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Words Worth Dying For

I knew that painting would insinuate its way into my life. The colors were too garish, the captions too graphic for it not to do so. I sat under that painting time and again as I studied during three years of seminary, it was bound to work its way under my skin.

The painting was a fairly crudely done piece of artwork on the Martyrs of Uganda. You didn’t have to study the canvas to determine the subject matter; it was printed out in large letters across the top, “Uganda Martyrs 1885-1887” flanked by an image of the outline of Uganda and a cross. Beneath that headline, there is a central painting of a group 19 people being burned alive for their faith. Surrounding that group of martyrs are two other panels of slightly smaller size and then eight smaller scenes each showing martyrs being killed in various ways, with descriptions too graphic for a family newspaper. The painting is impossible to ignore and hard to forget.

My first year in seminary, I took Hebrew. I joined a study group and we grabbed a table in the back of the student lounge for the hour before class. We used the time to quiz one another on vocabulary and grammar. The painting was right over us as we worked.

Day after day, week after week, we toiled over ancient Hebrew. The painting silently watched over us the whole time. I enjoyed studying Hebrew, but sometimes deciphering the squiggly lines, dots and dashes would give me a headache, especially as Hebrew came after I had already had a morning full of classes. My brain feeling full from all the intake, I would make a cup of hot tea. As I sipped my Earl Grey the martyrs of Uganda looked on in agony.

I started asking around about the painting. I could never nail down the artist or the date precisely, but I found out that it a student from Africa, probably Uganda, had painted it while studying at the seminary. The artwork had been left for the seminary by the student and was at some point hung in the student lounge.

I became increasingly curious about those Ugandan Christians. I discovered that a handful of Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries went to Uganda sometime shortly after 1877. These missionaries preached the good news of Jesus to the court of King Mutesa, who was curious about the faith.

Mutesa’s successor King Mwanga was suspicious of this strange teaching. Mwanga discovered an Anglican Bishop whose missionary work had penetrated to the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria. Mwanga had Bishop Hannington’s group tortured for a week and then put to death on October 29, 1885. The Bishop’s last words were, “Go, tell Mwanga I have purchased the road to Uganda with my blood.”

Mwanga found the Christians within his own court to be even more disturbing. The converts to Christianity placed their primary loyalty in Jesus Christ rather than in Mwanga as their king. The African monarch made it a capital crime to even go near a Christian. Then on June 3, 1886, Mwanga forced 32 young men of his own court to renounce their faith in Christ or die. The pages of his court chose death.

On the day the sentence was to be carried out, the young men walked to the place of execution singing hymns and praying for their enemies. Those who looked on were inspired to seek out the remaining Christians for instruction in the faith. The number of conversions rapidly increased, moving well beyond the king’s court. The conversions were the result of one Ugandan telling the good news of Jesus Christ to another, rather than the preaching of foreign missionaries. Uganda became the most Christian nation in Africa.

I continued to study under the lurid painting with a new appreciation for those African saints. After the first year of Hebrew, I started studying Greek. I couldn’t imagine a better place to gather a study group than under the Martyrs of Uganda. I still wasn’t sure why it was best spot for study, but I was convinced the table under the Ugandan martyrs was the place to be.

My third year of seminary, I no longer had the excuse studying with a group when I sat under the painting. I was working on a thesis on Jonah that kept me involved in the Hebrew. I was also working as a teaching assistant in Greek. When I had language work to do, I couldn’t help occasionally going over to sit under the painting while I worked.

Sometime during that third and final year of seminary, the meaning of it all sank in. Deep within my bones I became aware of why I needed that painting watching over me as I deciphered ancient texts. These were not just any words I struggled to learn to translate. These were the ancient words of our Old and New Testaments. I was not giving myself a headache to understand some dusty old academic text. I was working to gain a deeper understanding of the living, life-breathing word of God.

In case I was ever tempted to think of my work as solely academic, with no on-going message of life and hope for the world, the Martyrs of Uganda were there to watch over me. My African brothers and sisters in the faith kept me focused on the cost that had been paid to share these words with the world. I was studying the very life-giving word that caused a group of pages for a Ugandan king to go to their deaths joyfully singing songs of praise to God. The Hebrew and Greek became for me what the word of God had been for those African saints 115 years earlier—words worth dying for.

            (The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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