On Monday, January 27th, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, issued a strong statement in Religion News about the deteriorating plight of LGBT people in Uganda and Nigeria, where the countries' parliaments approved new laws that essentially make it illegal to be gay.
|The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings at a bible study during the|
first Chicago Consultation event in Durban, South Africa,
in October of 2011
Photo Credit: The Rev. Jon M. Richardson
In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan approved a new law which is nominally intended to prevent same-gender marriage (with a 14-year prison term) but which in fact essentially states that it is a crime to either express same-sex attraction or support anyone who does. Reports that gay men are being rounded up have been condemned by the United Nations and others. In the Muslim-controlled north where sharia law is applied, those arrested are at risk of death by stoning.
The new laws have been lauded by the Anglican leadership in both countries. In her commentary, Jennings acknowledged the role the church has played in the situation:
"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."Jennings, who is also a founding member of the Chicago Consultation, has spent time in Africa meeting with those who seek a more compassionate stance towards LGBT people, but find the literal understanding of the Bible encouraged by Western missionaries difficult to overcome:
"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."The anti-LGBT fervor within African churches has been encouraged by American evangelical ministers like Scott Lively. Lively is currently the target of a lawsuit for crimes against humanity in the U.S. by Ugandan LGBT leaders for his role in the increasingly anti-LGBT culture there, under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law which has been expanded in recent years to include human rights abuses. Undeterred, Lively told a radio host in October that he considers the new anti-gay laws in Russia, where he has also spent time, "one of my proudest achievements."
Jennings sees all of this as a call to action for the church:
"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."
"Reading this op-ed from the President of the House of Deputies makes me proud, once again, to be an Episcopalian. By virtue of our baptism we have a responsibility to 'seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.'Integrity encourages all Episcopalians concerned about the plight of Nigeria and Uganda's LGBT people to educate your congregations, your bishops and your deputies to General Convention. Please contact us for more information.
One of the gifts of the Anglican Communion is that it helps us all to see just how wide a net that covenant casts - our neighbors are not just the people closest to us, but our brothers and sisters all over the world in their times of celebration and in their times of suffering.
I had the honor of participating in the consultations on Bible and sexuality that the Rev. Jennings mentioned, and I have heard first hand of the suffering - and the celebrations and hopes - of our LGBT sisters and brothers from around Africa. We cannot stand quietly by as so many of their governments - too often with the blessing of their churches - seek to further oppression.
I am deeply grateful to our President of the House of Deputies for speaking with such wisdom here. I can only pray that other church leaders both here and around the world will speak as fearlessly and strongly as she has. It's a message the that needs to be heard by the whole church and the world it inhabits."
Christian Paolino is the Chair of the Integrity Stakeholders' Council