Beyond African religious homophobia: How Christianity is a source of African LGBT activism

(This post was originally published on the Religion and the Public Sphere blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science.)

The emergence of anti-homosexuality politics in Africa is often explained with reference to religion. Although religion is a major factor in fuelling homophobia in Africa, the Bible and the Christian faith are not only sites of struggle but have also been appropriated by African LGBT activists in support of their cause. Adriaan van Klinken says we need to move beyond a narrow focus on African religious homophobia as religion plays multiple and complex roles in contemporary dynamics of African sexualities.

In recent years Africa has become widely associated with homophobia. It is even considered ‘the most homophobic continent’ in the world. This image is the result of the anti-gay rhetoric of political leaders such as President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the introduction of new anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda and Nigeria, and the arrest of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists in countries such as Cameroon and Zambia.

In this piece I’m not concerned with “African homophobia” as such – although I’d like to pose the question whether homophobia is the most useful term to understand the politics around homosexuality and LGBT rights in contemporary African societies. Neither am I concerned with the reasons why  Western media tend to depict “African homophobia” in rather sensationalist ways – although I do wonder whether it has something to do with the deep-rooted perception of Africa as “backward” that allows the West to see itself as “progressive” and “modern”.

My interest here is in the role of religion in African dynamics around homosexuality and LGBT rights. The emergence of anti-homosexuality politics in Africa is often explained with reference to religion. Given the dominance of Christianity in many of the countries in which homophobia seems on the rise, churches in particular are seen as fuelling the repression of African LGBT people. It is easy to find evidence in support of this idea: African Anglican bishops are at the forefront of the crisis over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion; Ugandan evangelical pastors actively campaigned for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill; Nigerian Catholic and Pentecostal leaders enthusiastically welcomed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill. Moreover, political leaders in many countries often use explicitly religious arguments against homosexuality, denouncing it not only as “un-African” but also “un-biblical” and “un-Christian”. In the media and among the general public religious beliefs often frame debates about homosexuality – such as in Zambia, where United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was even seen as an agent of the devil after he called upon the country to recognise the human rights of sexual minorities.

There’s enough evidence to argue that religion is a major factor in fuelling homophobia in Africa, and is a key obstacle to moving towards a future in which African LGBT people will be accepted in their communities and societies. Indeed, in my research over the past six years I have critically examined the role of religious leaders, organisations and beliefs in mobilisations against homosexuality and LGBT rights. However, more recently I have become interested in another question: is religion only and inherently an obstacle, or can it also be a source for African LGBT identity, community, and activism? Can religion play a role in (re)building Africa as a continent of diversity including in matters of sexuality?

I don’t buy into the notion, popular among some African theologians, that Africans are “notoriously religious”, as John Mbiti famously put it. Yet it is true that religion in all its varieties is an important aspect of identity and social practice for many Africans, and that it permeates African cultures and societies. If Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar are right when they state that “it is largely through religious ideas that Africans think about the world today, and that religious ideas provide them with a means of becoming social and political actors”, the question can be asked how this applies to LGBT people and their forms of community activism. In my current research project I explore this question in the context of Kenya, specifically in relation to Christianity, through a variety of case studies.

A Kenyan art collective, named The Nest, recently conducted an LGBT life stories project, for which they collected over 250 life stories of LGBT Kenyans in different parts of the country and from different ages and backgrounds. The result was published in an anthology, Stories of Our Lives, which gives a fascinating insight in the lives of LGBT people in an African country today and in their navigation of cultural, social and political complexities. Many of the stories refer to religion, with people telling about their religious upbringing at home, at school and in church. Furthermore, several stories testify of an ongoing religious commitment, an active participation in faith communities, and/or a relentless faith in God. Doing so, they provide insight in the way LGBT Kenyans do negotiate their sexuality and faith, and often find ways of reconciling the two, for instance through narratively claiming the love of God, the idea of being created in the image of God, or the inclusive and welcoming ministry of Jesus Christ.

The Stories of Our Lives project was not inspired by any explicit religious aims. However, the resulting stories demonstrate that for many LGBT Kenyans, Christian faith remains an important source of identity and practice, despite the negative experiences they often have in church. Where these stories reveal how this works on an individual basis, another case study demonstrates how faith becomes the basis for a new Kenyan LGBT Christian community. The case in point is an LGBT church in Nairobi, launched in 2013 by a group of Kenyan activists who wanted to create an affirmative space for LGBT people of faith where they could be nourished spiritually.

These activists received moral, pastoral and financial support from the US-based organisation, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. This is an African-American organisation that seeks to promote “a theology of radical inclusivity” in the “black church” in the US, and more recently also on the African continent by building a United Coalition of Affirming Africans. What is particularly interesting is not only the pan-African ideology underlying this initiative, but also the way in which it is framed explicitly as a progressive black Christian attempt to combat the influence of American white evangelical Christianity. This puts both race and sexuality at the heart of a contest for the future of Christianity in Africa.

Obviously much is at stake here, which is reflected in some sermons I overheard in the Nairobi church about the theme of “rewriting the Book of Acts”. This trope suggests that just like the early Christian church two thousand years ago, this small LGBT affirming church community is currently figuring out its identity and mission which will be decisive for nothing less than the nature and future of Christianity in Kenya and in Africa at large. Whilst this framing might seem pretentious, or at least ambitious, the church in Nairobi does play a crucial role for community members, including a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees who had to leave their home country due to ostracism but who continue to experience marginalisation and harassment in Kenya.

Through prayer and preaching, worship and pastoral support, but also through sport and recreation activities as well as advocacy and community activism, the church provides an important social and spiritual home for its congregants. In the words of their mission statement, the church “proclaims the unconditional love of God, which embraces all humanity”. Similar initiatives have mushroomed in other African countries in recent years, representing a nascent African Christian LGBT movement.

Beyond the confines of explicitly Christian LGBT activism, it is interesting to see that also other LGBT activist expressions engage Christianity. A case in point is the Same Love music video, released by Kenyan musicians and activists in February 2016 (and soon thereafter banned by the Kenyan authorities). Presented as “a Kenyan song about same sex rights”, the video makes several references to religion. On the one hand, it critically denounces the role of religious beliefs and actors in the demonisation of LGBT people and the hate they experience “in the name of piety”. On the other hand, and perhaps more significant, the video appeals to religion in positive ways.

The line “Uganda … Nigeria Africa … we come from the same God, cut from the same cord, share the same pain and share the same skin” reflects a sense of pan-Africanism where African unity-in-diversity is rooted in a shared sense of being created by God. The song also refers to “the spirit of Martin Luther King”, claiming the Christian-inspired legacy of this famous leader of the African-American civil rights movement to support the struggle for LGBT rights in Africa. Most prominently, the song ends with a long quotation from the Bible – the classic text about love in 1 Corinthians 13 – with the closing statement being “Love is God and God is Love”. This clearly demonstrates that the Bible and the Christian faith are not only sites of struggle where the debate on homosexuality is being fought by homophobic African religious and political leaders, but that the same sites are appropriated by African LGBT activists in support of their cause.

The longer term impact of these various ways in which Christianity is reclaimed to support LGBT identity, community and activism in Africa is still to be seen. Yet these examples do illustrate the need to move beyond a narrow focus on African religious homophobia, and to attend to the multiple and complex roles that religion plays in contemporary dynamics of African sexualities.

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Queer Studies and Religion in Africa

The journal Scholar & Feminist Online has recently published a special issue on the theme Queer/Religion, guest edited by Elizabeth Castelli. I contributed an article entitled, “Queer Studies and Religion in Contemporary Africa: Decolonizing, Post-secular Moves“. Here I explore the intersections of queer studies and religion in African contexts, and I argue that queer studies has to take religion seriously, not only as a source of homo- or queer-phobia, but also as a source of queer agency, subjectivity and politics. As part of its ongoing process of decolonization, this will allow queer studies – which is still firmly rooted in a Western and largely secular paradigm, to make a post-secular move and engage with religion, spirituality and faith in all its complexities.

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New article on Pentecostalism, political masculinity and citizenship in Zambia

A new article of mine has recently been published in Journal of Religion in Africa 46:2-3 (2016), 129-157. It is entitled, “Pentecostalism, Political Masculinity and Citizenship: The Born-Again Male Subject as Key to Zambia’s National Redemption”, and it is the final publication of a project I have been working on since 2008, focusing on Pentecostal masculinity politics in Zambia.


Africa has become a key site of masculinity politics, that is, of mobilisations and struggles where masculine gender is made a principal theme and subjected to change. Pentecostalism is widely considered to present a particular form of masculinity politics in contemporary African societies. Scholarship on African Pentecostal masculinities has mainly centred around the thesis of the domestication of men, focusing on changes in domestic spheres and in marital and intimate relations. Through an analysis of a sermon series preached by a prominent Zambian Pentecostal pastor, this article demonstrates that Pentecostal discourse on adult, middle- to upper-class masculinity is also highly concerned with men’s roles in sociopolitical spheres. It argues that in this case study the construction of a born-again masculinity is part of the broader Pentecostal political project of national redemption, which in Zambia has particular significance in light of the country constitutionally being a Christian nation. Hence the article examines how this construction of Pentecostal masculinity relates to broader notions of religious, political and gendered citizenship.

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Review of Martin Lindhardt (ed.), Pentecostalism in Africa

This book review was originally published in Journal of Religion in Africa 46:2-3 (2016), 339-341.

Lindhardt, Martin (ed.), Pentecostalism in Africa: Presence and Impact of Pneumatic Christianity in Postcolonial Societies (Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies, volume 15), Leiden: Brill, 2015, x + 387pp, ISBN 978-9-0042-8186-8, €65/$84

The study of Pentecostal and Charismatic forms of Christianity in Africa is a thriving field of scholarship that has been very productive, especially over the past fifteen or so years. The emergence of this field followed the spectacular growth of Pentecostal/Charismatic churches in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s and their innovative ways of presenting religion in public and political spheres. Martin Lindhardt’s edited volume aims to offer ‘an elaborate treatment of the social, cultural and political impact of PC/C in sub-Saharan Africa’ (1). He therefore brings together Africanist scholars, mainly from the Euro-American academy, from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds including theology and church history, religious studies, anthropology, sociology, political science, and development studies. This reflects the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary scholarship on African Pentecostalism. Indeed, the contributions to this volume reflect, to different extents, the fruits of an emerging interdisciplinary approach, though more could possibly have been done—in this volume and in the field of African Pentecostal studies generally—to bring different disciplines into conversation in order for them to mutually enrich each other.

Lindhardt’s introduction to the volume is truly interdisciplinary in nature; he does an excellent job in presenting a state-of-the-art picture of contemporary scholarship in the field, identifying the key critical issues and opening up new lines of thinking about them. I can highly recommend this over-fifty-page-long, very well-documented introductory chapter to anyone looking for an up-to-date, systematic, and critical overview of the study of Pentecostalism in Africa. The introduction discusses major issues such as Africanisation and continuity, gender and age, public spheres, politics, popular culture and modern media, development and social change. The volume has thirteen additional chapters. Although not divided into sections, the first part of the book mainly explores historical and theological dimensions relating to African Pentecostalism, while the second part focuses on the role of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity in the public life of African societies.

Both chapters 2 and 4, by Allan Anderson and Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu respectively, give broad accounts of the origins, developments, and characteristics of Pentecostalism in Africa. Both authors emphasise that the early-twentieth century AICs must be acknowledged as a form of indigenous Pentecostalism. Where Anderson mainly focuses on historical developments, Asamoah-Gyadu particularly highlights the theological innovations within African Pentecostalism. In chapter 3 David Garrard gives a detailed historical account of the birth of Pentecostalism in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country not often featured in African Pentecostal studies.

In chapter 5 Paul Gifford offers a comparative discussion of the leaders of two major, originally Nigerian but now truly international (neo)Pentecostal churches: Daniel Olukoya (Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries) and David Oyedepo (Living Faith World Outreach, or Winners’ Chapel). Identifying many similarities, in particular their shared concern with ‘victorious living’, Gifford also highlights some critical differences and warns against homogenising contemporary (neo)Pentecostalism. The relevance of this warning becomes clear in chapter 6, in which Ilana van Wyk discusses an ‘atypical Pentecostal church’ in post-Apartheid South Africa, the originally Brazilian United Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), which does not require its members to be born again, is antisocial, and highly individualistic. Van Wyk attributes its popularity to the convergence of UCKG teachings on prosperity and spiritual warfare with local ideas about witchcraft and wealth. This question of continuity is further explored in chapter 7 by Martin Lindhardt, who with reference to witchcraft beliefs in Tanzania makes an insightful argument for conceiving the relationship between Pentecostalism and traditional ontologies in terms of coevalness, intersection, and ongoing mutual influence. Chapter 9 by Jean Comaroff throws a new perspective on the questions raised by Gifford, van Wyk, and Lindhardt, not only by exploring the links between Pentecostalism and politico-economic liberalisation but also by sharing insightful reflections on public passion and the politics of affect.

The issues of Pentecostalism and gender, and Pentecostalism and development are explored in chapters 8 and 10 by Jane Soothill and Ben Jones respectively. Soothill offers a helpful survey of current debates about complex and paradoxical gender dynamics in contemporary African Pentecostal circles, focusing her discussion on transformations of masculinity and on the contribution to gender equality and women’s spiritual empowerment. Jones offers an equally helpful literature review of how the relationship between development and religion, particularly Pentecostalism, in Africa is often conceived as positive—an assumption he then questions with reference to a case study of a faith-based organisation in rural Uganda. He argues that the recent internal Pentecostalisation of this organisation had little effect on the development schemes it was implementing because of its embeddedness in existing structures of class, identity, and social difference. Following on this are three chapters on Pentecostalism and politics, understood as political culture more broadly, by Andreas Heuser, Richard Burgess, and John McCauley respectively. Heuser’s discussion of the politics of spiritual warfare is particularly insightful; he elucidates with reference to Nigeria, Ghana, and Ivory Coast how such spiritual politics are always embedded in concrete sociopolitical histories. Burgess provides a historical account of the emergence of a ‘politically-engaged Pentecostalism’ in two countries, Nigeria and Zambia, over the past two decades, and highlights the mixed Pentecostal record of contributing toward democratisation. McCauley provides a critical though somewhat general argument on Pentecostalism continuing in a new form the long-standing African institution of ‘big-man rule’ and its inherent patron-client relationship. In the book’s final chapter, chapter 14, Katrien Pype discusses Pentecostal influence on popular culture, particularly in music and film, introducing helpful analytical categories such as the visual and the acoustic, touch, and interactivity.

The raImage result for lindhardt "pentecostalism in africa"tionale behind the selection of the themes and chapters and consequently the composition of the book as a whole is not always completely clear. Why, for example, are there three chapters offering a more-or-less historical account, and three chapters on Pentecostalism and politics (with some overlap between some of these chapters, and with individual chapters not always adding much to earlier publications of their respective authors), while there is only a single chapter on the broad question of gender (covering both women and men/masculinities) and no chapter dedicated to critical issues such as sexuality, embodiment, health, human rights, or interreligious relations? Regardless of that criticism, many contributions to this volume succeed in offering state-of-the-art surveys of particular fields in African Pentecostal studies, presenting original research, and/or opening up new analytical and conceptual perspectives.


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New publication on postcolonial theology of Body of Christ with AIDS

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Adriaan van Klinken, “Western Christianity as Part of Postcolonial World Christianity: The ‘Body of Christ with AIDS’ as an Interstitial Space
“, in Bob Becking, Anne-Marie Korte and Lucien van Liere (eds.), Contesting Religious Identities: Transformations, Disseminations and Mediations (NUMEN Book Series 156), Leiden: Brill, 39-58.

This chapter contributes to a postcolonial theological understanding of contemporary world Christianity, specifically in the context of the HIV epidemic. It focusses on the implications of the statement made by African theologians that nowadays the Body of Christ is HIV positive and is affected by AIDS. As a classic theological metaphor of ecclesiastical unity and identity, African theologians deploy the metaphor of the Body of Christ – in particular the Pauline notion of solidarity among the members of this Body – to remind Western Christianity that it is part of the global Body of Christ and shares in the suffering of this Body caused by HIV and AIDS. The chapter examines the implications of this metaphor in relation to the changing demographics of world Christianity and the related emergence of non-Western contextual theologies representing the concerns of people living at the socio-economic margins of our world. Taking up postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s notion of the interstice, the chapter suggests that the Body of Christ with AIDS can be considered as an intervening space in contemporary world Christianity, as it gives rise to an interstitial intimacy that questions the binary divisions through which social experiences within world Christianity are often spatially opposed.

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