Today is the feast of James Hannington and his companions, the first of many of the “Martyrs of Uganda.” They were killed on this day in 1885—one hundred twenty-nine years ago. I read that Hannington signed up with the Christian Missionary Society after learning that two Christian missionaries had been murdered near Lake Victoria. He went to Africa but became very sick with fever and dysentery, so he had to return home to England to recover. Then, willing to return, Hannington was consecrated Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa and sent back. He was thirty-seven years old.
He decided that what was needed was a safer, shorter route from Kenya, where he arrived, to Uganda—specifically Buganda, which is a subnational kingdom that lies in the center of Uganda. Wikipedia suggests that the well-trafficked southern route was controlled by Arab slave traders, and Hannington hoped to establish a better way for Christians to travel. At this time, there were many Christians in Uganda. Hannington wasn’t journeying to bring the gospel to “deepest, darkest Africa,” where no preacher had gone before. Instead, he was simply trying to make Christian inroads—literally—into a part of the country that was undeveloped.
But, as his martyrdom implies, things did not go well. Hannington was unaware that cutting a road through Buganda would not be well received by the authorities. At the same time, German imperial forces were spreading elsewhere on the African continent, and the king of Buganda, Mwanga II, was suspicious that Hannington had his own conquering agenda. So he had the bishop and his Christian companions arrested. After eight days, Hannington and the porters with him were executed. Hannington was speared on both sides, and as he bled to death, he is reported to have said, “Go tell your master (Mwanga) that I have purchased the road to Uganda with my blood.”
The gospel lesson appointed for today is Matthew 10:16-22. Jesus warns his disciples that he is sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves—not a very happy image, huh? I wonder if Hannington had that gospel lesson in mind as he hacked his way through the highlands of eastern Africa. Sheep in the midst of wolves—what a scary prospect! All around us are those who are out to get us. We’d better be on our guard. We’d better arm ourselves. I wonder what sort of attitude Hannington had during his interrogation. I wonder whether he tried to build a friendship with his captors or whether he embraced death boldly and nobly.
There’s a danger in adopting a confrontational mindset when travelling to a foreign land. And there’s a futility in adopting an adversarial approach to evangelism. Surely it’s more productive to look for ways to build connection. Instead of being on guard and expecting those around us to tear us apart as wolves might set upon a flock of sheep, perhaps we should use a different image for the work of the church in modern times. What about the image of a new kid in class? Or maybe strangers trapped on an elevator? Yes, of course, there were (and still are) times and places where Christians were killed simply for being Christians. And I’m sure that the image of sheep and wolves made a lot of sense in the first few centuries of the Church’s history. But what about today? Are we sheep in the midst of wolves?
Our missionary identity has changed since the late nineteenth century. We aren’t cutting in roads from Kenya to Uganda, seeking a safer, quicker route for Christians. For the most part, we aren’t taking the gospel to unreached heathen. Instead, mission and evangelism are about building relationships. Sometimes those encounters begin in conflict, but the work of the gospel isn’t to dig in our heels and butt heads with our “opponents” for Jesus’ sake. That isn’t really what sheep do in the midst of wolves. Have you ever seen a sheep in the midst of wolves? Unless they’re being eaten, they’ve already run away. They hide. Sheep don’t fight back. They know that the wolves are in control.
We are sent out not to impose our will on those we encounter. We are sent out not because we know what’s best for those we meet. We are sent out to share good news and love with the whole world. Is the world eager to hear that message? Sometimes not. And will the world tear us apart? Sometimes it will. But we go out to share God’s love with the whole world. And love, of course, is about relationships.