Janani Luwum was born in 1922 in Mucwini, Chua County, Kitgum District to Eliya Okello and Aireni Aciro. His father was a convert to Christianity.
Janani was sent to school and eventually became a teacher.
In 1948, he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour. His conversion was so deep that he gave up teaching to join Church ministry full time.
He became very active in the East African revival movement, and became a lay reader, then a deacon, and then a priest in 1956. He taught at Buwalasi Theological College and later became its Principal. In 1969 he was consecrated bishop of Northern Uganda.
Janani Luwum’s leadership focused not only on preaching and spreading the Word of God, but also on the holistic development of people and communities; he repeatedly appealed to Ugandans to live together peacefully and in harmony. He was among the early visionaries for the sustainability of the Church through the Church House Project.
In 1974 Janani Luwum became Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire (Eastern DR Congo). It was during a time of widespread terror after Idi Amin had overthrown President Milton Obote three years earlier in 1971.
Amin had enacted a policy of repression, arresting anyone suspected of not supporting him. Hundreds of soldiers from the Lango and Acholi tribes were shot down in their barracks. Over the next few years, many Christians were killed for various offenses. A preacher who read over the radio a Psalm which mentioned Israel was shot for this in 1972. Archbishop, Janani Luwum often went personally to the office of the dreaded State Research Bureau to help secure the release of prisoners.
Tension between the Church and state worsened in 1976. Religious leaders, including Archbishop Luwum, jointly approached Idi Amin to share their concern. They were rebuffed. Nevertheless, Archbishop Luwum continued to attend Government functions.
One of his critics accused him of being on the Government side and he replied “I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present Government which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity I have told the President the things the churches disapprove of.”
Early in 1977, there was a small army rebellion that was put down with only seven men dead. Amin, however, was determined to stamp out all traces of dissent. His men killed thousands.
On Sunday, 30th January, 1977, Bishop Festo Kivengere preached on “The Preciousness of Life” to an audience including many high government officials. He denounced the arbitrary bloodletting, and accused the government of abusing the authority that God had entrusted to it. The government responded on the following Saturday (5th February) by an early morning (1:30am) raid on the home of the Archbishop, Janani Luwum, ostensibly to search for hidden stores of weapons.
The Archbishop called on President Amin to deliver a note of protest, signed by nearly all the bishops of Uganda, against the policies of arbitrary killings and the unexplained disappearances of many persons. Amin accused the Archbishop of treason, produced a document supposedly by former President Obote attesting his guilt, and had the Archbishop and two Cabinet members (both committed Christians) arrested and held for military trial.
On 16th February, the Archbishop and six bishops were tried on a charge of smuggling arms. Archbishop Luwum was not allowed to reply, but shook his head in denial. The President concluded by asking the crowd: “What shall we do with these traitors?” _The soldiers replied_ “ Kill him now.” The Archbishop was separated from his bishops. As he was taken away Archbishop Luwum turned to his brother bishops and said: “Do not be afraid. I see God’s hand in this.”
The three (the Archbishop and the two Cabinet members) met briefly with four other prisoners who were awaiting execution, and were permitted to pray with them briefly. Then the three were placed in a Land Rover and not seen alive again by their friends.
The government story is that one of the prisoners tried to seize control of the vehicle and that it was wrecked and the passengers killed. The story believed by the Archbishop’s supporters is that he refused to sign a confession, was beaten and otherwise abused, and finally shot.
Luwum’s body was placed in a sealed coffin and soldiers secretly transported his desecrated body to Mucwini (his ancestral home and birthplace), and dumped it in a hurriedly-dug grave at the church yard at Wii Gweng on 19th February 1977. The villagers, however, were not satisfied with a sealed coffin. When they opened it, they discovered the bullet holes in his body.
In the capital city of Kampala a crowd of about 4,500 gathered for a memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Namirembe, on 20th February. A grave had been prepared for him next to that of the 1885 martyred Bishop, James Hannington. At the open grave, _former Archbishop Erica Sabiti quoted the words of the angels at the empty tomb of Jesus_ , “He is not here, He is risen!” Instantly the Martyrs Song burst out with such power that “Glory, glory, hallelujah” was heard from that hilltop far into the city.
In Nairobi, about 10,000 gathered for another memorial service. Bishop Kivengere was informed that he was about to be arrested, and he and his family fled to Kenya, as did the widow and children of Archbishop Luwum.
The effect of Archbishop Janani Luwum’s martyrdom was expressed prophetically in the words of a lady who came to arrange flowers, as she walked through St. Paul’s Cathedral with several despondent bishops who were preparing for Archbishop Luwum’s Memorial Service. She said, “This is going to put us twenty times forward, isn’t it?”
The following June, about 25,000 Ugandans came to the capital to celebrate the centennial of the first preaching of the Gospel in their country, among the participants were many who had abandoned Christianity, but who had returned to their Faith as a result of seeing the courage of Archbishop Luwum and his companions in the face of death.
The assassination of Archbishop Janani Luwum is considered a turning point in Uganda’s history. For the international community, a line had been crossed and they were jolted into an awareness that Amin and his regime had to go. It set the stage for the Tanzanian-led campaign that removed Amin from power two years later.
“Today I have become a leader in Christ’s army,” Janani Luwum said when he was converted. Prophetically, he went on to say, “I am prepared to die in the army of Jesus. As Jesus shed his blood for his people, if it is God’s will, I do the same.
Contributions by James Kiefer, Bp Festo Kivengere, and other recorded testimonials.
Source: Church of Uganda