Festo Kivengere and His Message of Forgiveness

Festo Kivengere and His Message of Forgiveness

In 1977, the assassination of Anglican Archbishop Luwum shocked the world. Since his military coup in 1971, the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had been sowing terror around the country. Being a Muslim, he allowed three forms of Christianity in his country (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican) only as long as he could keep them under his control. Dissenting voices were quickly and often violently silenced.

            Luwum had been one of the dissenters, who spoke out against Amin’s abuses. He was arrested several times. The day after the last of these arrests, Radio Uganda announced that Luwum and two other men who had come under Amin’s suspicions had died in a car crash. But the news on TV showed one wrecked car and the newspaper another. No one was allowed to examine the bodies. Only much later, it was found that Luwum’s body was full of bullets. When questioned, Amin said he had nothing to do with the murder and any contrasting evidence was a result of a conspiracy against him.

            In spite of the government’s threats, 45,000 Ugandans attended Luwum’s funeral. Soon after that, other churches around the world held memorial services, including Westminster Abbey in London. But Ugandan Christians knew that a new wave of persecution was on the horizon. Some wondered if fleeing the country was an option.

            One of these Christians was the Anglican bishop Festo Kivengere. He had been one of the last people to see Luwum alive. At first, he and his wife Mera didn’t want to leave home. They loved their country and church. But Kivengere had been very open in his disagreements with Amin and he had been informed he would be one of his next victims. He and Mera drove by night as far as their car could take them, then walked to Rwanda.

            Later, he heard of the suffering of Christians who had stayed in Uganda: many martyrs, broken homes, and looted houses. But he also heard of touching stories of forgiveness and prayers for the murderers.

I Love Idi Amin

            Soon after his flight, Kivengere was invited to speak in different churches. Although he kept preaching forgiveness, he had not yet let go of the bitterness and resentment he harbored in his heart. “I had to face my own attitude towards Amin and his agents,” he wrote. “The Holy Spirit showed me that I was getting hard in my spirit, and that my hardness and bitterness towards those who were persecuting us could only bring spiritual loss. This would take away my ability to communicate the love of God, which is the essence of my ministry and testimony.”[1]

            It was a Good Friday sermon at All Souls Church in London on Christ’s words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) that impressed on him the extent of Christ’s forgiveness and of his own duty to repent.

            “Although I frequently had to repent and pray again for forgiveness,” he wrote, “I rose that day with a liberated heart and have been able to share Calvary love in freedom. Yes, I have forgiven [Idi Amin], and am still praying for him to escape the terrible spiritual prison he is in.”[2]

            Soon after that, with the help of retired missionary Dorothy Smoker, he wrote a book with a shocking title: I Love Idi Amin. Its purpose, he said, was to “share what God has done for ordinary Christians in an ordinary church in the middle of storms and stresses - because Christ does shine brighter when all around is darker.”[3]

            “We love president Idi Amin,” he wrote. “We owe him the debt of love, for he is one of those for whom Christ shed His precious blood. As long as he is still alive, he is still redeemable. Pray for him, that in the end he may see a new way of life, rather than a way of death.”[4]

            Not everyone agreed with his views. At a conference in Germany, people asked him about his divergence with the views of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Christians who tried to assassinate Hitler.

            “I don’t want to charge Bonhoeffer and the Christians who were involved in this attempt,” he said, “but for me and for us in Uganda, it is clear: God doesn’t need our bullets. If he wants to stop Idi Amin, He can send him a heart attack or something else. ... A bullet can kill, but a bullet cannot heal.”

            “They say that if you use violence – knock out the tyrannical oppressor with a bullet, perhaps – you’ll bring about quick change,” he continued. “But the Lord was aiming at a redemptive change, one capable of moulding a new community, a new outlook, a new value of life.”[5]

Kivengere’s Early Life

Born around the year 1921 in a ruling family in southwest Uganda, Kivengere became deeply affected by the East African Revival that swept through Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda from the early 1930’s to the 1950’s.

            He first learned about Jesus at a mission in his village and was baptized at age 10. But he found the experience disappointing because he was expecting a great visible change. They had told him it was the death of the old man and birth of the new, but he was still the same person.

            He briefly joined a revival at his high school, but this excitement didn’t last long. Soon, he joined a group of rowdy students and spent his time drinking and seeking ways to have fun.

            When he returned home, he was surprised to see how many people in his town had joined the revival. Friends and family were asking him about his faith – something he found highly annoying.

            He found an ally in his uncle Karegyesa, who hated the revival for its blurring of tribal traditions and distinctions between clans. Karegyesa went as far as hiring some men to beat up Christians – a losing battle, because some of the hired hitmen felt so guilty that they asked the Christians for forgiveness and gave their lives to Christ.

            By that time, Kivengere had found a job as a teacher in a school run by missionaries, and was expected to teach the Bible, but he couldn’t help but make sarcastic comments. Overall, he was a good teacher with a charming personality, and his students began to admire his air of “rebel without a cause.”

            But the testimony of those around him continued to convict him: from his nine-year-old brother who answered a student’s theological question that had stumped him, to his 14-year old niece who praised God in front of the congregation for Festo’s return to Christ (something she just knew God was going to do).

            What finally turned his life around was a conversation with one of his friends who had become a Christian. Gripped with the realization of Christ’s love for him, a sinner, he decided to devote his life to announce the same message to others. Ordained first as a deacon and later as a priest, he gripped people with his enthusiastic, descriptive sermons.

A Message of Peace and Compassion

            In 1969, the South African evangelist Michael Cassidy, Founder of African Enterprise, invited Kivengere to help him to build the organization in East Africa, something that Kivengere did with great passion. They became good friends. The fact that a white South African and a black Ugandan could work so well together provided a powerful example at a troubling time in African history.

            In 1972, when the Anglican church consecrated Kivengere bishop of Kigezi, he insisted on keeping both callings, at great sacrifice of his time. As a bishop, he had many encounters with Idi Amin, confronting him for his abuses, but reminding himself that Amin was potentially redeemable by Christ. He also forbade his clergy to become involved in party politics.

            Kivengere’s exile from Uganda lasted until 1979, when Amin was overthrown. He was then ordained Archbishop of Uganda. As such, he continued to confront Amin’s successor, Apollo Milton Obote, for his own abuses, particularly in the case of the Banyarwanda people. He knew this would once again place him in danger, but couldn’t be silent.

            In his short biography on Kivengere, South African author and former bishop Frank Retief attributes Kivengere’s commitment to the cause of the oppressed to his attitude toward prayer.

“Prayer does not start with you. It is God concerned with His world. ... He is the one urging you. ... You will find yourself alongside Jesus in a garden of Gethsemane saying, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ ... If you want comfort, you had better be afraid of prayer because it is going to shock you into the place where the world is. It is going to open your mind, sensitize your personality, and widen your horizons. ... Experiencing their suffering, you can whisper a prayer to the throne of grace and that prayer will not be only your prayer, it is the Holy Spirit praying through you for them. He never leaves the desperate to go through it alone.”[6]

            In spite of his increased responsibilities, Kivengere continued to travel widely, preaching all over the world. He also collaborated with Billy Graham and translated some of his works. In fact, his influence and preaching abilities led many to call him “the Billy Graham of Africa.”

            Kivengere’s death in 1988 by leukemia was mourned by Christians all over the world. His books and example, however, continue to influence Christians everywhere.





[1] Festo Kivengere, Dorothy Smoker, I Love Idi Amin, The Story of Triumph Under Fire in the Midst of Suffering and Persecution in Uganda, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1977, 62

[2] Festo Kivengere, Dorothy Smoker, Revolutionary Love, Christian Literature Crusade and Kingsway Publication, 1983, 80

[3] Kivengere, Smoker, I Love Idi Amin,7

[4] Kivengere, Smoker, I Love Idi Amin, 63

[5] Anne Coomes, The Authorized Biography of Festo Kivengere, Monarch, 1990, 380, as quoted in Frank Retief, Festo Kivengere, Darlington, UK, Evangelical Press, 2012, 127-128.

[6] Frank Retief, Festo Kivengere, Darlington, UK, Evangelical Press, 2012, 145


Simonetta Carr