Shame for Christ: culture vs. Christ in the Ntagali affair

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January revelations of the adulterous affair of the former archbishop of Uganda, the Most Rev. Stanley Ntagali, with the wife of a priest has been the most notable story this year for African Anglicans. Not only was the story incredible, the response to it on social media was loud, angry and sustained.

To Western eyes, the focus of anger was as extraordinary as the news of the archbishop’s sins, for some were claiming the real villain was not Archbishop Ntagali, but the current archbishop, the Most Rev. Stephen Kaziimba and the Americans reporting the story. 

Last month’s public confession and apology by a penitent Archbishop Ntagali before the House of Bishops, mollified most critics — but it did leave unanswered for Western observers the question, why was the archbishop who had sanctioned his predecessor for moral turpitude treated so harshly?  Was there some truth in the adage “No good deed goes unpunished”.

While commentators pushed theories of tribal rivalry or a clash between patronage groups within the church, the most likely answer is found at the intersection of Scripture and Cultural Anthropology. Uganda’s shame/honor culture regarded the shaming of a leader as a violation of the community ethic. The issue of the archbishop’s private sin was of lesser importance than his public shaming. It was also made worse by having American reporters publicize the news.

Archbishop Kaziimba, however, did not bow to cultural norms and acquiesce in the cover up of the sins of a “big man”. He instead upended what constituted the honorable and shameful, disregarding culture’s claim to the right to evaluate one’s honor or dishonor. 

For those not versed in African cultural and social values, the importance of honor and dishonor in this saga can be understood by re-reading the Letter to the Hebrews. A Christian was called to strive for honor in God’s eyes, the Letter to the Hebrews taught, emulating the crucified Christ, who “endured the cross, despising shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.” (Heb 12:2)

Archbishop Kaziimba did not repudiate Uganda’s traditional “shame” culture. He re-centered it around the cross of Christ — replacing shame before the community with the shame of sin before a holy God.

The public timeline: How did we get here?

The publication of the 13 January 2021 letter of suspension of Archbishop Ntagali by Anglican.Ink was the first word in the press about the affair following a review of the evidence by senior lay leaders and bishops. The public dissemination of their findings was  inadvertently delayed by the shuttering of social media during the closing days of the country’s national elections. 

Just as the dust settled after the elections, on 18 January 2021 Anglican.Ink published the five-day old letter announcing Archbishop Ntagali’s suspension. Later that day GAFCON chairman, the Most Rev. Foley Beach of the ACNA, released a statement stating he had been in consultation with the Ugandan church about the affair.

On the 19th, Archbishop Ntagali issued a statement on twitter asking for pardon. “I apologise to my family, the church of Uganda, the whole Christian fraternity and most importantly repent to the most high. Nothing can be done to account for or take away this but the blood of Christ. I’m sorry Uganda. Forgive me God.”

However, Archbishop Ntagali declined to respond to questions from reporters. Their chance came on the 23rd at a party celebrating the engagement of his daughter with 200 guests at his home in the Kikuube District. He told reporters who had assembled outside his home: “I am always a happy man, but the devil is a liar. We are more than conquerors in Jesus’ name.” 

The Daily Monitor reported the retired archbishop did not confirm or deny the charges of adultery lodged against him but said his daughter’s engagement was a welcome distraction from the difficulties of the recent days. 

Archbishop Kaziimba briefed in closed session the House of Bishops on 28 January 2021 at a previously scheduled meeting held at the Lweza Training and Conference Centre in Kampala. After intense discussion the bishops released a statement affirming Archbishop Kaziimba’s  discipline of Archbishop Ntagali.

The reaction

After Anglican.Ink published the letter some Ugandan news outlets tweeted they knew nothing about this purported suspension, while mid-level church leaders stated they surely would have known if such a thing were true.  

The report was dismissed as a fabrication and some commentators on social media deemed it to be Satanic. Anger was also directed at Archbishop Kaziimba, who was denounced for airing the church’s dirty linen in public and involving foreigners in the affair, thus shaming Ugandan Anglicans before the world.

Sources who attended the bishop’s meeting said some were incensed their archbishop had made the news of Archbishop Ntagali’s shame public, while others were angry that they were caught off guard by the news. But why were they angry?

Guilt v Shame culture

A short excursus into social theory puts this matter into focus. Cultural Anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s 1946 book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, introduced to a popular audience the concept of guilt and shame cultures.  Writing at the invitation of the US government to help American soldiers understand the Japanese mind, Benedict wrote the collectivist honor culture of the Japanese produced a very different way of thinking than the individualistic guilt oriented culture of Americans.

In 1954 the linguist and missiologist Eugene Nida in his book Customs and Culture expanded Benedict’s analysis. “We have to reckon with three different types of reactions to transgressions of religiously sanctioned codes: fear, shame, and guilt”  (p 150). 

These labels were later refined by scholars to “honor/shame,” “innocence/guilt” and “power/fear.”

Differing cultures ranked these norms differently with elements of all three found in varying degrees in human societies. The animistic and magical practices of African Traditional Religions reflected the values of power/fear in sub-Saharan cultures, but scholars soon came to say the honor/shame dynamic held a stronger sway — and was much closer to the Mediterranean worldview in Jesus’ time than the current European-American mindset.

Dr. Andrew Mbuvi, a Kenyan who serves as professor of New Testament studies at UNC-Greensboro wrote: “The primary core values that underlie both the African culture and the biblical cultures is that of honor and shame. … There is thus no denying that honor and shame are at the core of the value system of African societies, just as in biblical cultures.” (“African Theology from the Perspective of Honor and Shame,” in The Urban Face of Mission, p 91).

Honor/shame cultures trained its members to seek approval and acceptance from their community and to draw their identity from the group. It is the social mechanism that reinforces the collectivist identity. 

A Western missionary in Botswana offered this example: “When an African Christian must choose between lying (to protect an elder’s reputation and honour) or speaking the truth (which will shame and dishonour the elder) they often think ‘God will forgive me and my elder will not, so I will lie’.”

Despising shame

The classical and Biblical world operated on the honor/shame principal. “Be more careful in guarding against censure than against danger; for the wicked may well dread the end of life,” wrote Isocrates, “but good men should dread ignominy during life.” Ad Demonicus, Verse 43. This view was common among Greeks, Romans and Jews.

Recent scholarly treatments of the Letter to the Hebrews emphasize the importance of the honor/shame worldview. They argue the author of Hebrews addressed the concerns of an honor-sensitive people to continue in Christian activity, worship, and community when the culture in which they live disdained the Christian ethic. 

“The author seeks to persuade the congregation to disregard the society’s evaluation of honor and dishonor and to continue confidently in Christian identity and associations as a means of satisfying their desire for honor,” argued Emory University’s David Desilva.

Harold W Attridge (The Epistle to the Hebrews. p 358) and William Lane (Hebrews, p 414) state the key to understanding Christ’s “despising shame” (Heb. 12:2) was not that Jesus was a stoic or merely being brave, but offering a new paradigm for Christians to reject the negative evaluation of the world but to think only of the evaluation of God. These scholars note the prominence of honor and shame motifs and the centrality of the majesty of Jesus was used by the author to pull wavering Christians back from accommodating themselves to the culture around them and remain steadfast in Christ.

Back to Uganda

The pressure to act as his peers in some of the Western Anglican churches by bowing to the dominant culture was specifically rejected by Archbishop Kaziimba. While the Episcopal Church and other Western churches have made pastoral accommodations on the doctrine of human sexuality — moving it from the debit to the credit side of the ledger — to avoid the scorn of their cultures, Archbishop Kaziimba kept the focus of the Church of Uganda on the eternal truths of Christ.  Sin remained sin, even if it was not popular to say this out loud.

While I am not privy to Archbishop Kaziimba’s thinking on what he did and why, the external impressions was that it was more important to honor God and his laws than to make peace with the world. This is not to say that adultery is not considered a sin in Uganda — by no means.

What it does say is that the Church of Uganda believes that culture does not trump Christ. It is easy to find fault with the ways of others — but to sacrifice the church’s public reputation when that reputation is held in high esteem by the community, in order to do what Scripture commands, is the mark of a spiritually mature church and leader.

The Stanley Ntagali saga will likely be the biggest church story out of Africa in 2021. Not because of its salacious details, but because the church and its archbishop did the right thing. The Church of Uganda and the Anglican world is blessed to have a leader of the spiritual maturity and moral integrity of Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba.