The Bible as a weapon of war

“The way the LRA used the Bible, in a literal sense, to justify their violent actions has caused a complete overturn of the social and generational structures of the Acholi people.

“The former LRA members I interviewed claim that all their actions are in accordance with Bible teachings; obedience to the law meant that anyone considered to have broken the Ten Commandments had to be destroyed.”

Kelly, a former child soldier, told Nambalirwa Nkabala that the Bible teaches that “somebody who does not obey must be killed.” This is the level of indoctrination that Cambridge researchers are trying to untangle as they work alongside Acholi leaders of varying denominations to promote peace and reconciliation using texts  that were once wielded to justify murder on an industrial scale.

However, their work is complicated  by the fact that Acholi cultural beliefs – as well as some readings of the Old Testament – also permit killing in exceptional circumstances, meaning that the LRA may have appropriated elements of Acholi culture to justify their own murderous ideology. For instance, the Achioli Chief and elders can pass ngolo kop me too – or ‘judgement of  death’ – where killing is permitted, Likewise, Kony, a former altar boy in the Catholic Church, was brought up by a catechist father whom Nambalirwa Nkabala believes exposed him to Old Testament passages of death and punishment from an early age.

“Former LRA soldiers must be ready to reread the texts they were exposed to in a different way,” adds Nambalirwa Nkabala. “Texts with a violent message should be read with an ethical and nonviolent stance. Rather than passively accept what the text says, we must engage in dialogue with it. It is every Christian’s duty to expose and challenge any textual message which permits violence.

“The Bible must be read contextually. By asking about the role of the text to a particular context, interpreters will automatically be pushed into the habit of checking what implications a particular reading/interpretation could have on a particular community.”

Wild-Wood met with Christian and Muslim leaders of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) during her trip to Uganda in 2015 as she sought to understand how the Bible is now being used to rebuild society. She was struck by the commitment to peace across differing faiths and denominations.

“A great deal of thought has gone into how former combatants can be rehabilitated,” says Wild-Wood. “From my focus groups, the religious leaders were optimistic about the future, but the challenges are many. They are dealing with people who are very traumatized. Some see the LRA soldiers as perpetrators, some see them as victims. But there is a recognition that people have dealt with awful situations – and may fall apart afterwards.”

Wild-Wood says that the ARLPI’s initial desire to publicize the atrocities being carried out by the LRA – and to protect civilians where possible – has now refocused to aid the process of reintegrating former combatants, and is working alongside international charities like World Vision to facilitate the transfer of former LRA soldiers from reception centres back to their communities.

“Projects of post-war reconciliation often engage with traditional beliefs and customs in order to effect lasting peace,” adds Wild-Wood. “Acholiland is no exception, and Acholi practices have been ultilized in restoring human relations. However, in the LRA and the wider population there are many Christians and a significant number of Muslims. It is important to engage the beliefs of those religious traditions when working towards long-term solutions to the destruction of society.”

While there may be a distance yet to travel, Nambalirwa Nkabala remains optimistic about Uganda’s future as it seeks to heal the deep scars caused by Kony and the decades of division and war he brought to his country.

“The advantage in all this is that the Acholi have a deep sense of community and solidarity,” she says. “This is exemplified in the various means they use to reincorporate wrongdoers back into their community. If the Acholi communities can be encouraged to maintain their cultural values of healing and reconciliation – even while reading texts that may have a violent message – then they can in the future avoid situations that can lead to the destruction and erosion of these most important of values.”