Siya Khumalo | 'I pronounce you Church and State': Reflecting on MCSA and LGBTI civil liberties

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Spurred by the MCSA’s statement on LGBTI congregants, YFM put the question, "Is church acceptance important to the LGBTQIA community?” to Siya Khumalo, who replied, “Could it be the church that needs the LGBTQIA community?"

This Pride Month, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) recently acknowledged that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community have secular civil rights that should be upheld in sacred spaces. This being Pride Month, here are some things to think about - vows and confessions, as it were, implicit in this acknowledgement.

Civil liberties across the continent

As stated in previous articles, a person cares about civil liberties for LBGTI people here when they also care about civil liberties for LGBTI people across this continent. Christian missionaries came to Africa to rubber-stamp colonialism's borders and boundaries, so if this step towards undoing that legacy ideologically ends where colonial national fictions begin, then the church is gold-plating chains instead of breaking them. 

If they're consistent, churches will more publicly condemn state-sanctioned, religion-based condemnation of LGBTI people and lifestyles. This means the divorce of church and state, along with the perks of proximity to political power grown on fear-mongering and populism.  That, not same-sex marriages, is the real abomination; the union of empire and priesthood is literally what got Jesus killed. 

Theology of marriage 

That the theology of marriage is still being developed by churches means a state is playing church when it cites religion as a reason to persecute LGBTI people.  Again, the marriage of church is the real abomination, not the marriage of same-sex couples, and the church must own up to being coopted by power. 

To be fair, the MCSA is being truthful when it says it's in conversation about the theology of marriage and the exercise of conscience. In a discussion I had with them, I discovered they're profoundly interested in aligning their Book of Discipline, their theology and their pastoral practice, so I do think they embody Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda ("the Church reformed, ever reforming").  

Religion-based homophobia

At the same time, the MCSA's use of the expression, "perceived marginalisation" as well as its statement's opening line about how there's no need to welcome LGBTI people back because they were never rejected, raises the question of who will ever answer for the origin and perpetuation of religion-based homophobia.  It's like the question of who'll ever own up to voting for the National Party under apartheid.

Civil right to marry

For a church to take this long to affirm the administrative implications of the LGBTI civil right to marry (while not officiating those marriages) is for church - which teaches that reality is ultimately relational, starting with God as love, as Trinity, and church as the incarnate expression of that - to say that some people's relationality is better aligned with this divine reality because they tick the gender box.

By gender alone, which they never had to choose, develop, or reflect on, people in straight relationships are automatically credited with being more loving, with making better contributions to society, with setting better examples for children, with taking better care of nature, with being more honest with their taxes and generally being better microcosms of the church community than people in gay relationships. 

From the way they're viewed, treated and spoken about, the latter may as well be credited with gender-based violence and a host of other social ills.  Heteronormativity lowers the bar for relationships, leadership and everything in between. Instead of queerly and counter-culturally challenging this, the church has often let the LGBTI community be the  scapegoat for everything the heteronormative community wouldn't fix or face in itself.

A caller to YFM said that as a black man, he felt gender and sexual diversity were a foreign imposition. 

"If we allow this, we'll allow everything else!" he said. 

I responded to the show hostess that this caller probably would never have spent his airtime dialling in if the topic had been fathers who abandon children in the black community, or gender-based violence. 

We never, ever ask, "What will we allow next?" when the topic is rape or any of the social crises we do have, but the moment discrimination against the LGBTI community is the  topic, we pull out the crosses and the nails, the pitchforks and the works.  

Sexual violence 

The Bible is brimful of stories and rules about sexual violence; none of these has inspired a sermon about the sin of heterosexuality.  But Genesis 19, a passage with threats of xenophobic same-sex gang rape, underwrites much of Christianity's hermeneutic of homophobia.  The church's negligence on correcting this trope means it's okay with people not prioritising consent over gender complemetarianism in their assessment of whether a sex act is healthy or not.  

For this reason, when a female caller pointed out that the Bible says God saw that it was not good that Adam was alone and so made Eve, I, in turn, pointed out that her exegesis may mean women were an afterthought - which makes men the ultimate arbiters of whether their behaviour towards women is violent or not, for it was to resolve men's aloneness that women were created.  

Jesus wept. 

Reflection on society

The Bible is a holy book. I believe it was divinely inspired. But, like the Old Testament's Ark of the Covenant, it's a dangerous object for whose public handling a whole class of people is always apart or consecrated. I hereby call out the church, the "called-out ones", to continue prayerfully applying and publicising its knowledge of context, philosophy and science to the text as it's filtered out as a life-giving message of love to broader society.  

The show's mix of callers and commenters, homophobic and inclusive, are a reflection of how well the church is doing so far. As were black people for centuries, LGBTI people are history's mirror for the Body of Christ, a body covered in the blood, tears and scars of God's children.

 - Siya Khumalo is the author of You Have To Be Gay To Know God (2018). He is also a Mr Gay South Africa runner-up and Mr Gay World Top 10 finalist.

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