Credit: Creative Commons

In the last several months I have visited services in several faith communities – Jewish, Catholic and Muslim.  Sunday before last I was in my own house of worship, Union Methodist, a historically Black congregation.  After religious services, we gathered in the basement to discuss the vexed question of whether or not our pastors could or could not officiate over same-sex marriages.  The meeting took no formal vote, but the overwhelming sense of the gathering was that all people had a right to equality.  A thirteen year-old girl stood up and cried when she spoke of the bullying of a boy at her school.  An elderly Caribbean woman denounced gay bashing. A middle-aged father of two spoke of how he had slowly come out to his two daughters.  A Puerto Rican psychologist spoke movingly of how his early view of homosexuality had turned him away from a call to the ministry.  A young man from the Deep South spoke of the long darkness in his soul as he wrestled with demons, sexual and otherwise.  We had church.   

An open letter from former Pastor Charles Stith, ex-ambassador to Tanzania and now at Boston University, reminded us of our history.  We are a “reconciling” church.  Long before it was fashionable, it had been welcoming and affirming to LGBT people.  Indeed, Union adopted this stance more than a decade ago, at a time when many Black churchmen were thundering against homosexuality from the pulpit.  Yet,  there was a caution from our former pastor.  The national United Methodist Church, in its aptly named “Book of Discipline,” will defrock any cleric presiding over a same-sex marriage.  Indeed, this has already happened, most notably in the case of Frank Schaefer who conducted a service for his son and his son’s partner.  As the denomination comes to include more and more members from “The Third World,” especially Africa, disagreements over sexual morality and the rights of the individual have come increasingly to the fore.

I, for one, welcome open and candid discussion on abortion, clitoridectomy (“female genital mutilation”), polygyny, and the boundaries of marriage.  After all, it has barely been a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court  finally overturned state sodomy laws.  There are other pressing issues like job and housing discrimination, issues that disproportionately affect poorer gay and Lesbian folk.  A scholar like Michael Klarman of Harvard Law, no enemy of LGBT rights, has argued that a narrow focus on marriage may divert us from other pressing issues.  I am willing to discuss other such issues and also willing to accept the possibility that my views may be culture-bound.

However, in my view, some things are not up for compromise and are urgent enough that they do not afford us the luxury of time for much discussion.  Remember June 26, 2013?  Gay and Lesbian couples embraced and kissed as the airborne Barack Obama congratulated them on a Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed the right of same-sex marriage in California.  On disembarking hours later, Obama’s first host, Senegal’s Macky Sall, was asked about the decriminalization of homosexuality.  Sall’s response was defiantly negative.  Indeed, the throng that the president had addressed from the sky would have been jailed had they landed with him.  Four years earlier, gay AIDS activists in Senegal were outlawed.  One escaped to neighboring Gambia. There, in a country which was already undergoing an outbreak of witchcraft trials, homosexuals were threatened with beheading.  In September 2013, Gambia’s leader announced from the podium of the United Nations that homosexuality was the greatest present threat to humanity (forget nuclear weapons, civil wars, terrorism and AIDS).

Punitive sodomy laws have been enacted in Uganda, Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Gambia, Namibia, Malawi, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania , Ghana, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Botswana, Swaziland and Tunisia.  In 2013 a Pew poll which charted the percentage of persons “who say homosexuality should be accepted by society” ranged from 70 to 80 percent in Europe.  In the U.S., it hovered around 60 percent.  In Mexico it was 61 percent, in Brazil 60 percent and in Argentina 74 percent.  In Africa, outside of South Africa (32 percent), the numbers were strikingly low, with Kenya at 8 percent, Uganda at 4 percent and Nigeria at 1 percent.  Africa is now the most homophobic of continents.

Politicized homophobia seems to be able to put down roots where Marxism and African socialism have fallen on barren ground.  At the end of 2013, the Ugandan legislature passed a bill mandating life imprisonment for homosexuality.  Early in 2014 the president of Nigeria signed a law that made participating in or even condoning a same-sex marriage a criminal offence.  Such private and governmental concern about sexuality has complex causes. Some arises as a reaction to the shame inspired by European missionaries’ condemnation of African mores.  Some arises from anxiety, shame and moral confusion produced in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.  Much is encouraged by a growing international network of fundamentalist Christians linked by a common opposition to the emergence of a LGBT identity.  There is organizational support and money from Christian fundamentalists, who, while losing the field in the United States, repair to Africa in hopes of opening a second front on Satan’s kingdom.  Social angst about the role of marginalized persons can take up popular tropes of witchcraft and conspiratorial evil, just as it did in early modern Europe. (For example, Ugandan Martin Sempa, onetime ally of Pastor Rick Warren, asserts that gay Satan worshipers under Lake Victoria make deals with the Devil to stage car accidents and kidnappings in exchange for money).  In Africa, groups opposed to changing social mores, many with foreign fundamentalist support, have made significant inroads.  The anti-gay backlash is increasingly outsourced.

This affects me and my church. In 2012, about 40 percent of the nearly 1,000 delegates to the Methodist general conference were from outside the United States — an increase of more than 10 percent from the last conference in 2008.  Some seemed antediluvian on matters sexual.  A delegate from Africa said in Swahili that saying that a homosexual person was created by God was like saying, “that God created me to live with animals.”  This is unfortunate and echoes and earlier statement by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who said that gay men and women were beasts who might be killed by the populace with impunity. In the face of such rhetorical and actual violence, we in religious communities, indeed in all faith communities (Christian, Jewish and Muslim, etc.) must ask for a minimal standard of decency.  Social media increasingly show instances of mob violence and sometimes lynchings.  From the safety of our IPhones and computers we cannot smell the stench of burning flesh, but we can see the writhing of black bodies contorted in pain.  I urge the pastors and bishops of my own Methodist denomination in Africa and elsewhere (as well as all right-thinking people) to sign a covenant condemning, at minimum, the extra-judicial murder of persons on the grounds of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.  Without this, we are indeed hopelessly divided, not only on what it means to be a religious person, but also on what it means to be human.  We are not animals.

Bookmark and Share