God is with us_A response to recent events in Uganda and Nigeria
Psalm 18: 16-19
16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
but the Lord was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me.
To my LGBT sisters and brothers,
God is with us. God cries out in suffering with His/Her LGBT children when they are oppressed in God’s name.
As Psalm 18 above says: my enemies ‘confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.’
I believe that that is a prophetic word for LGBT people throughout Africa. God delights in us and will rescue us, especially those of us who find ourselves in contexts where our hearts, minds and lives are in ever-present danger.
I am writing this because I feel so strongly that something must be done, and yet I don’t know what to do. I am writing this out of my own Christian faith, while fully recognising that there are many of you who do not share it, who espouse other faiths or none at all. A Facebook friend of mine has taken to adding a tagline to many of her posts in recent weeks calling on Christians to denounce those who share their faith but are complicit in bigotry and so that is partly what I am doing.
Recent events in Uganda and Nigeria have made so many of us so sad, so angry and so scared.
I am very lucky to live in South Africa, where our constitution protects my rights, but I think there but for the grace of God go I.
I speak out of my life, my own particular condition: I am 45, a white female South African. I am lesbian, married. My wife is Ugandan. We have a seven year old daughter. We are richly blessed.
These laws in Uganda and Nigeria are supposed to be an expression of morality, and to a large degree of a Christian morality. Melina Platas Izama, in an article in The Washington Post has pointed out that it is easier to sell yourself as a moral leader than as an effective, honest, fair one, especially in contexts where there is corruption, and lack of service delivery.
I think that this is a false morality – a morality designed to be performed for the gaze of the citizens of those countries, but without solid foundation in the internal convictions of the individuals responsible for the bills.
These laws make us question our worthiness as human beings. If whole societies can look at LGBT people and see them as evil and depraved then where does that leave us? It is terrifying to know that there are whole groups of people out there who would look at me and think that this person is worth less, because I am lesbian. More than that it is terrifying to imagine living in a place in which those people would have the power of the state behind them.
For me, my faith is a key part of who I am. My relationship with God is fundamental to how I operate in the world, and I am very very sure that God loves me and created me as I am. I know for sure that God wants me to be who and where I am, and also that S/He brought my wife and our daughter into my life. I know that the happiness I experience in my family is a good gift of God, and that it is a gift that God wants me to share with the world.
I am studying theology because I want to be a priest, and even though I know that the church to which I belong will not now, or any time soon, allow me to be ordained (only celibate LGBT people are eligible for ordination), I still know that this is where God wants me to be and that I am doing what God wants me to do. It may be that I am just supposed to keep on being present, to keep on being faithful, so that people cannot avoid noticing that there are rules that exclude people like me. If that’s the case, that is ok, because all that matters to me is that I should be doing what God wants me to be doing.
What is happening in Uganda and Nigeria (and seems likely to happen in a range of other African countries in the near future) is terrible. It’s terrible because the human rights of LGBT people are being attacked, but it is also terrible because people are failing to see the image of God in others who are not like them. In the end all we have as human beings is our relationships to each other. God manifests in the world largely in how we behave to each other. There is a song which says, ‘Christ has no hands now in the world but yours, Christ has no feet now in the world but yours.’ And it is true.
So when people use faith as an excuse to destroy other people it is terrible. It is terrible for those being oppressed, but it is also terrible for those who oppress others. As a white South African I know first hand the damage that being an oppressor does: We make ourselves less human when we treat others as less human. We damage the image of God in ourselves when we don’t recognise its presence in others.
It’s an indictment of our understanding of faith when we use something that is supposed to draw us nearer to God, to justify acting in a way that really is not of God. God is love and calls us to love each other.
I know that we need to keep fighting, that we need to keep on arguing and claiming our rights in the face of these oppressions, but I think that it is only by the grace of God that a transformation of attitudes and understandings will happen. I don’t know how we will achieve that but I do know that God cries out in suffering with His/Her LGBT children when they are oppressed in God’s name.
God loves all of us, those who oppress and those who are oppressed, hetero and homosexuals, black and white, poor and rich. S/He loves all of us.
In my experience the only thing that does, in the end, transform people’s attitudes is when we are all wiling to sit around a table and share who we are. If we are willing to bring our pains and sorrows, as well as our joys to the table and look at them honestly as human beings then we can begin the process of grasping that the image of God is present in all of us, despite our differences.
The grace of God has always seemed to me to surpass and transcend the limitations of our human condition. It is only that grace can allow us to transcend these limitations.
Jesus said, ‘whoever is not against us is for us’(Mk 9:40), and that troubles me.
The bills in Uganda and Nigeria have been signed ostensibly on the basis that homosexuality is immoral and anti-Biblical. They are using my faith against me. And yet Jesus says ‘whoever is not against me, is for me’. And He is referring, not to transient events in the world, but to the whole edifice of faith and spirituality which is the Christian church.
Jesus was not speaking of the church as it exists now in the world. There was no such thing at the time. But He was speaking of the movement of the Spirit of God in the world – that Spirit that moves us beyond ourselves, that allows us to transcend our human condition.
His disciples, not understanding, had tried to stop someone (not one of them, not a member of their group) casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Was it because they didn’t know him, or didn’t trust him? Was it because they wanted to keep the power, that sense of being special for themselves? We don’t know. But we do know that Jesus told them to let the man be because ‘whoever is not against us, is for us’.
I am deeply troubled because I know how easy it would be to just say that the Ugandan President (and all those ordinary Ugandans), and the Nigerian President (and all the ordinary Nigerians) are just wrong, are evil, and misguided. Certainly, I believe that they are wrong.
But I also know that just resorting to saying that they are wrong will get us nowhere, will in fact likely lead only to a hardening of attitudes.
The Spirit and the grace of God call on me, as they call on all of us to transcend the limitations of our human condition, to love our neighbour as ourselves.
I understand that my particular life history, my context, my time and place have allowed me to understand certain things in certain ways. I also understand that there are times when one must ‘come in the name of God’ and speak out about certain things.
In this case, let me say clearly that these laws and the concomitant increase in anti-LGBT violence (physical, emotional, spiritual) break my heart. It breaks my heart to see the machinery of state powering up against people.
But it breaks my heart also to think of all those ordinary people operating out of (un)righteous anger. Treating others as less than human is deeply damaging both for those oppressed and for the oppressors.
The grace of God calls us to transcend our human limitations, to love our neighbours as ourselves. To see the image of God both in those like us and in those unlike us.
It is difficult to see how someone seeing the image of God in someone else could cause them to parade naked through the streets of a city, or give them reason to hide in their house for fear of arrest.
I also have limitations. And I am also called to see in ordinary Ugandans and Nigerians, who fear and hate homosexuals, my brothers and sisters. To see also in them the image of God in a different time and place. To see in the Presidents of Nigeria and Uganda, human beings within particular contexts, operating with frames of reference other than my own.
It is very difficult to be loving to those who are other.
In Uganda and Nigeria the situation is dire for LGBT people and it seems likely that a number of other African countries will follow suit. It is a ‘day of […] disaster’ for LGBT people and there doesn’t seem to be much that we as people of God can do.
I am afraid that just continuing to fight will cause a hardening of attitudes. I am afraid that just denouncing homophobia and transphobia as un-Biblical and un-Christian will do nothing but cause us to turn away from each other in frustration, misunderstanding, despair, hatred.
It would be better if we could all come to the table, bringing our vulnerability, our human limitations and allow the grace of God to work. I know that that is exactly what LGBT actvists throughout Africa are trying to do, in one way or another. I also know that it takes more courage to come and say to someone ‘you scare me’, ‘you make me sad’ than to say to someone ‘I hate you, you are wrong and evil.’
As always, it is most probably the oppressed who will have to set the oppressors free.
I trust in the grace of God. And it seems to me that it is only through the grace of God that we will be able to find our way through. It is only through the grace of God that the required miracles of loving transcendence will happen. I believe firmly that the grace of God operates for all of us, whether we are religious or not, because it is a grace which pursues fullness of life for all of us. God’s Spirit is in itself a life-giving Spirit.
It is only through the grace of God that we will be able to see the image of God in the others on the opposite side of the table. By doing so we may be able to transcend the barriers that keep them on the opposite side of the table, even when we are reaching out to them. Bring your fear and your pain and your anger to the table and let us allow the Spirit of God to work amongst us.
It would be very easy to say that those who have pushed these bills through their parliaments, on the basis of Christian morality, are against us. And it is certainly true in very many ways, but I think that we must either decide that they are not Christians, not moving in the Spirit of God, or we must decide that we will continue to see in them the image of God and trust that God will help us to move them to a different place.
Even if they do not know that they are not against us, let us hold on to that certainty that they too are children of God, and that in the end the Spirit of God will be life-giving for all of us.