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Uganda, Gay Rights and the Mandates of Compassion

Some high-profile pastors and religious leaders in the United States used their influence to pressure Ugandan religious and political leaders to criminalize homosexual behavior and make an example of the Malawian gay couple.
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His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that ethics and compassion are universal. He says that they can occur without the foundation of a specific religion; indeed, for them to be embraced by a larger group of people, they must not be tied to any faith.

I love this vision of the world, one where we release our attachment to the particularities and attendant barriers of our faith traditions in order that compassion and ethical behavior can break through to the people who need them most. Compassion, no strings attached.

Today, we need a no-strings-attached, full-court press of people of faith and people who express no particular faith -- ethical and compassionate people -- to stand in the gap for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Uganda.

On May 20, 2010, two men in Malawi were sentenced to a prison term of fourteen years for announcing their engagement to one another. They have been in jail since December 2009, held without bail. This ruling against them is part of a broader pattern of mounting pressure and persecution on LGBT people by Malawi authorities. On April 23, President Bingu wa Mutharika reportedly stated that homosexuality is "un-Malawian," "evil," and "disgusting" and linked it to corruption, violence, theft, and prostitution.

I think most of us know where this spiritual and political violence will lead. LGBT people are going to die in Malawi.

I want to lift up this case to you as one that you can take personally as a citizen of a democratic nation. Why? Some high-profile pastors and religious leaders in the United States used their influence and our freedom of speech to pressure Ugandan religious and political leaders to criminalize homosexual behavior and make an example of the Malawian men. We export so much good as a country. Do we want the shame and responsibility of exporting this kind of hate? The Ugandan people and the world need to know that we do not condone the spiritual and political violence that has been perpetrated by the Malawi government and by our own US-based ministers.

I heard the first warning bell about the pending ruling against the Malawian men in a case statement issued by Rev. Dr. Mel White, founder of Soulforce, on February 5, 2010. He directly confronted our US faith leaders who were feeding the fire of hate and homophobia in Uganda. Rev. White sent an open letter to Jan and Paul Crouch, founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which broadcasts under the name Lighthouse Television in Uganda. This network presents preachers who are on record for demeaning and condemning LGBT people --preachers including Matthew Crouch, Andrew Wommack, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Franklin Graham. Many of them have preached live in Uganda -- and some have offices in Uganda. You may recall my mention of Joel Osteen in a recent column when he told Whoopi Goldberg on The View that homosexuality is "not God's best."

Rev. White urged people like Osteen and the other producers and evangelists to denounce the proposed, violent Ugandan bill and to use their personal friendships with President and Mrs. Museveni, MP David Bahati (their Christian colleague who proposed this bill), and Stephen Langa (the Ugandan Christian organizer behind the bill) to take a public and passionate stand against it.

The good news is that several prominent evangelicals did stand in solidarity with Rev. White on confronting their colleagues and the Ugandan government about their abuse. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren called the bill "unjust, extreme and un-Christian." Evangelist, Joyce Meyer called the bill a "profoundly offensive, dangerous and disturbing attack on the very foundation of individual liberties and human rights." The American Prayer Hour challenged Uganda's proposed death penalty for gay people, and vigils were held in Washington, D.C. and Kansas City, the hometown of Lou Engle, to urge him not to preach a homophobic message in Uganda.

And, on May 17, 2010, a U.S.-based interfaith coalition started a major campaign challenging the export of homophobia and the action by the Ugandan government. They have issued the Ugandan Declaration and are asking concerned, compassionate, and ethical people to sign it and commit to working proactively for decriminalization of LGBT people around the world. I want to encourage you to read it and sign it today.

Bruce Knotts, Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office says:

Faith leaders in the United States know that almost all faith traditions have statements on the books that support human rights for all people. They are realizing that, regardless of their beliefs about sexual orientation or gender identity, their traditions support the human rights of all people. Faith leaders are stepping up to take action to stop state sponsored violence and all violence against LGBT people.

We can step up, as well. As the Dalai Lama reveals, we can be part of something much larger than our individual selves when we openly express our compassion together.