Saturday, 12 April 2014

Pause for Thought

Two of the most shocking things I have read for a while appeared in the newspapers this week. The first was a report of Justin Welby's speech while attending a conference on violence in Oklahoma in which he asserts that, because expanding laws to allow gay marriage in line with the rights of other citizens in western countries has allegedly produced a backlash of violence in Africa, the church should be cautious about how it proceeds to accept the practice. The second was a report in the Independent that Mulayam Singh Yadav, the head of India's socialist party, and his colleague Abu Azmi had appeared to say, in separate speeches, that rape was just a common mistake that boys make and that if a man is to suffer the death penalty for rape (as he may do under Islamic law) the woman should also be executed as she is in some way guilty too. I had to read the latter article three times to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding it. 

Both these stories, if true as reported, stunned me. At first sight they don't have much in common but actually they both show a disregard for the basic theological principle that all people are equally valuable in the sight of God. They show a distancing and objectification of the human plight of the gay or female person by those who are not of that orientation or gender and an overlooking of the God-implanted expectation of women and gay people not to be treated with flagrant injustice and not to have their need for justice sacrificed for them  by others in the service of those in positions of power who see violence as acceptable and necessary in controlling others. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the fight against slavery was massively prolonged by arguments that caution should be exercised by campaigners due to the plight of slaves who had not yet been freed and those who were free but could not earn a living. How many other slaves suffered horribly and died as a result? The only way to begin to remove an evil is to name it fairly and squarely as an evil and to commit resources to re-educate people where ever the evil occurs. To collude with those who persecute others over the existence of phenomena like gay orientation or the destruction of a woman's control over her own body and mind is never going to lead anywhere other than to the spread of violence and attitudes that deny some of God's people (in fact more than half the human race) a full and safe place in society.

I am not convinced that it is possible to connect gay rights in the West to the withdrawal of access to aid from populations in Africa or the use of violence against Christians quite as straight forwardly as the Archbishop suggests. I do understand that there are connections which will have some terrible consequences, but my experience of African culture is that it is far, far more complex than many of the more theologically conservative African church leaders like to portray it. Cause and effect are difficult to identify and predict. Loyalties are very subtly layered. Just as in the West, you find expressions of gay life styles all over the place including in African Islamic and Christian societies. It's obviously much harder for people to be open about it, but the idea that African society is overwhelmingly anti-gay is not correct - ask any health care worker. Unfortunately it is true that those who oppose expressions of gay orientation implacably are in positions of power and also under huge and complex pressure from their peers to conform to this view of sexuality. While the Archbishop is right in making sure that we are aware of the serious consequences the change in the law will have and reminding us that we must take responsibility to work in partnership to help those affected, it seems to me wrong headed to argue that, even were the Church of England to be minded, through its legal processes, to accept the principle of gay marriage, we must actively postpone moving in that direction because we are held under threat by the leaders of parts of other churches. I would also point out that when many of the women of Africa have repeatedly said that, for the Church of England to ordain women priests and bishops would greatly help them in their struggle towards equality, this plea has fallen on deaf ears. There seems to be a certain inconsistency here.

As for the leaders of the Indian SP, I can only say that if I were a woman in India I would be very, very fearful should anyone who holds such opinions come to power. Their remarks, even if partially retracted, show what feminists would call a profoundly unconscientized view of the relationship between the sexes. They call to mind the so- called texts of terror in the Old Testament such as Judges 19 and they remind us, horrifically and graphically, that for many women today, even in democracies, their daily life is subject to barbaric attitudes and customs that have no place in the twenty first century, but which are deeply ingrained in the collective subconscious. 

Canon Mark Oakley, in a letter to the Guardian (8th April), suggests that the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury work together toward the decriminalising of homosexuality in the Commonwealth and globally. Unrealistic as this may sound, it points to the heart of the matter. Until the leaders of the major churches screw up their courage to set their faces against all persecution, oppression and exclusion on grounds of gender and sexual orientation, the churches will continue to be major players in such oppression and to collude tacitly with the actions of those who use violence to support it.

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