“I do not trust the Greeks, even bearing gifts.” - Laocoön, from Virgil’s Aeneid
Generosity can be tricky. Selfless giving, without any agenda, is perhaps the noblest act a human being can perform. When an altruistic deed has no deeper purpose except perhaps to make the person responsible feel a little bit better about themselves, most would agree that such a thing is entirely acceptable and altogether good. Unfortunately, this is not the way of the world, and while genuinely kind souls exist, and do legitimately selfless work, far too many use charity to mask shameful ulterior motives.
The documentary God Loves Uganda, opening this weekend at Tivoli Cinema, examines the efforts of America’s fundamentalist Christian right to spread their mostly used-up brand of hate Ministry in underdeveloped communities around the world. One of the leaders of this fundamentalist exportation project is a church based out of Kansas City, The International House of Prayer. With a 24/7 prayer room, massive church facilities, and a university dedicated to training its students for missionary work abroad, IHOP (which should not to be mistaken for the delicious pancake conglomerate) is a big player within the hard-right community.
Director Roger Ross Williams’ documentary splits its time between a group of young IHOP missionaries just before and during their trip to Uganda, and testimonials from people familiar with the church. Anybody from IHOP who watches this film will probably be pleased with the time given to their ebullient monologues about Christ’s love in their life, and their desire to share the “good news.” Audience members will likely feel a pang of sympathy for these young Americans when watching them speak to the camera, despite one’s religious or social affiliation, for deep down, it’s clear that the IHOP missionaries have mostly good intentions.
Yet if a person peels back the layers of the situation, and takes a long, hard look at IHOP’s charter, they will find that the core is rotten. The church has been actively campaigning against Uganda’s condom and safe-sex initiatives, which they have condemned as sinful. This stance has led to a widespread movement within Uganda’s highly-influential religious communities to discourage condom use, something that has seen the HIV and AIDS rate skyrocket. Yet as detrimental as IHOP’s ministry has been to the physical well-being of Uganda as a result of this work, its anti-LGBT initiatives have arguably been just as devastating.
One of the primary missions of the International House of Prayer is the fight against the spread of LGBT tolerance and civil rights. The church campaigned heavily in California’s 2008 Prop. 8 election initiative, and proudly claims influence on Uganda’s push to enact constitutional legislation to punish homosexual acts with life in prison, or in some cases, death. And standing behind all of this, igniting and fanning the flames of this intolerance, there are the missionaries. These kids play out their late-teen, early-20-something adventures abroad in a way that makes them feel good about themselves, yet still satisfies that late-adolescent urge to get away and explore. They don’t understand that they’re being used by a church with a very backwards, dangerous agenda, one that’s actively threatening to disenfranchise a whole segment of society.
And that’s the point. IHOP knows how useful these brainwashed missionaries are, as their crisp American accents, nice clothes, and generous nature present a very inviting image. The IHOP missionaries are selling a dream, one rooted in prosperity in this world, and eternal salvation in the next. The money the church collects and sends over to Africa helps to bring infrastructure and resources to impoverished communities who see this American generosity as nothing short of a gift from the heavens. What these new parishioners don’t realize is that the money they will bring into the church will eventually surge past any investment IHOP made in them. What’s more, the brand of exclusive Christianity they have been trained to regurgitate like some kind of putrid and contagious virus is simply a recycled version of a fundamentalist Christian sect that has mostly been run out of Europe and the U.S.
What the audience begins to realize as God Loves Uganda rolls into its final twenty or so minutes, what starts to make a person feel angry and a little sick, is that the bad guys are winning. There are Muslims in the region, but it doesn’t seem like their missionary presence is anywhere near as defined as groups like IHOP, and without access to much in the way of counterarguments or religiously tolerant alternatives, Ugandans are falling under the fundamentalist spell. As previously mentioned, HIV and AIDS rates have been through the roof in the last 13 years, when political and religious influences mounted their abstinence campaigns. And again, perhaps equally unfortunate, human rights abuses due to LGBT intolerance are on the rise in Uganda.
Which brings us back to generosity. Like any good documentary, God Loves Uganda doesn’t come out overtly on any one side of this issue, and instead lets the evidence and the actors on both ends of the drama relate the situation in their own words. It’s a shrewd move in this instance, for the misguided and dangerous ideals of IHOP and their representatives speak volumes. These people don’t really care about Uganda, they’re simply using the country as a Petri dish to culture a new colony of religiously intolerant “soldiers” in their church army. The missionaries are generous up to a point, yet use their kindness as a lever to pry their way into the local community and influence their thinking.
As the priest Laocoön proved in Virgil’s Aeneid, it’s wise to look upon gifts with some apprehension. He said, “I do not trust the Greeks, even bearing gifts.” He was referring to the Trojan Horse, which had just been discovered on a beach outside the gates of Troy. Wise words indeed.