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The Christian case for decriminalising homosexuality in Africa

Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex. He is the author of ‘You Have To Be Gay To Know God’ (Kwela Books, 2018), which won the Desmond Tutu-Gerrit Brand Literary Prize. Follow him on @SKhumalo1987 (Insta and Twitter), or like his Facebook page With Siya Khumalo.

In light of India’s recent steps towards embracing sexual diversity, political principals of countries where being gay is still criminalised (by similar colonial-era penal codes) must sense that their Hitlerian scapegoating of the marginalised will not pass as leadership for much longer.

We must expect arguments that giving airtime and legal resources to bigotry shows deference to — listen to this ahistorical ideological hotchpotch — the cultural and Christian sensibilities of voters in post-liberation African democracies. I’ve chosen to focus on highlighting why the Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord” has historically meant, “Caesar is not”.

Christianity began as a challenge to political expediency that takes advantage of nations’ theocratic aspirations, which arise from the belief that multiplying (religious or ethical) rules and penalties keeps the moral fibre of civilisations intact. That’d be true only to the extent that the power vested in rule-enforcers is always wielded perfectly; hence, “theocratic aspirations”, presupposing theos, God — whose devastating invisibility seems to have encouraged, instead of slowed, political and religious leaders’ stampede to podiums and pulpits to speak for him.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish Temple’s custodians handed Christ over to be crucified by the empire those rule-enforcers supposedly wanted to be rescued from by God’s chosen deliverer. This “sacrificial offering” was to seal a fidelity treaty in which the Priests’ and Pharisees’ privileged positions would be protected in exchange for the moral policing of the masses for that empire’s enrichment. Simply put, those priests were selling their people out just as African political and religious leaders are selling their own countrymen — straight and gay! — out to white supremacists in the name of liberating them.

Anyway, Christ’s followers hit back by preaching that Jesus was the long-awaited deliverer; his blood was used by God to underwrite a New Covenant to displace the Old under which this travesty had happened.

This challenged religion’s inveigling of piety for the deification of Augustus and Caesar Tiberius (each of whom had ruled respectively at the times of Jesus’ birth and death) as Divi Filius, or “son of God”. Christianity also threatened the empire’s power by positing a relationship with God (or private-sphere morality) as beyond the policing of hypocritical religious institutions.

Its most subversive doctrine was that the crucified Christ was “righteousness of God” to be “received by faith”: one couldn’t receive righteousness through the cross while earning it by sanctimonious performance under religious systems that commissioned crucifixions.

This exchange of self-reliance for faith in the executed Messiah vicariously “bled” believers’ of the self-interested self-righteousness that made people complicit in injustice. So the Epistle to the Colossians described the crucifixion as God disarming the rulers and authorities, “making a public spectacle of them” and “triumphing over them by the cross”.

The “lordship of Christ” inadvertently popularised a political hygiene and healthy scepticism where authority is concerned. In response, the empire declared Christianity a state religion (“keep your enemies even closer”) and offered the church power and privilege, position and protection, in exchange for doing that lucrative moral policing thing. The shine of dollar signs displacing the light of the Holy Ghost in their eyes, Christians tossed aside the blood of Jesus underwriting the New Covenant, and instead went about shedding the blood needed to underwrite the Old. We quaintly refer to one of the instances of this happening as “colonialism”.

Even so, African Protestants are insisting that the state’s role is to roll out “God’s law” — in “the name of Jesus!” — against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons. Reformation? What Reformation? Which Holocaust? What crucifixion? Inquisition for who? Don’t get me started on apartheid and the slave-trade.

I wasn’t joking when I spoke about dollar signs: the invocation of colonial-era legislation for the demonisation of LGBTI persons by African liberation leaders happens in ways that suggest that anything to the effect of, “We retain these to resist western influence” is really about harnessing western influence in the form of funding from the Christian Right. Though history dips its quill in reddest blood to write its warnings about Babylon the Great, African Christians believe they’ll be the first to dine with the devil without becoming the meal. To quote Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist” and in the end there was no one left to stop them when they came for him.

Why don’t pastors preach about political hygiene as a dimension of personal holiness? Now, political hygiene is not apoliticality any more than sexual chastity is sexual abstinence, but the doctrine of the “separation of powers” (as well as the separation of church and state) should come naturally to those whose “holiness” has been upheld by the cross-beams of empire-religion collusion for 2,000 years. “Holiness” literally means “separateness”. If God didn’t “spare his own Son, but gave him up” as an assault on Caesar’s kingdom, what makes Christians believe God will rescue them for watching the coats of those who built Caesar’s empire over gay people’s dead bodies?

As explained in You Have To Be Gay To Know God (Kwela, 2018) the extent to which African Christendom allows its faith to be leveraged for empire-building is the extent to which post-colonial Africa will fail to remain post-colonial. DM


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