How do former Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers - men, women and children who have used the Bible as a weapon of war - learn to reread the scriptures once they return home? This is the puzzle facing researchers from Uganda and Cambridge.
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."
Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala
In 2012, one of the world’s most wanted war criminals, Joseph Kony, became one of the most repeated names on the planet thanks to a YouTube documentary (Kony 2012) and a call to action that sought to expose the terror and slaughter he inflicted on thousands of men, women and children in Central Africa.
Indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, Kony is now believed to be in hiding with his followers. He remains the genocidal leader of the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who claimed to have been sent by God to liberate the people of Northern Uganda from the rival National Resistance Army (NRA). From the start of their insurgency in 1987, Kony’s LRA claimed as their major objective the establishment of a government based on the Ten Commandments.
In the decades since, his army - often made up of thousands of forcibly conscripted child soldiers - have wounded, widowed and orphaned indiscriminately as they prosecuted a campaign of violence with a vigour befitting Kony’s vengeful readings of the Old Testament.
In the process, the LRA are thought to have displaced as many as two million Ugandans, the vast majority from Uganda’s Acholiland, where Kony originally hails from.
Today, Acholiland is a haunted place; haunted by the ghosts and memories of a recent past that has been written in blood rather than ink during nearly two decades of conflict.
But what happens when former LRA soldiers, those who have used the Bible as a weapon of war, return home from the front lines’ How do former soldiers - male and female, adults and children - learn to reread and reinterpret scriptures that once spoke to them of fire and brimstone?
Kony says it is God who sent him to kill people so nobody should stop him. You know this thing is very difficult to understand as Kony refers us to the Bible... In Kony’s time, God has sent the Holy Spirit, and it is the one which is doing the work through Kony.
Zacchaeus, a former LRA commander
This is the puzzle facing Dr Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala from Makerere University in Uganda. As a CAPREx fellow, she spent time in Cambridge working with Dr Emma Wild-Wood, from the Faculty of Divinity and the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.
Nambalirwa Nkabala interviewed returning LRA soldiers in Uganda in order to examine how a positive engagement with biblical texts - especially those that seem to support violence - can help to promote peace instead.
She says: ’My project identifies difficult texts in the Old Testament and seeks to identify the means by which they can be used in a constructive and meaningful way - with the central focus being on whether a particular interpretation promotes human dignity or not.
‘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 traumatised. 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.’
When you look at what happened in the north and you go to the Bible and you read from the beginning to the last part you may find that 90 per cent of what happened here is in the Bible. Whatever has happened is exactly how God designed it.
Steve, a former LRA commander
Wild-Wood says that the ARLPI’s initial desire to publicise 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 ultilised 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.’
Dr Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala was funded by the Cambridge-Africa Partnership for Research Excellence (CAPREx) and The ALBORADA Trust, through the Cambridge-Africa Programme.
To keep up to date with the latest stories about Cambridge’s engagement with Africa, follow #CamAfrica on Twitter.