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Globalizing the Culture Wars: US Conservatives, African Churches and Homophobia – a response

Canon Vinay Samuel (Photo: Stephen Sizer)Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S.Conservatives, African Churches and Homophobia.
By Kapya Kaoma     Political Research Associates

A response by Canon Vinay Samuel, Canon of St Andrew's Cathedral Embu, Kenya, and Canon Chris Sugden, Canon of St Luke's Cathedral, Jos, Nigeria.

This paper http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v24n4/us-christian-right-attack-on-gays-in-africa.html appeared two months ago.  It was by and large ignored by the U.S. media, but has appeared on the desks of officials in the aid and development sector.It's purpose appears to be not to get media coverage but to influence Governments and Aid institutions. And it appear to be making some progress here. 

The thrust of the paper is to discredit the African churches, especially in the eyes of those who make governmental grants to assist them.   The following points need to be noted about the paper.

    1.  There has been no movement generated by gay people in Africa for their place in society.  Traditional societies in Africa have their own way of dealing with people who engage in sexual expressions and practices that appear unable to conform to traditional norms.

These cultures have lived with the reality of minority sexual diversity for centuries.  They have found space to handle such departures from societal norms.  There are hardly any tribal cultures for instance which prescribe the death penalty for adultery even though adultery is totally unacceptable in such culture and is seen as a wrong committed against the whole community. The idea of sexual activity as a private matter is not common or accepted. All sexual activities have a bearing on community life.

It is the western approach of individual rights which is forced on to these cultural contexts.Individual Rights are seen as a universal norm which must be expressed in every culture.  African culture has long resisted the notion that western norms are in any way universal norms which must be accepted by them.  The Church has been a bastion of this resistance.  If the Church in the current situation is on the side of tradition, it is so because it wishes to protect traditional culture from  a hegemonic, judgmental assault from the west using its agents in africa.   

Western governments which support that assault must realize what they are doing: they are imposing their views as universal and are supporting them with financial sanctions.

Consider for a moment when the situation is reversed.  Consider how western societies react to the imposition of the muslim veil or burkha on women.  Even the most secular societies struggle with how to resist the imposition of the burkha.  They do not use any argument based on universal norms or universal rights to resist the practice in their own societies.  The only argument that they use is one based on security issues.  So why do they impose their views as universal judgments on other societies?

If we cannot use universal arguments in western societies, how can they impose such arguments on other cultures?  It is important to recognize that the state contains multiple communities with their own integrity of values.  The radical pluralism which dominates western societies prevents them from imposing anything as a universal norm, except for the imposition of individual freedom. But even this is tempered when it comes to family life, marriage customs and sexual behaviour.

Traditional societies have processes and space for handling such minority expressions. They need to be respected and encouraged to do this with equity and justice..   Their right to protect and maintain their cultural integrity must be recognized and supported where possible.

    2.  What is happening on the ground?  What are the churches saying?

    The attack represented by this report is motivated by ignorance.  The report contains no evidence of dialogue with these churches to find out what they are struggling with.

    A huge amount of internal dialogue took place in Nigeria when a draconian law against homosexual behaviour was proposed. The Church had to balance its global role, its understanding of human rights in contrast to that of a western view, its ministry to its own people who expected it to maintain Christian norms and witness to them in their society.  Meanwhile forces outside the country expected the church to come up with quick solutions and produce sound bites in a context which is very complex and requires much careful consideration.It is a religious society and the church must use reasoning shaped by religion to present its case in order to be heard. Religious reasoning still dominates in Nigeria and much of Africa.

    It is quite possible that one or two “leaders” of the church respond to various prompts and make hasty comments which sound unjust and oppressive. Some also have been known to make quick comments totally supportive of western culture.

    We can definitely speak of the Anglicans ( and know enough about the Roman Catholic Church) which both have a tradition of reflection and engagement on public policy from a Christian point of view  to say that developing their  official response takes time – being in the position of influence they are;  they work quietly with governments and political groupings to take soundings and exercise their influence.  What is not known is that they continue to draw on the resources of knowledge and experience of fellow Anglicans and Roman Catholics in other parts of the world.  This is natural to them as they recognize themselves to be part of global Communions.  There will always be an individual M.P. or pastor who ( of independent churches particularly) who for whatever reasons make public statements taking extreme positions.  But to put that forward as the position of churches in Africa is like quoting the extreme statements of a leader of the British National Party, or the Ku Klux Klan in the USA, as the position of the whole country, and if they happen to be Anglican, as the position of the Anglican church in that country.

    We have monitored closely the the response of the Nigerian Anglican Church to the law on homosexual behaviour proposed in Nigeria.  We know that a wide range of views were expressed.  Some took soundings from partners all around the world and sought to balance the pressures on the church from different quarters in their own country with their own understanding of what the Christian faith teaches. The Nigerian church has done well in resisting extremes without also appearing as if it is caving in to western pressure. Institutions in the West must support this significant social institution instead of attacking it as a  villain.

    In sharp contrast the tendency of these reports is to assume that these people have no integrity, that everything is political and all motivation is financial.

    GAFCON, which is identified in the report, had no financial motivation. It arose totally out of conscience. Every decision of conscience when it has to do with policy is necessarily political – but this has nothing to do with power. It is to do with moral integrity and ethical commitment rather than a desire for power and hegemony.

    3.  The relation of African Churches to groups in the United States Churches.

    We note that seven of the advisory board for the report are from The Episcopal Church – of whom one has publicly commended abortion as a blessing from God.

    The impression given by the report is that African Church leaders are unaware of the distinction between the Christian Right, Evangelicals, and Renewal Movements whether in independent or historic mainline churches.

    This analysis also assumes that African church leaders are unaware of the distinctions between biblical and theologically orthodox Christians in the USA and are easily open to influence and manipulation by any group, more particularly by the so called Christian Right.

    This shows utter ignorance on the part of the researchers and their advisory board of the real state, quality and understanding of the leadership of the Churches in Africa. 

    We write as those who have run a research institution that has privileged such leaders to do doctorate studies in Oxford. As such we have been in close contact with many leaders of these churches and worked with them.

    To construct their report on this knowledge basis discredits the report completely.  It would be like saying that the approach of the most venal TV evangelists who make a profitable business out of people’s vulnerability and money defines the nature and role of the churches in the United States.

    A conclusion given on page 11 is typical of the report:  “In fact, many believe that ‘personal gain’ is the reason for African church leaders’ outspokenness on sexuality issues.”   Who are the many?  No reference is given.   They believe – on what basis?  That “personal gain” – defined in what terms?    With conclusions like this, how can this be an evidence based report of any sort?

    But what is new about the way in which the west looks at Africa?  The view that all its leaders are venal and its people are dumb is applied across the board to its political leaders so it is no surprise that the same people apply this view to church leaders who dare to stand up to their cultural judgments paraded as universals and applied hegemonically.

    4. It is true that for many African church members and leaders homosexual behaviour is regarded as unnatural, not moral, not Christian, nor African.  But this is also true of a large number of other traditional societies anywhere in the world who resist modern cultural pressures and seek to deal with them in their own way.  Churches with their global communities and their willingness to assess traditional and cultural norms by transcendent divinely authorized Christian values and norms and by their partnership with the global church and drawing on the knowledge and resources of the global church are best placed to help African societies deal with the challenges of modernity in an African way, relating the best of their cultures, refining their cultures and rejecting those who would assault their cultural identity and integrity.

    It is sad to see that some leaders of TEC who have advised this project have departed from this very tradition of support of Anglican churches in the non-Western world to negotiate their cultural challenges in which Anglican mission work along with Roman Catholics has been a leader. It raises the question of their motivation in promoting such an attack on the African Anglican Churches – perhaps it is a backlash against the African Anglican Churches breaking communion with TEC.   Far from going beyond colonialism, this report falls back into it by universalizing the local culture of the United States.

 


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