Christianity and Homosexuality: Conversations in Africa

The night I landed in Botswana there was a dinner party. Such good luck! A lively, warm gathering of Africans from Zimbabwe, Togo, Kenya, Zambia and Botswana -- university professors of theology, Pentecostal pastors, and NGO workers dealing with HIV and AIDS. Good conversation, great Botswana beef and South African wine.

I don't remember when the conversation turned to the issue of homosexuality, but I was deeply impressed with how it was conducted. The issues here run parallel to their history in the U.S. Homosexuality is still illegal in most countries of southern Africa, though South Africa decriminalized it in 1998. In the U.S. the process of decriminalization began 1983 with Wisconsin and in 2003 a Supreme Court decision effectively decriminalized male homosexuality for the nation.

In the U.S. the cultural notion of homosexuality as deviant was justified scientifically when the American psychiatric profession designated it a mental illness (a position they reversed in 1973). In Africa where kinship systems create the social order and tradition has greater authority than law, same sex relations are condemned "because they are not our tradition."

However, the more powerful justifications are religious, both in the U.S. and in southern Africa. Soon after the discussion began out came the Bibles and the pastors started preaching. One of the women read Romans 1:25-27 aloud -- off a Kindle, the NIV version:

25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

The Africans around the table asked these questions: What do we know about humanity? What does our human knowledge teach us? Is homosexuality a part of human nature? As they pondered, some volunteered their own struggles with the question.

One woman told the story of a deaf boy, raised by his grandmother. As a young man he discovered he was aroused by men. "How did he learn that? Where did he learn it? He was cut off from the community of men by his deafness. Is it simply part of how he was created?" she pondered.

One of the men, a Zambian, told this story: the first Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda, the father of the nation, built the new state, gave it a solid foundation, promoted the welfare of the whole society and was widely admired, loved and respected for his contribution. Yet, when it was learned he had same-sex relations and promoted decriminalization of homosexuality, his legacy was erased. Did he become a different kind of person because he had same sex relations?

What is this human nature? How do we understand it within our respective cultures? What role does religion play in defining heterosexual or homosexual relations as "natural or unnatural?" Feminist biblical scholar Bernadette Brooten ("Love Between Women") asks what influenced Paul's notions of "natural and unnatural" sex.

In Paul's Greco-Roman cultural world sexual relations were important signifiers of social dominance. Sexual relations mirrored social relations -- a power differential between an active partner (penetrator) and a passive partner (penetrated). Whether between a male and female, or a master and a slave, or a man and boy, sexual dominance should correspond with social dominance. Sexual relations between women were unnatural because neither was superior to the other socially, both were culturally inferior; sexual relations between men of the same age or social class were unnatural because they undermined the social superiority of men.

Three centuries after Paul appealed to traditional Roman ideas on same-sex relations, Augustine worked out a Christian theology of sex that created a new cultural framework within which to understand same-sex relations. Augustine uses the creation to craft a new understanding of human nature with his doctrine of original sin as concupiscence. Because of the first sin of disobedience in the garden (rebellion against God's prohibition), God's punishment was the condition of concupiscence (lust), the rational mind is constantly beset by the rebellion of irrational sexual desiring. This sinful concupiscence, inherited by every human being, makes every sexual act inherently sinful, a manifestation of disordered desire. Paul's statement, "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another" at this point is understood in terms of an original sinful, sexual human nature. Birth control, sex after menopause and homosexuality, are all sexual relations that cannot procreate and are therefore reduced to sinful, sexual excess. The idea of human nature as infected with original sin has provided a theological justification to the cultural notion that homosexuality is deviant for Christians in the West.

The differences of views on homosexuality were great between the Africans around the table. The tone was intense and thoughtful, but what surprised me was that the conversation was continually peppered with laughter. I've been in these conversations at home and they have been tense, polarized and polarizing. That didn't happen.

The position that many took was that they were in process; they were struggling with the question. Because they shared their own processing rather than their positions the conversation did not become a debate, there was more space. What I was witnessing was how a community works. First a volunteer facilitator asked speakers to speak from their own experience, from their heart, and second, everyone around the table was called on to express their views. The end was not a resolution of the question but a process of listening and speaking that kept the community together and kept the process open. All kinds of learning was happening around the table and some of it my own.