David R. Weiss, March 18, 2013
I don’t begin to think I understand where I’m going. In fact, watching Missionaries of Hate with my class today left me feeling in my gut all the things I don’t understand. Now, as I spent the day collecting and gathering, making lists of things I dare not forget to attend to in the last 48 hours, and checking the weight on my luggage, I am weighing as well the assumptions I’ll be taking with me.
Like most of the journeys in my adult life, my biggest asset will be the relative amount of humility I carry with me. I try to lead with my ears and my heart, listening before speaking. But there are a few assumptions I carry with me as well. Convictions that frame my listening and anchor my humility. These are some of them.
(1) Homosexuality as same-sex affection simply is part of the human landscape. Its cultural acceptability and expression have certainly varied widely according to time and place—as has our felt need for either an explanation or a judgment. But as much as we might wish there were a singularly “normative” way to be human—witness our whole range of biases and prejudices wed to the way we assess ourselves and our neighbors—God, it seems, destined us for diversity. So I assume that there have been “gay” Africans for as long as there have been Africans—which, by all accounts is a LONG time.
(2) Regardless of the intent of European Christian mission work in centuries past, it has served the goals of Empire at least as often as it has further the cause of the Gospel. I want to be generous to the spirit of my European kin, and yet whatever their best intentions were, wittingly or otherwise, they tended to “save” the souls of my African cousins into a Gospel that bound them as surely as it claimed to free them. It “bound” them into obedience to their colonial masters, to the presumed superiority of Western culture and learning, and to the rejection of much of their own past—and that with such a fervor that at some point it became an internalized suspicion about one’s own sense of self. So I assume that the African viewpoint that is most authentically “African” is also one that is “post-colonial”—one that has seen through the ways that the twin institutions of Colony and Christianity have made it harder, not easier, to be African.
(3) This means, for me as a white Christian man in African, that while I owe to every voice here a great debt of silence, I am deeply skeptical of the voices of conservative African pastors who are determined to call same-sex affection a Western import into Africa and who are passionate in wielding their religion as a battering ram against some of God’s own beloved children. I am loathe to be dismissive toward those whom too many white Christians have already been dismissive historically. But when I need to choose between the humility that silently honors their words and the humility that dares to be in quiet but steadfast solidarity with my “Kuchu” (LGBTQ) brothers and sisters in Africa, I choose that humility. These persons did not “import” the sense of self understanding for which they are now stigmatized. They discovered it within their own African and God-graced lives.
(4) Therefore, to a large extent what plays out in Uganda (and in much of Africa) these days is the bitter harvest of a missionary Christianity that always erred on the edge of moralism now injected with new energy in recent decades by a Pentecostalism that is high on emotional passion but which remains spiritually dys-embodied (that is, sexually moralistic in spiritually harmful ways). And in the most recent years of all, a handful of fundamentalist American preachers with theocratic aspirations that are decidedly un-American have chosen to add their own “evangelical” energy toward a socio-religious blueprint for a Uganda that would aim to destroy the God-given diversity of these people. Not “good news” at all, for anyone.
(5) So is there a word of “good news” that the mainline (non-fundamentalist) Christian church can and should bear to our Ugandan brothers and sisters today? This is probably my most provisional assumption because, really, I am only guessing at this right now. For the most part, being “liberal” in our faith has meant being tepid in our conviction. And tepid Christianity is not likely to impress our African brothers and sisters anymore than it impressed Jesus in John’s Apocalypse (Rev. 3:16). So whatever we have to offer, if we can’t be passionate about it, we’re probably best to keep it to ourselves.
For my part, I can provisionally identify three facets of a liberal Christianity that I think are worth being passionate about and which might prove an offering of good news to Africa. (a) That at the heart of the biblical story is the tale of a God who welcomes others in the fullness of who they are and who uplifts whole peoples for flourishing around a vision of hospitality. That is not exactly the missionary story, but it is a valid and authentic biblical story and one worth knowing and embracing with conviction. (b) That within a life-affirming biblical ethic of wholeness there is an important impulse to honor the integrity of the earth and the integrity of our bodies. Quite beyond moralism, we are invited into tenderness, into sexuality that is framed by justice, mercy, and humility. (c) That in the stories about Jesus, if we listen at all, we find that being Christ is not unlike being Kuchu: defiantly different, festively compassionate, determined to fashion a community where outcasts are the very ones cast in. These are gifts of a passionately liberal Christianity that might invite Ugandans to claim a sense of Christian faith that can actually be life-giving to all of her children.
Assumptions. I have so much to learn yet, but these five core convictions are my beginning places. So let the learning begin!
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”