Homosexuality in the African Church & Culture
by Arthur Sibanda | 12 November 2020 |
“If anything happens to me, please tell my grandmother I love her.”
I sensed desperation in Thomas’s text message. It is a significant crisis to be a Seventh-day Adventist and have same-sex attractions: the conflict between one’s sexual desires and one’s Christian beliefs make it easier to deny that he or she is feeling these feelings at all, rather than face the full implications.
Thomas (not his real name) could not explain the many “coincidences” that brought messages from strange males into his inbox, and how these interactions often ended up with him in bed with these strangers. Nor could he satisfactorily explain why he would risk inviting people he hardly knew to his home.
Oddly, he would deny being sexually attracted to these men. He assured me that he wasn’t gay because he never had penetrative sexual encounters, even when he’d engaged in petting and other sexual contact. This seemed to be his way of exploring this sexual territory while ensuring that things didn’t escalate out of control.
Unfortunately, his reluctance to go all the way finally got him into trouble. One “friend” took note of his reluctance and saw an opportunity for blackmail. He threatened to expose Thomas publicly, and even get him arrested, unless Thomas did everything the other man wanted. Thomas feared his life could be in danger.
The cultural threat
There is in many parts of Africa a strong crusade against what some see as the introduction of homosexuality into our society. There is a general revulsion towards homosexuality, to the extent that our late president referred to homosexuals as “pigs”. Some African politicians have taken advantage of this revulsion by campaigning in opposition to homosexuality, which allows them to continue in office even when they falter in areas that have a greater bearing on the economy and citizens’ well-being.
This is a threat that all sections of society seem hypersensitive to: while we may be divided in philosophical, political and religious opinion, when it comes to opposing homosexuality many seem to be in agreement. There isn’t the same unity, zeal and passion to oppose other more pressing issues, like corruption, that if ended could immediately end poverty and improve livelihoods.
Religious leaders have publicly endorsed some politicians for their stance on homosexuality, even when these politicians grossly violate other fundamental human rights. They suggest that God is keeping certain people in power in order to prevent the legalization of homosexuality.
Thomas in danger
The denial of same-sex attractions has led to situations that endanger vulnerable people like Thomas. Thomas cannot deal with his attractions in a safe way, because he has to deny he is having them in the first place!
I was genuinely concerned for Thomas, and wanted to help him. This put me in danger, too. Homosexuality is illegal in my country, and as such, reporting same-sex-based violence is a contradiction. There is a stigma associated with even speaking or associating with people perceived as being homosexual.
I consulted a colleague who had legal knowledge, and even went a step further to seek help from a member of our local police service. This was a huge gamble on my part. The police officer I spoke to didn’t take Thomas’s story seriously, and suggested that maybe I had cooked up the story about “Thomas” to find a way of reporting my own experience.
Fortunately, in the end the threat abated: Thomas managed to cut all communications with the blackmailer. I have continued to talk to him, hoping he will eventually come to a point of acknowledging his situation so he can handle it more wisely.
The church and homosexuality
The church in much of Africa does not know how to relate effectively to such people, especially when the surrounding society refuses to even acknowledge the existence of same-sex attraction. It is not uncommon to hear Christians openly support violence to homosexual people as a proposed solution to correct them—for example, so-called “corrective rape.”
I am not here going to argue the morality of homosexuality from the Biblical standpoint. What I do know is that in conservative cultures like ours, the dismissive stance towards homosexuality is causing untold harm. We in the church fear that having frank and open dialogue on homosexuality translates to endorsing sinful living. Thus we ignore a significant population of people who secretly struggle through the maze of making sense of their sexuality in a very intolerant society and an unsympathetic church atmosphere.
Our church leaders in our conservative cultures don’t want to acknowledge that the LGBTQ community exists within our church walls. Instead, we tend to stereotype every person with same-sex attractions. We cite the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of how homosexual people, if allowed to thrive, will end up turning whole cities gay, with people knocking on the doors of strangers demanding gay sex. To many here, all gay people are hedonistic and resort to sexual violence.
Fear and danger
It has not helped that we have seen videos and pictures of gay parades in the west in which the LGBTQ community seems militant and confrontational in asserting their rights, such as marches flagrantly displaying nudity and passionate embraces. That level of exhibitionism scares us to the core. We are afraid that this is what will happen locally if we start accepting gay people. We fear every gay person is a militant activist trying to force us to accept them, and that all interactions with them may end up changing us to become like them.
It would be dangerous for people here to seek fellowship from such advocacy groups. Nor would these groups necessarily help them come to an effective relationship with our Creator and Saviour. It could even lead to a loss of faith in a Creator God who, they might reason, is unable to prevent same sex attractions from developing in the lives of His creatures. The same-sex-attracted people in our congregations are genuinely seeking God, while trying to make sense of the realities of their sexual experience within a matrix of beliefs that define their orientation as far from the ideal which God had designed in the beginning. For some, this struggle has gone on for years without any resolution.
As a nurse I’ve cared for many people with illnesses and genetic conditions who had no choice about the situation they were in. While not a precise comparison, it does remind me that homosexuals, too, have not chosen the situation they are grappling with. The church in conservative areas of the world is not yet recognising and acknowledging the existence of this group of people within our midst. Members with same-sex attractions who choose to remain within the church secretly form forums with those experiencing the same issues, and try to give support, seek meaning and purpose together, while hiding any suspicions or hints to outsiders on the realities of their struggle. Others, experimenting like Thomas, place themselves in compromising situations while hoping their attractions will disappear.
We seem to be content with the unofficial status of the LGBTQ community resembling the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which was once implemented in the United States armed forces. We have too much on the table to entertain a subject that is way too uncomfortable and controversial in our culture and society.
Compassion and acceptance
This is not an essay on the causation of same sex attractions, or a speculation on whether these urges can be permanently discarded. It is an appeal for a compassionate way of relating to these, our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a subject that is complex in its implications, but I feel strongly the need at least to encourage a church environment that is safe, open and healing.
When speaking to a group struggling with unconventional sexual relationships, Paul said, “Some of you were once like that, but you have been made clean and holy. You have been made right in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:11. When Paul says “some of you,” he implies that these people were known in the church, not hidden or neglected. It is also evident that whatever the resolution was, it was from “the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit.” All of this says that they had been welcomed into fellowship of the Christian community, and afforded adequate space to access the presence of God as their source of strength.
I believe that when Paul speaks of their becoming “clean and holy,” whatever he meant by that, it was the result of a process, not a microwaved instantaneous event. These individuals had grappled with their problems, as Christians. We need to be patient with each other in our different journeys. Even when culture and society ostracize and vilify those going through same-sex attractions, the church should not be seen picking up stones of condemnation to throw at those for whom Christ willingly gave His life. We need to stop denying and dismissing our brothers and sisters, but instead seek to reach out to them with the same kindness and gentleness extended to us.
Arthur Sibanda is a mental health nurse in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. He and his wife, Mercy, have one daughter, Nobukhosi Tashanta. He enjoys writing, composing songs, and singing, and is also involved in a ministry helping people overcome sexual brokenness.