Note: Permit me to apologize for the infrequency of posts lately. Actual paid work has interfered with my writing schedule somewhat, but I also struggled to write this particular post for over a week. It’s not perfect, but it’s finally worth making public. Thank you to those of you who reached out to ask if I’m OK; in fact I’m fine, and you may look for a resumption of my normal posting schedule this coming week.
In mid-January at the Sundance film festival, a documentary called God Loves Uganda screened and elicited the most predictable critical responses imaginable. Really. Here: I’ll tell you what it’s about in a general sense, and I’ll bet you can guess how it was written up everywhere. It’s about evangelical missionaries to Uganda (from IHOP in Kansas City, for those of you familiar with them) and their impact on gay rights in that country.
See? Do you really need me to tell you that the film argues the missionaries are spreading hatred, homophobia, and the American culture war to Uganda? Will it surprise you to hear that the reviewers all suggest that the documentary is not entirely even-handed, but generally conclude that the anti-evangelical bias is immaterial given the stakes? Of course not, because evangelicals are so loathsome that right-thinking people always assume the worst about us anyway.
Let me be clear about this: I have not seen God Loves Uganda. I’m unable to evaluate the merits of the film’s claims and perspectives, because I have not heard them. Even so, the response to God Loves Uganda warrants scrutiny, because even if the worst suggestions are true – even if normal American evangelicals are going to Uganda to brainwash Ugandan children into killing gay people – there is a truth about the film and its reviews that infuriates me: nobody is treating Ugandans as fully human.
In the rush to stick up for gay people and protect them from the dangers of evangelicals and evangelicalism, both the filmmaker and the reviewers reveal their utter dearth of respect for the people of Uganda. Of course, that appears to be one of the accusations implied (or stated; again, I haven’t yet seen it) against the missionaries featured in the film, and – as I’ll explain – I imagine it’s an accusation with some merit. But that’s the infuriating part about this whole thing. All the Americans involved – regardless of what side of the camera or screen they’re on – appear to assume that Ugandans exist in some ethical and cultural void until white people arrive to tell them what to believe. I can’t decide if this view consists of more racism or more imperialism, but rest assured it is composed of both.
Take it from someone who’s lived in Africa, someone who has been given a name by two different tribes: every corner of that continent is steeped in culture and traditions older than the United States and older than evangelicalism. That doesn’t mean that those traditions are written down; they frequently are not. It also doesn’t mean that no other culture or perspective can enter, engage, or enrich the existing cultures of Africa. They can and have, for generations immemorial. It does mean that there’s nobody in Africa waiting for a white person to come tell him what to believe. Neither African cultures nor African individuals are blank slates.
If the same missionaries that are in the film were headed to Manhattan’s Upper West side instead of Uganda, it would be a nonstory. Some might think it a little odd, but since we assume that the people of Manhattan can tell someone with whom they disagree to be silent (with delightfully colorful language, I imagine), we wouldn’t fear for their culture. So what’s different about Uganda? Why do we assume that they’re no more capable of adhering to their existing cultural views of morality, sexuality, religion, or anything else that these IHOP missionaries may discuss?
Is it that they’re poor? Is it their skin color? Is it because they don’t read the New York Times? Any answer you choose is patently offensive, and that’s the problem. In this lack of respect for the integrity of Ugandan culture and intellect, we see that both the Christians and the film community are starting with the underlying assumption that Ugandans are lesser beings.
Regarding the smug cultural superiority evident in the reviews of God Loves Uganda that emerged from Sundance, a few brief points are in order. In the first place, the filmic zeitgeist appears to be so afraid of evangelicals as to give credence to reports we have magical powers to intellectually seduce whole countries, apparently for the purposes of committing mass acts of evil that are actually contrary to Christian doctrine. Tell me this isn’t funny. Not the part where they think so little of Ugandans, but the part where they think American evangelicals – people they find so transparently malevolent and preposterously stupid – can achieve propaganda and foreign policy victories that would make Hugo Chavez or the Chinese government blush.
Secondly, of course, we should remember these reviews are dispatches escaped from the debauched excess of Sundance. I say this not to impugn the professionalism of the reviews’ authors, but rather to point out that smugness is as contagious as hope, and the annual “our man at Sundance” columns various outlets print/post each year illustrate the orgy of smug narcissism composing Sundance. It’s axiomatic that people who make films love to be important; what can we say about the dilettantes behind the pretentious films of Sundance? If the reviews read any other way – if they didn’t look down on evangelicals and Ugandans alike – they wouldn’t be from Sundance.
Having said that, there can be no excuse for the assumption that Ugandans are merely cultural receivers susceptible to the machinations of white people. It sounds as though the filmmaker has found some Ugandans to second that low view of Ugandans, but this is meaningless. Every culture has people within it who loathe it; that this serves the superiority of the Sundance crowd should not be taken as evidence that Africans are supine to any and every American idea. This entire line of thought requires Ugandans to be even more pitiable than evangelicals, and therein lies the fundamental racism. The film community views even the most reviled American as superior to an African. It’s so offensive that words fail me.
The missionaries, sadly, appear guilty of the same crime.
I’m not opposed to missions; far from it in fact. I believe in Jesus, and I believe that he offers a hope for all people, and that requires some people to go and proclaim their hope – even when people aren’t particularly interested in the message. That’s what Christians are supposed to do, and it’s what has happened in various places for over 2000 years now. There’s also nothing intrinsically wrong with a religious group desiring to reach children; Jesus was massively popular with kids, so there’s arguably an unassailable precedent here. The ghastly part about all of this is the fact that these missionaries seem so much more excited (obviously, I’m trusting the reviewers here) to reach young Ugandans than old Ugandans with the hope of Jesus.
Think about that. Why would these Midwesterners be targeting young Ugandans instead of just trying to bring Jesus to all people? The answer is found in their view of Ugandan culture. These missionaries must hold in tension the views that Ugandan culture is so corrupting and vile as to make it almost impossible to reach Ugandan adults with a message of hope, while at the same time believing Ugandan culture to be so anemic as to have no corruptive power on the young. They see Ugandan culture as a problem and a pity simultaneously. And in this logically incoherent – yet still breathtakingly condescending – view of Ugandan culture, we see the problem. It’s a strategy that manages to both insult and underestimate Ugandans, and that’s why it’s both horrifying and misleading. It’ll never work, because Ugandans understand what it means to be Ugandan on a level the missionaries don’t even grasp exists; that the missionaries have confused American culture with faith in Jesus is revealed by their very strategies. Once again, I’m speechless.
Here’s the final problem with both the missionaries and the film community so eager to denounce them: ideologies do not export in the way both seem to assume. Hope is contagious, and it’s patently obvious that religious faiths spread across geography and cultures. But culture always changes things. Consider the Catholic Church, ostensibly under the unifying leadership of one person. If I told you a person was a devout Catholic, you’d have an image in your mind, but that image would change as soon as I gave you a country of origin. A devout Latin American Catholic probably lights a lot more candles and trusts the priest more implicitly than a devout American Catholic, who probably enjoys discussing things with her priest in a way that the Latin American would find impudent. The American Catholic meanwhile, probably wears fashionable clothes to mass that would horrify the devout South African Catholic, who wears a uniform to church. The charismatic tendencies of that South African Catholic meanwhile, would seem bizarre to a German Catholic, steeped in the theological riches of educated European culture. All Catholics, but all different.
The same is true with respect to Islam, democracy, communism, and every major ideology. Each country and culture adapts new ideologies to fit, and so we can say that ideologies do not export wholesale. So when the missionaries target children because they haven’t yet been corrupted by Ugandan culture, they’re fools. Ugandans are Ugandans, even when messianic white people come to teach them how to be American Christians. And when hyperventilating filmmakers and film reviewers worry that Americans are exporting hatred and our culture wars to Uganda, they’re idiots too. Ugandans are not so malleable as to simply accept everything they’re told. We wouldn’t assume that about people on the Upper West Side, and we shouldn’t assume it about Africans. If they listen to what the missionaries have to say, it’s still up to the Ugandan hearers to decide what they’ll do with what they hear. And if the film community doesn’t like what Ugandans end up believing, maybe the problem isn’t homophobia. Maybe it’s Ugandaphobia or Africaphobia. In either case, it appears to be endemic to Americans, regardless of creed.