Engaging the Global Polylogue: Why Listen to Christians in the Majority World When it Comes to Sexual Ethics?

This article was first published in shorter form in the Christian Courier here. It was published alongside this article in which a Ugandan Pentecostal-Reformed pastor Emmanuel Mogambo is interviewed to elicit his take on majority world sexual ethics and how that differs from the now dominant sexual ethic in the West. The pastor questions the faith of those churches that affirm same sex marriage. We thought it might require some apologetics, so this was my attempt to defend the publication of a conservative, majority world voice. Supporting civil dialogue of diverse opinions is vital to civil society, especially in the university and in the media (as I discuss more fully in this blog.)

When it comes to matters of sexual ethics, no one can quickly iron out the deep differences in the church today. Some would invalidate the voice of majority world Christians because those Christians have never experienced happily married, fully legal, faithful and flourishing Christian same-sex couples. Such experience, it is claimed, would shift exegesis and exegesis will turn the weight of tradition. The West is just ahead of the rest.

Consider that same sex marriage is not even legal for secularists, let alone Christians in those countries. So why should their opinions matter if they are behind in the progressive march of history? More specifically, why should Canadian journalism like Christian Courier publish an article on same sex marriage that gives platform to a voice from distant and disdained Uganda?

Uganda has been flagged as a country with poor treatment of sexual minorities, including a government ban on same sex marriage and brutal attacks in the street against LGBT persons. Such injustice deserves prophetic rebuke, and the church in Uganda ought to lend its voice to the defence of the human rights of all its neighbours. Pastor Mogambo admits the church in Uganda can learn from the more pastoral approach he sees in the West. He admits the Ugandan church could listen better. It could do more than listen, too. It should act.

Uganda: Flag and Country

If the Ugandan church is infected by its own context, Mogambo charges that the Western church is equally influenced by its own secular individualistic context. Maybe history isn’t uni-directional and what is called progress isn’t always moral development. If you walk down the wrong path, you best turn around and get back on track to home. So my modest argument here, which is really something Lesslie Newbigin said decades ago, is that if we are truly part of a catholic church we ought to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters across oceans and borders. Even if it’s hard to hear. Because we might be wrong.

What if they are wrong instead? Why bother then? What is the goal of transnational conversation on this tender topic in our vastly different contexts? Listening first. Just that. This is an intra-church family conversation. We share a gospel. Maybe listening might lead to understanding, which could develop into mutual correction and sanctification, and the expanded witness of Christ’s body through redemptive influence in our respective homelands. But listening is a good start. Publishing the article in question is such a start.

How does listening happen without offense being taken from either side? For some it will be hard, and they will have to endlessly forgive. The conversation may have its limits; not everyone need participate; and we can expect the issue will probably be unresolved this side of the new earth. Besides, there are other vital matters to attend to beside sexual morality, including such things as climate change, a global pandemic, and food security. There is more to come to the table and discuss.

Postcolonial Postures

Besides our catholicity, another good reason to listen is to enact our postcolonial commitments. The Western church has been speaking from a position of cultural dominance for hundreds of years and the majority world listened, more or less, voluntarily or not. Consider that we have an overabundance of books, institutions, and teachers in the West and we have been consistently sending a portion of them to the majority world, but the flow of knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual discernment needs to be more multi-directional. You could say that now Joseph wishes to speak back to those who sold him into slavery, and open up a difficult family conversation.

Now there is some debate as to whether male-female marriage is itself a Western colonial import or more foundationally part-and-parcel of the Judea-Christian faith and the gospel itself–if the gospel is understood as the good news of the restoration of all things towards God’s freedom frameworks. Is male-female marriage an import like Western dress codes, or is it an import like literacy, or is it a creation norm basic to human life and not “Western” at all? What you believe about it will determine how you see the history of colonialism. Some advocates claim conservative churches in the West are importing their culture war to Africa, having lost the war at home, but that denies Africans’ own agency in discernment and assumes the historical teaching on marriage is a recent import. It assumes Western influence today causes the hardening of African politics around sexual issues without any African filter and it borders on a conspiracy theory, as one academic suggests.

Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve

Another article in the Journal of African Union Studies says that criminalization of homosexuality in Africa is based on old codes brought in by colonists but is exacerbated by current political expediency. That is to say, in order to consolidate their power, since homosexuality is perceived as “un-African,” political leaders use harsh laws against sexual minorities to shore up their popularity. When the international community and human rights advocates apply pressure to decriminalize gay sex, hardline politicians accuse them of using foreign aid as a means of interference and manipulation.

So the opposite question could equally be asked: is the pressure to affirm same sex marriage coming from the West another colonial maneuver or is it basic human rights and the liberating logic of the gospel in a culture of repression? Who carries the colonial legacy? Who offers true transcultural shalom?

Arguing Western influences doesn’t touch on the influence of Islam in Africa, which is equally conservative on LGBT matters. In fact, there are Hadith that prescribe the death penalty for male homosexual acts. Having such close neighbours like that no doubt is an influence comparable to the conflicting influences coming from far off Western countries.

Regardless, the charge against Western conservatives also assumes the historical teaching on marriage is a recent import to Africa. Even beyond the missionaries hundreds of years ago, Christianity could be said to have begun in Africa, including no lesser figure than Augustine and the famous library at Alexandria. The history of Judea-Christian marriage in Africa would be much longer than assumed in such light. Homosexuality, too, was in Africa before the colonial era, as it has been part of most societies. But that still doesn’t answer the question of what is colonial imposition and what is part of creation’s design. Or who is trying to use whom here. It’s complicated.

We can’t solve these questions here, and it really begs the whole ethical question, so I want to return to my insistence on listening across oceans within the church. This much is a fair warning, though: conservatives in the West shouldn’t selectively say we need to listen to the majority world now on sexual ethics but ignore what they are saying about war, poverty, immigration, and foreign aid. The conversation should be open to all matters of life, morality, and flourishing. And that means Africans will no doubt hear the Western voices in return on human rights, family planning, and abortion, too, as they have already for decades.

Photo from pixabay.

In my circles of transnational mission, the motto has been: “Not from the West to the rest, but from anyone to everywhere.” This is a polycentric model, and in such a scheme the weight of moral authority, too, is decentralized. In fact, the current deconstruction of the Western church begs the question: what moral authority does the shriveling Christian West have in the majority world? This is a contentious question, as family members should always calling each other to account. But consider that the legacy of slavery and Western imperialism cast a dark shadow on the credibility of the Western church. Two world wars, global warming due to Western industrialization, and the influence of a fast and loose Hollywood morality cast Western Christians into further moral dubiousness.

Many are acknowledging the wisdom of indigenous ways when it comes to global ecology. Naive Western notions of unambiguous modern “progress” are burning up with climate change. There are certainly other Western assumptions that need chastening and reconsideration. Our credibility is currently weak.

WEIRD West

A third good reason to particularly listen to the voice of the majority world is that they are now the vast bulk of Christians on the planet. “The average Christian today is a poor Nigerian or Brazilian woman,” writes Philip Jenkins (quoting Dana L. Robert) in his now aging book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2002). The majority can be wrong, but those on the margins of the vital, expanding movement of God’s people should at least care to listen to the core. Christianity is now a southern phenomenon, and gaining acceptance in East Asia, too.

The fact is, the church in the West is in numerical decline, and more particularly, the liberal wing of the church is closing its doors at an astonishing rate. Take for example the venerable Anglican Church of Canada, which was about 1.3 million members strong in 1961. By 2017, while the population of the country doubled, the Anglicans shrunk to 282,412 and most of these members are in their retirement years. The Anglican Journal (Jan. 6, 2020) entertains the projection that, at the current rate of decline, there would be zero Anglicans by 2040. I’m sure more than a few will stick around by then, but their recent split only exacerbated the situation.

Indeed, numbers are only one gauge of fruitfulness and the Spirit’s activity. Certain academics are fond of validating the epistemic privilege of the marginal. Is the West now marginal in the worldwide church? But we remain privileged and powerful economically, politically and culturally, which may be again more of a spiritual liability. Are modern sexual ethics marginalized? Not in the university, media, or Western legal systems.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his fascinating book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) cites a study showing that the middle-class Western demographic is globally WEIRD. The word is an acronym for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, and the adjective is apt because such people are outliers; they are “the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature.” Maybe we are cutting-edge, Avant-guarde. But maybe we are just weird. Outside the norm.

We know that in the majority world, tolerance for same-sex marriage is very low. Pew Research did report in 2020 that while the rates at which majority world populations self-report acceptance for homosexuality are very low and in stark contrast to the West, these acceptance rates have been rising slightly over the last 20 years. I suspect these increases are represented mostly in the more wealthy, urban, educated sectors, where WEIRD influence would be most prevalent (as Pastor Mogambo says). Majority world churches and their agencies generally remain in line with historic Christian teachings in these moral matters.

Blind Spots

Our dearest idols are often located in our cultural blind spots that others see too clearly. Theologian Esther Acolatse (from Ghana but now at Knox College, Toronto) has argued that there remains a hermeneutical gap between the church in the global South and modern West (see her book Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in Africa, Eerdmans 2018). The African church, with its animist cultural heritage and the influence of divination found in African traditional religions, lives in an enchanted world where the conflicts of angels, witches and demons affect the details of everyday life. While this runs close to the Biblical worldview in which spirit, the holy, and evil are startlingly real, it can be too dualistic, distracting from Christ’s victory at the cross and missing the joy of living filled by the Holy Spirit. It is an over-emphasis on the spirit world and the uncertainties of an eternal battle.

Ugandan praying (from pixabay)

The situation in the West is the opposite—a church disenchanted by the modern secular worldview, where naturalistic science is the supreme authority. The world is just stuff in motion, and we are closed to spiritual dimensions and dynamics. As assumed by liberal theologians (like Bultmann), we can’t use jets and computers, MRIs and vaccines, and at the same time take seriously the miraculous wonder world of the Bible. For example, Walter Wink showed how New Testament references to a spirit world could be reinterpreted as socio-political forces and psychotherapeutic conditions, taking out the idea of supernatural beings as distinct entities that impinge on everyday life. In effect, Acolatse suggests Western theology is practically materialist. A layer of Biblical reality is subtracted, dismissed, and even disdained.

It certainly is an old book, the Bible. Does that make its moral universe obsolete?

Our church and national contexts are very different. When it comes to issues of human sexuality, the gulf between our dominant cultures seems vast. The majority world has a different take on the importance of individual expression from the West, and often champions more communitarian and traditional values. God calls us first to self-sacrificial roles and duties, not authenticity and self-expression. This perspective can come with its own weaknesses. As mentioned above, there are laws in some African countries that endanger the lives of those exploring their same sex desires and human rights groups from the West are applying political pressure. Africans need to hear from their own minority subcultures, from their women and students, too. We all have cultural baggage that Christ seeks to correct, reform, and redeem.

It may be not only good family relations to listen, but an act of spiritual growth. In David Smith’s Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity (2009) he urges the reader not to see cross-cultural interaction in instrumental terms—in order to change the other or achieve some ecclesial or even ethical goal—but as a process that itself involves discipleship and spiritual growth. In other words, the interaction itself is part of the journey to spiritual maturity. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin often said that inter-cultural encounter was necessary not only for the salvation of the those who have not heard the gospel, but also for those who bear witness to it as well. No one possesses God’s Spirit alone, and no one has arrived at the end of spiritual maturity.

So Christian Courier published the Ugandan article, and a version of this one as well.

Consider this journalism an opportunity to cultivate our spiritual life as rooted Christian cosmopolitans, world citizens still planted in local culture, leaning into a transnational give-and-take. We don’t have to agree; but we can learn respect and humility in the encounter, and hopefully come away a little nearer to the kingdom of God.


2 thoughts on “Engaging the Global Polylogue: Why Listen to Christians in the Majority World When it Comes to Sexual Ethics?

  1. Amen! This is a wonderfully written piece that includes both logical and well reasoned arguments.

    The only thing that I respectfully disagree with you on is how the roots of Christianity can be traced to Africa.

    History has taught us that Abraham lived in the area we call Mesopotamia, which is not in Africa. It is in the area that was known as Asia Minor. My point is that the roots of Christianity were actually located in Asia. We now refer to that area as the Middle East, but it has never been considered to be part of Africa.

    I understand the reasoning behind the argument based upon the library at Alexandria. However, one must keep in mind that the city of Alexandria with it’s accompanying library, were named for Alexander the Great who conquered the city.

    Alexander the Great was king of Macedonia, which is north of Greece, and is part of modern-day Europe.

    Alexander the Great followed Hellenistic culture and religion before the time he tried to merge cultures with the Persians after the death of Darius III.

    The Israelites, as we refer to them today, were the chosen people of the Lord (YHWH) long before they were carried off into slavery in Egypt. Each time the Israelites were carried off into slavery were punishments given by the Lord for their disobedience of His commands.

    Thank you for making such a well reasoned and thought out argument! I would also like to thank you for the opportunity to respond to your post!

    Like

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