This post was originally written and published as a contribution to The Religion Factor – an online platform to reflect on religion as a (controversial) element of public life.
Homosexuality is one of the major political issues in our contemporary world. Especially African countries are getting known for their massive public and political rejection of same-sex relationships and “gay rights”. Frequently in the media we hear, for example, about new, stricter legislation on same-sex practices, about people arrested and jailed because of homosexuality-related offences and about the murder of gay-right activists. These cases often are presented as revealing an innate homophobia in “backward” Africa. Because religion, in the perception of secular Western media and publics, is almost inherently homophobic, homophobia in Africa is easily explained with a reference to the vitality of religion on the continent. Little energy is expended in the understanding of African controversies concerning homosexuality and the role of religion in all this. To enhance this understanding, I will discuss a recent case.
In February 2012, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Zambia. During his visit Ban made a call to recognise the human rights of homosexuals. This evoked a heated public debate. It was the opening item of the TV news of the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC). ZNBC had asked several ordinary Zambians for a response, and they all stated that homosexuality cannot be accepted because Zambia is a Christian nation. One of the respondents was an elder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, who said that Ban’s call was a sign that the end of the world is near. The subsequent public debate, mainly on the internet, reflected a similar ‘eschatological enchantment’ of the issue of “gay rights”. This enchantment consists of two aspects: first, the identification of Ban’s call as a sign of the end times, and second, the identification of Ban with the Antichrist and the Devil. The latter is actually extended to the UN and Western political leaders, governments and non-governmental organisations in general. Website commenters state, for example, that Ban is ‘devil’s agent to satanize Zambia’, that the UN imposes ‘devilish human rights’, and that the country is ‘under a vicious attack by the forces of darkness’. Many commenters call upon all Christians in the country to oppose this demonic attack and to resist the international pressure to recognise gay rights. In the last days in which we are living, it is suggested, Christians must be ready to fight a spiritual battle, and Ban’s statement is an indication that the battle has begun.
These comments reflect a millennialist worldview that is characteristic of various strands of Zambian Christianity. Though this discourse is not representative of the Zambian public debate as a whole, it is a dominant discourse within the debate. For many people in the West, the appearance of “pre-modern” notions of the Devil, the Antichrist and the end times in debates about a “modern” issue such as homosexuality will reinforce their idea of a backward Africa. For scholars of religion, however, it is not satisfying to explain, or better to explain away, this type of discourse by referring to the role of religion, in this case “fundamentalist” forms of Christianity, in pre-modern societies. First, such an explanation ignores the fact that this Zambian discourse in many ways resembles American Christian Right discourse about homosexuality. As much as American evangelicals are not pre-modern but rather engage with and respond to “modernity” in complex and ambiguous ways, this Zambian discourse can be analysed as a way of relating to “modernity”. Second, such an explanation does not take seriously this type of discourse and the worldview it reflects, the people who represent it and the concerns they have. Therefore the challenge is to identify the contextual social and political meanings of this discourse.
I interpret the millennialist rhetoric on homosexuality as a form of public religion or political theology in our post-secular, postcolonial and globalising world. The discourse reveals that Ban’s call is experienced as a threat to Zambia’s status as an independent nation that governs its own affairs, and it is interpreted in relation to a long history of Western colonialism and neo-colonial imperialism in Africa. Where an emerging homonationalism has been observed in the West, in many African countries we can speak of an emerging anti-homonationalism. Here, the rejection of homosexuality and the opposition against gay rights is central to the constitution and defence of a national identity that, in Zambia, is defined as Christian. Millennial eschatology offers people a powerful language through which they understand and respond to the international pressure to recognise gay rights. To claim that gay rights are a sign of the end times, and that Ban Ki-moon and the UN are the Antichrist promoting the Devil’s agenda, is a highly political statement and is a form of postcolonial resistance. Unfortunately, this is a resistance “from the margins” that creates new marginalised and excluded groups.
Scholars of religion in Africa have argued that eschatological expectations and beliefs about the Devil help people to cope with issues and challenges related to modernity and globalisation. Following this analysis, I think that the Zambian millennialist discourse reveals a clash with modern Western perceptions of homosexuality and the subsequent politics of gay rights. Same-sex practices are not alien to Zambia but were to a certain extent tolerated in a culture of discretion around sexual matters. Here, ‘acts which were forbidden in theory could be tolerated as long as the community was not compelled to pay explicit attention’ (Epprecht 2012: 522). Ban’s call threatens this culture by making same-sex practices an issue of identity politics and individual rights and making it impossible for the community to avert its eyes. Foreign pressure to publicly recognise homosexuality generates a counter-response: instead of averting its eyes the community is now forced to speak out against “immoral” same-sex practices publicly. In this context, millennialist beliefs provide people with a powerful language to demonise homosexuality away, into the secret again.
Even though the millennialist discourse is not representative of the Zambian public debate on homosexuality as a whole, it frames the debate in a powerful way. All Zambians who present a more nuanced understanding of homosexuality or even express sympathy for gay rights are directly associated with the same Antichrist and Devil as Ban Ki-moon and the West. In this way, an open public and political discussion about the call of Ban Ki-moon, as one may expect in a democracy, is made impossible. Of course this is not surprising, as the God of this type of Christianity certainly is not a democrat.
Though I feel deeply uncomfortable with the discourse on homosexuality and gay rights I have discussed here, I think that scholars of religion with post-secular sensitivities have to take seriously this type of religious discourse and the sensitivities, anxieties and concerns it reveals. This may also imply that “we” in the West have to rethink the politics of human rights, particularly in relation to issues of homosexuality, in Africa and other parts of the world, because the effects can be counterproductive. In the words of two progressive-minded Zimbabwean scholars, as long as Western discourses and politics reinforce ‘the perception [in Africa] that Africa is being “civilized” or talked down to accept same-sex sexuality, it will remain extremely difficult to make headway in changing attitudes towards same-sex relationships’ (Togarasei and Chitando 2011: 122).
Epprecht, Marc. 2012. Religion and Same-Sex Relationships in Africa. In The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions, ed. Elias Kifon Bongmba. Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 515-528.
Togarasei, Lovemore and Ezra Chitando. 2011. “Beyond the Bible”: Critical Reflections on the Contributions of Cultural and Postcolonial Studies on Same-Sex Relationships in Africa. Journal of Gender and Religion in Africa 17/2: 109-125.