Last week I was called out by someone on Facebook for what he called “being emotional.” He told me that I could not hold a logical discussion because I was emotional. In fact, he called my emotional appeal—during the debate we were having—’logically inconsistent’ and promised that he would use my ‘style’ of argumentation to show his 9-12-year-old students what logical fallacies look like.

He also promised that I would become a ‘star’ after him using me as a case study.

What happened with my friend is something anthropologists would quickly put a finger on. While we both sought to have ‘logical’ discussions, we approached them differently. He could not envisage an intellectual conversation which partly appealed to the emotive. At the same time, I could not imagine that someone would discuss human persons and totally divorce emotions from that discussion.

What my friend did is something many Westerners (read: white people) would easily do: argue that their way is the only way, and any attempt at a different approach is a sham.

My continued appeal to this person that we are different and that the socio-cultural contexts which we come from shape the way we see, understand, and arrive at truth fell on deaf ears. He accused me of pulling the race card which in his words was “cheap and cowardly”.

By no means am I saying all these to store up sympathy from the internet. Instead, I say this because, I think, this conversation is crucial if we are to make headway on such important, and challenging topics as race, and the sad history of what this country has come to call ‘people of colour’.

Do emotions, or what I will refer to as empathy, have a stake in civil discourse. Can we make a claim that this country (The US) would be a better place if it cared more about our, and other’s emotional appeal instead of calling it cheap and cowardly?

A Case for Emotional Appeal

From the discussion I had with my friend on Facebook and many others I have had in my two-year-old stay in this country, it is evident that these times have been marked by a strong appeal to the intellect. Logical constructs, [some] numbers, expert opinion, etc. have come to be treasured above anything else.

Yet, we don’t seem to be making progress in dealing with the hardest topics—the ones we cannot avoid. Information and its consumption are not helping. One would think that having all the information would help us tackle the problem of race, systemic racism, police brutality, white supremacy, reparations or any other topic we may want to discuss.

This country is so unique that when faced with a profoundly moral question, most will first appeal to their social and political lenses to discern the times. The leftists, as well as the rightists will speak with a united voice. After this, many will join book clubs, or recommend books to read so that the question at hand is ‘understood’.

What normally follows this understanding is a mystery to me.

The American mind is shaped in a way that there will be no redress whatsoever unless people know the facts. Here, knowledge, or knowing, is key.

The problem with this approach, however, is that logic, constructs, numbers, estimates, and loads of books which inform ‘mob reason’ cannot reach down to the experiential level of human pain and suffering.

Understanding people and their experiences demand that we feel with them. It requires that we understand that theirs is a different struggle which we will not know unless we die with them in their death, celebrate with them in their achievements, and drown with them in their tears.

It is an experience to be soaked in, not a case study to be examined.

People feel, celebrate, worship, cry, mourn, struggle, hope, believe, and lament. You cannot fully comprehend these from a paragraph however well-written it may be. You cannot measure them either. This is why empathy becomes essential. One person’s story matters. It cannot be dismissed because—according to the experts—it accounts for just 0.00002% of the population.

It always saddens me when some people, out of a sheer lack of empathy, claim that systemic racism is a myth or that police brutality against people of colour is something that exists only in the minds of wishful thinkers like me. The explanation is always one of numbers. They will say that Amaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Terrence Crutcher and many others are just a drop in the ocean if the US population of 331 million people is taken into consideration.

You see, this argument would make sense if we were talking about how many wildebeests migrated from the Serengeti this year. But we are talking about human beings, with families, and mouths to feed. We are talking about God’s image-bearing children. We cannot leave feelings outside the door as if we are discussing or reading about rocks.

Jesus is Empathetic

Our Lord in Luke 15 tells a set of three parables. The lost coin, the lost son and the lost sheep. He describes how the owner of the coin puts everything on hold, turns her house upside down to find this one lost coin. He also tells the story of the father of the son gives up honour to welcome his son back home. And then the shepherd of 100 sheep who leaves the 99 to go find the one sheep that was foolish enough to think that it could make it on its own.

By our American logic, the one sheep accounting for just 1% of the flock would be inconsequential compared to the 99%. It would therefore not be necessary to go seeking it out. But Jesus Christ does not buy into that empathy-starved narrative. To Jesus that one sheep matters: “Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.” (Luke 15:6)

Jesus feels for the lost. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Heb 4:15) Because he has lived in a body (and continues to do so), he is able to empathise with.

The Apostle Paul also demonstrates what empathy looks like when he talks about the body with its many parts in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Here he shows that all believers in Corinth are one body—which is Christ—consisting of many parts. These parts, according to Paul, cannot exist without each other. They are useless unless they complement each other. What would an eye do by itself? Imagine walking along a street and meeting a human eye. The statement itself sounds stupid because eyes don’t walk around on the street. They give vision to the body.

He then concludes by saying that “In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy.” (vs 25-26)

The parts of the body understand what it means to suffer for each other, they get empathy. When a foot hits a stone, the whole body feels the pain. This is how the body of believers is supposed to be. It is meant to enter the suffering of another so that it will understand that other better.

Even when we talk about other people’s experiences, we need to be aware of the pain involved. Our words, which always come from books, podcasts, YouTube videos etc. hurt other people because they lack empathy. They don’t feel for those they are addressing.

It is essential, therefore, that the American thinks deeply about how she interacts with people, especially those who have been hurt. She mustn’t treat other people’s lived experiences as case studies that lack any relatability beyond the ink on a book page. Written words may speak, but they don’t feel, and they can never really invite the reader into their lived experience because they lack one. People, on the other hand, have flesh and feel pain. They are also able to invite others into their understanding of pain and suffering.

If this country is ever going to genuinely tackle racism and the painful past it always shies away from, some people will have to stop buying books. We are going to need vulnerable people who can be trusted to be invited into [our] pain, and suffering; people who will be ready to hear and see our pain as a reality we carry around every day. Maybe then people will start to be humane about the pain black bodies carry.

A false prophet?


But, a heretic?

Not a chance.

One of the greatest minds of the previous century, G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous.”

My Professor, Justin Holcomb, in his book Know the Heretics notes that the sense of the word “heresy” has been lost. He adds “To some people today, a heretic suggests a rebel – someone with courage, the kind of person who can think for himself and stand up to the institutional church.”

In the early church, heretics were those guys who came up with new and novel ideas on who God was. Their crime was not the creativity and thoughtfulness they exhibited, it was the deviation from a unified position, call it doctrine, that the Universal Church taught.

That is not how we use the term today.

Today, the term carries connotations that are less religious. It is more of a cultural term.

Elvis Mbonye would agree that he is a ‘rebel’, ‘courageous’, and that he is ‘standing up to the institutional church’. In fact, he rues the “religious establishment” for spending too much time practicing a static spirituality, and dead theology with nothing to show for it.

I want to submit that Elvis Mbonye is a product of the current social and cultural forces that have shaped the way we live, interact.

Spiritual Entrepreneurship

The contemporary catchphrase all wannabe entrepreneurs talk about is ‘disruption’.

Millennials will walk into an incubating hub in one of the suburbs of Kampala, hoping that their business idea will be the one to serve a market that could not be served previously.

With the use of words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘accurate’, etcetera, concerning his predictions, Elvis Mbonye has positioned himself as a disrupter in the religious space.

He is different and unapologetic. His ministry is like a regular high-end startup, operating in a rented space, probably because of an anticipation of future exponential growth.

His selling point, though, is his personal brand.

The idea of a personal brand is new. Older folks don’t ‘get’ it, for the most part, because they don’t ‘get’ social media. The other day President Yoweri Museveni tried to resist the idea of building a personal brand when his Bazzukulu (grandchildren) told him that these days “appearances matter.”

He responded in a classic Museveni fashion by reminding everyone that he is the son of Kaguta and therefore does not need PR. Recently, he has jumped on the train, and it is working well for him.

Now back to Mr Mbonye.

While his ministry—Zoe Fellowship—sells him as the brand, his skill is what completes this equation. You see, a personal brand is built around something you can sell to people. Mbonye sells predictions, packaged as Christian prophecies.

That is why his public image matters to him (not that it shouldn’t matter): the classy outfits, latest cars, and the marketing language sprinkled with religious words.

The other thing about personal branding is what is called “social proof”, the idea that they will only “believe if ya show ’em”. It’s a game of perception, and people will adopt a certain way of life akin to those who ‘influence’ them. Have you seen people on Facebook add ‘Elvis’ to their names? Or others entering the prophecy business calling themselves his sons with the same haircut, and flashy outfits?

Because, if you mimic his observable behaviour, you become like him. Well, in reality, not really.

What they try to mimic—the tip of the iceberg—is what they see in pictures, videos or two hours a week. Mostly, it is someone who has makeup on and is trying to portray themselves in a particular light. What about the other part of the iceberg which is submerged in the icy waters of personal struggles, sin, marital fights, vulnerability and all the other ‘thorns in the flesh’?

The question above is important because one day, when a teenage daughter starts to blur parental boundaries, or a scary medical diagnosis comes in, or a marriage can’t work anymore, etc., one will need an authentic spiritual leader, not a social media, photoshopped version of a man of God.

They that make them are like unto them

—so is every one that trusts in them, says the Psalmist in Ps 115:8. One thing that has been evident with Elvis Mbonye and his followers has been the arrogance with which they speak.

About a year and a half ago, when two of Mr Mbonye’s followers were hosted on a talk show on NTV, a youthful fellow spent all those two hours swimming in arrogance to the dismay of everyone on the show. He turned to one of the guests on the program and pointed out how his faith was ‘dead’ because he was putting on eyeglasses. Indeed, if his God was living, he would cure his eye problem, the young man reasoned.

That lack of cultural intelligence is analogous to small three-year-old children who have not yet developed social skills. It’s the kind of behaviour that should never be condoned by anyone in their right mind, yet such is what sets you apart as Mr Mbonye’s son or daughter.

This week, Elvis Mbonye exhibited the same arrogant pride in the interview he gave to Solomon Serwanjja. It is now evident who taught that youthful fellow to behave and speak the way he did.

The arrogance that Mr Mbonye exuded in the interview can pass for a spiritual endeavour. It seems to me that that arrogance is to them a fruit of the spirit, Mbonye’s spirit.

Everyone who trusts in them will become like them.  Elvis is teaching them well, and they are becoming like him.

Why Elvis Mbonye is not a Heretic

Going back to our definition of heresy above, I mean the traditional definition. I still hold that Elvis Mbonye is not a heretic.

You see, heresy demands that you compromise an essential doctrine of the faith, and in the process disfigure the traditional understanding of who God is. Mr Mbonye has not done that.

Not even close.

He is a product of the social and cultural forces that have shaped the way we interact and live. What he does is done by so many other spiritual entrepreneurs.

What he has failed to do, however, is use these socio-cultural forces, like social media and today’s redefined view of self and personhood to shape, at best, or alter, at worst, the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. He is theologically bankrupt.

Yesterday while on a walk with two friends, one of them told us a story about his time in a Christian college. It went like this. A certain student prefaced his in-class submission with the words “For fear of being a heretic…” His professor quickly interjected and said, “Son, you are not smart enough to be a heretic.”