Beliefs Culture Opinion

COMMENTARY: The church’s role in, and against, homophobia across Africa

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Mort Tucker Photography

(RNS) In the last month, many Westerners watched in horror as Uganda, and then Nigeria, enacted laws that are brutally repressive to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The fate of a bill passed by the Ugandan parliament remains uncertain after President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign it, but news reports from Nigeria indicate that there have been mass arrests of gay men following President Goodluck Jonathan’s signing of the National Assembly’s anti-gay bill.

World leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have expressed their dismay. Many Christian leaders around the world, regrettably, have been largely unwilling to criticize Christian leaders in Africa who cheered the passage of these punitive laws.

The Anglican primates of Uganda and Nigeria enthusiastically support anti-gay legislation in their countries. I, like them, am a member of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide body of more than 80 million Christians. I am troubled and saddened that fellow Anglicans could support legislation that fails to recognize that every human being is created in the image of God.

Western Christians cannot ignore the homophobia of these church officials or the peril in which they place Ugandan and Nigerian LGBT people. The legacy of colonial-era Christian missionaries and infusions of cash from modern-day American conservatives have helped to create it.

Twice in the last three years, I have traveled to Africa to meet with biblical scholars, grass-roots activists and church officials at consultations about the Bible and sexuality. These brave leaders have taught me that there is no getting around the Bible when searching for the origins of the homophobia that is rampant in many African cultures. What’s more, Europeans and North Americans bear much of the historical responsibility for this sad state of affairs. As Zimbabwean biblical scholar Masiiwa Ragies Gunda has written, it is “far-fetched to look beyond the activities of Western missionaries” when considering the role of the Bible in Africa.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western missionaries, fired with fervor to save souls in what they called “the dark continent,” sought to translate the Bible into indigenous languages so that converts could hear the Word of God, with special emphasis on the passages that urged hard work and submission. We know the result: as former President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya reportedly said, “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

Along with the Bible, Western missionaries also bequeathed to Africans a literal understanding of how to read it. Today, that literalism continues to encourage fundamentalist interpretation of difficult passages like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Although many scholars in Africa now understand that these passages are properly read in context of the ancient cultures that produced them, people can still fuel grass-roots homophobia by appropriating a handful of biblical texts that seem to vilify gay people.

As a result, Christians who publicly advocate for more historically accurate biblical interpretations and more generous treatment of LGBT people can find themselves jobless, homeless and in grave danger.

The situation is not hopeless. Across Christian Africa, tools like contextual Bible study, developed in post-apartheid South Africa, provide new ways to read the Bible and what it has to say about sexuality and other central issues in the lives of African Christians. These new readings of old texts encourage Christians to accept LGBT people as God’s children.

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Mort Tucker Photography

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Mort Tucker Photography

Even so, progressive African Christians are fighting an uphill battle. The voices of strident homophobic leaders in Africa have been amplified by large infusions of money from American right-wing culture warriors such as Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., who has bankrolled homophobia on both sides of the Atlantic and helped make common cause between right-wing American Anglican splinter groups and the Anglican churches of Nigeria and Uganda.

Western Christians cannot fix the homophobia that is currently gripping Nigeria, Uganda, or other African countries. We can, however, stand in solidarity with progressive Africans and support their efforts to teach new ways of interpreting the Bible and understanding sexuality. When we see human rights abuses, we can speak out. And most of all, we can acknowledge with humility that we bear our share of the responsibility for this tragic legacy of empire and insist on repudiating contemporary efforts to expand its reach.

(The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings is the president of the Episcopal Church’s lay and clergy House of Deputies and is a member of the worldwide Anglican Consultative Council. She is a founding steering committee member of the Chicago Consultation.)


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  • “In the last month, many Westerners watched in horror as Uganda, and then Nigeria, enacted laws that are brutally repressive to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
    Unfortunately, not all did. Many Westerners also looked upon this wistfully, longing for these laws to be enacted in the U.S. as well. Ironically like the African who were taught a literally meaning of the bible, many in the U.S. also use a literal interpretation of the bible as the reason for their hateful position on those in the LGBT community, and for other social issues.

    “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
    Religion is mechanism to control people. What better authority is their than one which can’t be proved, one that can’t be seen, and one in which requires the suspension of logic and reason in order to believe?
    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
    Seneca the Younger 4 b.c.- 65 a.d

    Religion is poison!!

  • Of course, it’s always the Christians. What does Islam do with homosexuals?
    The answer is easy to find.

  • It is not an either or. This article addresses the christian church role in homophobia. The previous comment just seeks to cast attention elsewhere (Islam) instead of focusing on the problems with literal Christianity.

    PS like Christianity, Islam has some branches that are tolerant of GLBT people and many who are not.

  • There is no excuse for violence for any reason against people.

    Gods plan for sexuality and marriage will never change. Man plus woman.

  • Yes. Christians should support the human rights of EVERYONE, and not be hateful or violent towards anyone. But it does not follow that we must support a redefinition of marriage which is rooted in God’s creation of man and woman. As for missionaries role in Africa, please read the latest issue of “Christianity Today”‘s article “The World the Missionaries Made” as well as the academic article by Robert Woodberry.

  • So you are essentially saying that American evangelicals are no better than Islamic Fundamentalists. No argument there. But I am not sure that is the message you really feel comfortable with when you think it over for a bit. =)

    Are the anti-gay Muslims in Africa being supported by American religious organizations? No. (Not that we know of anyway)

    Its a matter of expectations. We expect people in a democratic developed nation not to financially support measures which create obvious human rights abuses. Criticism gets leveled at the American fundamentalists because they would be the ones most likely to be embarrassed and shamed enough into ceasing their bad acts.

  • Rev. Jennings, thank you for your honesty and courage. How sad for the church but more importantly for the humans who are being degraded.

  • Leo, the liberals don’t say much about Muslim practices for one reason: Christianity is the largest of the creeds. The libs are going after Christianity, figuring that if they can take that religion down, the rest of the job will be a cakewalk.

    In the meantime they care nothing about criticism for their double standard. For them all’s fair in war. The rest of us ought to agree and fight the liberal agenda on the same plane–a “level playing field.” We might just win if we play by their own rules..

  • Earold, I wonder which religion Seneca vents his spleen over. Certainly neither Judaism nor Christianity. Odd, isn’t it, that Tertullian claimed Seneca as one of Christianity’s own.

    Perhaps Seneca was railing against that religion of Roman imperialism. Nero was considered a god, you know, and Seneca was unsuccessful in influencing him.

  • Ah, Ms Campbell, you strike at the very heart of contemporary (not classical) liberalism: it’s belief that it has the right to use language in any manner it sees fit in order to promote its agenda. Three postings above yours as I write you’ll find one who, among other things, has redefined bigotry and hate.

  • Do you have an argument besides, “Conservatives doing bad acts should be ignored because liberals are doing …..”? Of course not.

    Liberals talk plenty about Muslim practices negatively. Even make heroes out of people who defy them (like Malala Yousafzai) its just people like yourself don’t bother listening to anyone outside of their hermetically ideological bubble.

    In your discussion of double standards, you show a lack of willingness to apply any standards. No activity merits criticism if you agree with it politically. No matter how vile.

    Of course its also better to level criticism towards targets you have a reasonable chance of succeeding against. Leo pretty much declared that American fundamentalists are no different than Islamic counterparts in their willingness to fund mayhem in Africa.

    There isn’t much the average Westerner can do about Middle Eastern petrodollars being used to fund Islamicism world wide. However, shaming American Evangelicals to stop encouraging African human rights abuses through discussion in the media is possible.

  • Obviously this is not about redefinition of language and blanket promotion of agendas. But to give us the real reasons you oppose such agendas is not usually socially acceptable in mixed company. 😉

    So you support American Evangelicals financially supporting the passage of laws which imprison and/or execute people for being gay? Please tell us your opinion of such things.

  • When you want your own agenda the first thing to do is reinterpret. Amazing, that after 2000 years the Bible is no longer allowed to stand on its own. Literal interpretation couldn’t possibly be correct because you want to live in your own sin. Romans 1:18-24

  • I couldn’t have said it any better, Ken.

    Instead of blaming American evangelicals, did it ever occur to you that the Africans can think on their own? They read the Bible. They know what it says. The true Christians there have the same Holy Spirit living inside of them as we do over here. They understand fully that when you stop reading the Bible literally, you leave the doors wide open for any type of interpretation, including one that allows for the acceptance of homosexual behavior.

    Oh, and by the way, Ms. Jennings, your reference to their leaders as “African primates” is a bit racist, don’t you think? Or, is it only racist if one of us Biblical literalists/”fundamanetalist”/conservative types say it?

  • And behind the lib demand for equality and freedom practice, we have seen NAMBLA , North American Man Boy Love Assn., or pedophilia advocated as long as there is no coercion involved. Bah! The trauma of even supposedly non-coercive sex is evident for years after the event. When it is coercive, the impact is destructive of accomplishment in the adult years. In one three month period I dealt with 3 cases of incest and pedophilia, all grown and all showing evidence of the trauma. Then as a Counselor in a Senior High School, it was my responsibility to report such cases to Child Welfare and the appropriate legal authorities (police, etc.). As Licensed Professional Counselor I dealt with a few of the cases, and it was a grievous task, seeing the incredibly destructive effects such practices has upon the personalities of children and their development as adults. e.g., poor social skills, failure to be industrious, promiscuity, lack of career orientation and/or failure to develop and carry out plans for and of a career oriented normal person.

  • And there we have it. The phony equating of consensual gay adult relations with pedophilia, incest and rape. Never mind that they are not the same thing. Never mind that nobody advocates such things.

    Just keep telling the same bigoted nonsense in public and pretend you have a level of authority people take seriously.

    God help anyone who has to deal with you as a HS Counselor!

  • So if Americans are donating money, time and effort towards imprisoning and killing people for being gay, you have nothing to say about it?

    Of course given your response, it is clear you support such things but find the fact that it would be impossible to implement in the US inconvenient.

    I guess being a “True Christian” means signing off on human rights abuses and making excuses for people who support them.

  • Larry, it’s worse.
    It’s more along the lines of “Baptised Christians are free from sin, and therefore cannot behave badly. If a baptised Christian behaves badly, see the previous sentence.”
    I know one fellow who dismisses the actions of the Crusaders, the Inquisition, etc., as not being done by real Christians.

  • “Primate” is THE official title of the head of many Anglican provinces (national churches). It is not racist to call a primate of an African Anglican province a primate.
    Nice try, though.

  • Thank you, Rev. Jennings, for having the courage to speak out! Hosannas and Amen!
    The 20th Century governments of Germany, the USSR, and Japan teach us that when ANY minority group is systematically singled out for abuse, criminalization, margnalization, physical and other attacks, isolation, etc., that minority group is in deep, deep, trouble.
    Regarding religious support of these despicable laws in Nigeria and Uganda, … Jesus still weeps.

  • Duane, I believe you consider me a liberal, as it is defined by you, and I have no issue calling out islam as a false fantastical belief, just like all other religions. I close my comments with an indictment of religion, and it applies to all religion.
    I agree there is a reluctance for some, both liberal and conservative to do so though, out of fear. I think you already understand this, but I’ll state it anyway.

    Unlike christians who claim to take the bible literally, but in actions do not really do so, are usually not violent to the point of murder. However some muslims who claim to take the koran and hadith literally have time and again proven that the conviction they have in their faith is so much more, and that includes murderous violence. They are not only willing to die for it, but take great delight in being able to kill the “infidel” along with them.

    Take a look at some of the writings of Sam Harris on this subject; it is very public, and very bold. I do believe he is also what you would define as a liberal. He would also be a great resource for your other interest as well. Enjoy!

    Religion is poison!!

  • Duane, One will never know for sure which religion he was referring to, however I find it equally applicable to all. Yes,Tertullian did claim Senneca as a christian, but there is no record of this for sure. Perhaps he was not so outspoken about the ill effects religion has upon society, so was less of a threat to this christian apologist. Girolamo Cardano sure had nothing good to say about him, and Dante placed him in the 1st circle of hell, certainly no pace for a known christian, but one for perhaps one who is not a complete enemy. From what I’ve read, he seemed to find friendship in anyone who could further his lot in life, not an admirable quality for sure.

    Religoin is poison!!

  • @ Mr. Lamers:

    For your information, not everything is a matter of liberals vs conservatives.

    It may be difficult for you to do so, but try to understand issues instead of attaching liberal or conservative labels to them. Avoiding labels greatly increases the likelihood of reaching valid conclusions.

    And, for your information, Muslims are not all alike. They have divisions just as Christianity has divisions.

  • Please pray for our Christian sisters and brothers in Nigeria in the wake of serious attacks just days ago. This is really happening–not because of anything related to LGBT issues but because they are followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is a matter of justice we must ALL stand for.

    According to World Watch Monitor (Jan 29, 2014) at least 22 worshippers died at a church in Yola, while 300 homes were burnt down in a village in neighbouring Borno state and at least 52 people were killed. Boko Haram is suspected of carrying out both attacks.

  • Larry wrote, “So you are essentially saying that American evangelicals are no better than Islamic Fundamentalists. No argument there.”

    Let nobody lend assent to the baseless accusation that “American evangelicals are no better than Islamic Fundamentalists.” This libelous use of language is just plain wrong. It is not only lacking in but contrary to the evidence.

    Who shall dwell with the Lord? “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors” (Psalm 15)

    Christians are “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:1)

    There is a difference between speaking out against evil and speaking evil.

    Zealous advocacy against homophobia is no excuse for making false accusations. The body of Christ in the world includes American evangelicals and Episcopalians.

    Larry, with God’s help please reconsider what you have given your approval to and retract your statement with a public apology.

    I invite others, including and especially Rev. Jennings to help us all to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of Jesus Christ and his Church.

  • I think Jesus is also weeping out our failed attempts to engage in ‘peaceful’ relations with LGBT communities bby permitting their lifestyles as unsinful practices and then attempting to twist the word of God to suit their agenda.

    Either way He weeps when man takes His will and turns it into His.