Homosexuality and Nigeria's Enochs and Josephs
© Ogaga Ifowodo
An unmistakable irony marks the current crusade of Africa's Christians against what they see as the evil of homosexuality. Let's call it the holy irony, though unholy might be the apt modifier given the stunning absence of Christian love and understanding that characterises it. It is the irony of a people once enslaved and colonised by Europe partly for their heathenism now assuming the mantle of "The Black Man's Burden." Which makes it Africa's reverse "mission civilisatrice" to save Europe and the world from the Armageddon-like repercussions of the greatest sin of all: same-sex sexual relations. For that unpardonable sin, remember, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed and Lot's wife turned to a pillar of salt for merely casting a backward glance at the raging fire of destruction.
The unbounded zealotry of Africa's reverse missionaries reminds me of two minor characters in those classic dramas of our (post)colonial existence: Chinua Achebe's Enoch in Things Fall Apart and Wole Soyinka's Joseph in Death and the King's Horseman. They symbolise the frenzy of the reformed prostitute or criminal who espouses an impracticable morality. And so Enoch, son of the priest of the snake cult in Umuofia but eager to prove the fervour of his new-found faith, slays and eats the sacred python, even though Mr Brown, the white missionary, preaches against just such "excess of zeal." For his part, Joseph resigns his post as houseboy to the colonial officer because the white man who should know better had scolded him for acting as if "all that holy water nonsense has wiped out your tribal memory." Saul, the chief persecutor of Christ, presents us with the biblical version of this figure after his Road-to-Damascus conversion.
The lion-heart of this crusade to save Europe from an even worse heathenism than Africa had been accused of is the Rev. Jasper Akinola, former primate of the Anglican Church in Nigeria. He seized the limelight eight years ago when his was the most strident voice against the ordination of gay bishops in Britain and the United States. By threatening to lead his fellow literalist interpreters of the bible out of the Anglican Communion, Akinola set himself up as the moral torchbearer of the faith, the-truth-and-the-way to the uncorrupted revelation of God's mind from Moses and Jesus to St. John the Divine of the bizarre book of Revelation. Wearing the collar and cassock of this new gospel as chairman of the Global South Primates, he co-authored a 2005 letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he describes Europe as "a spiritual desert" and the Church of England's humane acceptance of same-sex partnerships as "evil." Never was evil so harmless! Although three co-signatories, including Bishop Clive Handford of Jerusalem (no less!) and the Middle East, denied signing or approving the letter and described Akinola's action as "scandalous," that has not dulled the halo around Jasper-the-Lion-Heart. And he has since taken steps to set up the Anglican Church in North America in opposition to the sinful Episcopal Church of the United States.
Since 2006, Akinola has been the moving spirit behind the bill to ban same-sex marriage and relationships in Nigeria, a bill that has now been passed by the pious senators and awaits the assent of the righteous representatives. Those feverishly engaged in this diversionary moral warfare claim to be acting on behalf of an omnipotent God. The promise of rewarding everyone, homosexuals included, according to their deeds on judgement day is not enough for them. God is either too slow or too liberal or cannot be trusted. By the same token, God-the-Son, founder of the faith that they profess, is not to be heeded when he declines to rank sins, or when he commands his followers thus, "Judge not, that ye may not be judged," warning that only the heavenly father who sees the innermost of hearts is fit for that office. Besides, "all our righteousness is like filthy rags."
Does Akinola ever humble himself enough to acknowledge that he may not fully know the will of God or understand human nature? And that unless he claims to be without sin, it is not his place to exact vengeance on any "sinner" by criminalising a private consensual act between adults, thereby denying fellow human beings the fundamental rights to freedom of association, expression and the pursuit of happiness? What does Akinola and his fellow biblical literalists think is the real lesson of Christ in that challenge to those early militia of God who would stone an adultress to death: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her?"
For my part, I have no problem with anyone who desires a moral order governed by the Mosaic code and Pauline piety. I would insist only that they cannot have it half-way or both ways. In other words, they must obey to the letter every stricture and standard in the Pentateuch, in particular, the beloved Leviticus. They must be willing to accept such marital "evil" as practised by Abraham and Sarah. And for the sake of argument, I would add that Akinola and his fervent followers must, like Lot, be willing to offer up their daughters (sisters, nieces or cousins) to a hypothetical mob of rapists or sodomites that might come to their doorsteps. They must avoid their wives, all women, like the plague during menstruation. They must scrupulously distinguish between clean and unclean animals, and follow the ritual of their slaughter before partaking of them as food; just to name a few.
Those who cannot wait for God's judgement must remove themselves from the secular world inhabited by the rest of us, non-believers and liberal Christians alike. For, they cannot claim the authority of private communications with God or of selective and literalist interpretations of their holy book to impose on us a morality that we do not share. Where biblical morality accords with our reasoned or scientific understanding of human nature and the world, we will gladly accept it. But where it conflicts with that understanding to the point of preventing us from being our brothers and sisters' keepers, we must match the zealot's boldness in speaking out.
The irony I mentioned at the beginning of this essay extends to the appeal to "our African custom and traditions," says Akinola, adding that the anti-gay marriage bill represents "the moral position of Nigerians regarding human sexuality." It may be true that if a referendum were taken today, the majority would be on Akinola's side. But so also, until not too long ago, would a majority of those Europeans who brought Akinola the bible have agreed that Africans were inferior to them and that colonising them was a godly act. Indeed, it was the church that authorised slavery, with one of the first boats to take slaves from the coast of Guinea aptly named Jesus of Lubeck. But that a fallacious belief is held by the majority does not make it right. Wasn't there a custom of killing twins until Mary Slessor came along? Is Akinola an advocate of ancestral worship, juju, ritual sacrifice, polygamy, discrimination against widows including the levirate system, the osu or caste system, the practice among some Igbos that allows a barren woman to marry a wife who bears children for her (incidentally, not so different from what the saintly Sarah did with Hagar)?
Akinola claims that the anti-gay marriage bill will reorient Nigeria towards a "transformation and reformation" of the country "from its moral decadence into a new platform of sound morality." If only homosexuality were the trouble with Nigeria! President Jonathan, he says, would be going against God's will for Nigeria if he refused to sign the bill when presented to him. It is the oldest trick in the book, claiming God's will to shut up informed dissent, but pray, what is God's will for Nigeria? But there are two aspects of this controversy that space does not permit me to discuss now: the question of what constitutes natural sex and the cause of homosexuality. It also raises the question whether same-sex desire is a sin, an illness, or a lifestyle choice and a crime, and, in any case, what should be the appropriate response to it. I will take up these issues in a follow-up essay.