Prophetic Sisters

If you’ve been following the news out of Uganda this month, you’ve likely heard accounts of the arrest, torture, and detention of M.P. Robert Kyagulanyi, aka “Bobi Wine.” (In fact, even if you don’t typically follow news out of Uganda, you may have seen the Bobi Wine story circulating through the Washington Post, N.Y. Times, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal). When I last visited Uganda in 2017, this pop music star and self-proclaimed “Ghetto President” had just been elected to Parliament in a special by-election in Kampala. It was the biggest news of the month. Now in my first month back in Uganda, Bobi Wine is again at the forefront of the headlines. The news is not as happy this time around, nor is Bobi Wine alone in his suffering. Several dozen other politicians, activists, and protesters involved with a Parliamentary election in Arua District were arrested and tortured by security forces, and one M.P. remains in critical condition. Bobi Wine is currently seeking follow-up medical treatment in the USA. The government blamed the crackdown on protesters’ throwing stones at President Museveni’s motorcade in Arua, describing this an act of treason. (Whether Bobi Wine or the other MPs actually ordered these acts is another question).

It is in this unsettling political context that I have the opportunity to teach a course this semester in Catholic Social Teaching at Uganda Martyrs University, a Catholic university in Nkozi in south-central Uganda. Almost all of my students are Catholic sisters from Uganda and other parts of East Africa. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has deep biblical roots but generally traces its modern origins to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), the first papal encyclical to formally address modern socioeconomic issues.

Last week we discussed the biblical prophetic roots of Catholic Social Teaching. I asked the students to work in groups to offer a 2-minute prophetic speech addressing one of Uganda’s key sociopolitical challenges. One sister adopted the voice of the Prophet Jeremiah, decrying corruption and human trafficking in Uganda. Another lamented bribery and land grabbing, riffing on Isaiah 1:16’s call to “make justice your aim, redress the wrong, hear the orphan’s plea, and defend the widow.” A third group proclaimed Isaiah 32:17’s promise that “justice will bring about peace, and right will produce calm and security,” exhorting Ugandans to “fight for peace” and calling the government to balance security with freedom. A final group returned to Jeremiah 7:5-7, decrying that “there is too much injustice” and that the country will be doomed if political behavior doesn’t change. The Bobi Wine subtext was hard to miss.

Shalom reflects a biblical vision of justice, healing, and reconciliation. But as Walter Brueggemann has argued, this “prophetic imagination” is almost always accompanied by “prophetic denunciation” of forces opposing the reign of God. I am grateful to my students this week for giving me a small taste of what this sounds like.