Costly Love, Radical Forgiveness
In 1977, Festo Kivengere, an Anglican bishop from Uganda, published a short book entitled I Love Idi Amin. Amin was the African dictator routinely referred to as Africa's Hitler. Huge, hulking, alternating between charming buffoon and nightmarish thug, Amin murdered hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens. In February 1977, he arrested and killed Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum, simply because the Anglican bishops had dared to speak up against illegal executions.
Kivengere was one of the last people to see Luwum alive. He waited outside the building where Luwum was interrogated until guards forced him to leave at gunpoint. Expecting arrest, Kivengere escaped Uganda on foot. Within the year he had published his book.
I love Idi Amin? It was almost a reckless statement—as though, to put it in contemporary terms, someone standing in the smoke from the Twin Towers erected a sign saying, “I love Osama.”
“The Holy Spirit showed me,” Kivengere wrote, “that I was getting hard in my spirit, and that my hardness and bitterness toward those who were persecuting us could only bring spiritual loss … So I had to ask for forgiveness from the Lord, and for grace to love President Amin more.”
Kivengere's testimony goes beyond extraordinary forgiveness. He was an evangelist, sometimes called “the African Billy Graham.” His book details outbreaks of revival as, in the same year as Amin's terror, Ugandans celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first missionaries' bringing the gospel. Imprisoned church leaders sing and share their testimonies. People come to Christ in vast rallies. Groups of lay people go from one diocese to another to share the gospel. Catholic and Protestant clergy, long estranged, unite to celebrate together. And all the time, terror reigns and many Christians are murdered. “I knew many homes where the family was living in supernatural peace, in spite of the fact that when the husband and father left home in the morning, they had no idea whether he would return that day or not.” “A living church,” Kivengere wrote, “cannot be destroyed by fire or by guns.”
That statement echoes Augustine of Hippo. In The City of God, Augustine described two kingdoms, one temporal and one eternal. The eternal city of God could not be destroyed by invading barbarians, Augustine claimed, for its foundation was the faithful love of God. How should Christians respond to terrorism? To love your enemy and forgive him even as he crucifies you is the essence of the eternal city, as seen through Jesus' cross.
Kivengere did not pluck such a response from thin air. Ugandans knew their history. In 1885 a new king began to target Christians. His first victims were three of his court pages, ages 11 to 15, who resisted his homosexual advances due to their faith. Offered the opportunity of recanting, they refused and were burned alive in a public execution. Just before their deaths they sent a message to the king: “Tell His Majesty that he has put our bodies in the fire, but we won't be long in the fire. Soon we shall be with Jesus, which is much better. But ask him to repent and change his mind, or he will land in a place of eternal fire and desolation.”
Stories like that were famous among Ugandan Christians. So Idi Amin was a familiar type to them. They knew about monsters and how Christians were to respond. Thus, “I love Idi Amin.”
Kivengere survived Idi Amin's reign, and after Amin's ouster was able to return to Uganda for years of fruitful ministry. He died of cancer in 1988.
By Tim Stafford
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #94 in 2007]Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today. His latest book is Surprised by Jesus.
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