholic pages. On May 26, 1886, the king found out that some of his pages were Catholic. He called in Denis Sebuggwawo. He asked Denis if he had been teaching religion to another page. Denis said yes. The king grabbed his spear and flung it violently through the young man's throat. Then the king shouted that no one was permitted to leave his headquarters. War drums beat throughout the night. In a hidden room, Charles Lwanga secretly baptized four pages. One was St. Kizito, a cheerful, generous thirteen-year-old. He was the youngest of the group. St. Charles Lwanga had often protected Kizito from the king's lust.

Most of the twenty-two Uganda martyrs who have been proclaimed saints were killed on June 3, 1886. They were forced to walk thirty-seven miles to the execution site. After a few days in prison, they were thrown into a huge fire. Seventeen of the martyrs were royal pages, One of the martyred boys was St. Mbaga. His own father was the executioner that day. Another of the martyrs, St. Andrew Kagwa, died on January 27, 1887. He was among the twenty-two proclaimed saints in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.

St. Charles Lwanga is the patron of black African young people. He and his companions greatly appreciated their gift of faith. They were heroes! We all can pray to St. Charles and these African martyrs. We can ask them to show us how to witness to Jesus and the Church as they did.

Charles Lwanga was martyred for the faith along with 21 companions: Achileo Kiwanuka, Adolfu Mukasa Ludigo, Ambrosio Kiriggwajjo, Anderea Kaggwa, Ananansio Bazzekuketta, Bruno Sserunkuuma, Denis Ssebuggwawo, Gonzaga Gonza, Gyavire, James Buzabaliao, John Maria Muzeyi, Joseph Mukasa, Kizito, Lukka Baanabakintu, Matiya Mulumba, Mbaga Tuzinde, Mugagga, Mukasa Kiriwawanvu, Nowa Mawaggali, Nowa Mawaggali, and Ponsiano Ngondwe.

Peace and Blessings!

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posted by Jcecil3 9:51 AM

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