Sexuality & Scripture

The complexities and opportunities of using the Bible in discussions of sexuality: An African perspective

October 2011:  by Dr. Masiiwa Ragies Gunda |

A paper given at the 2011 Chicago Consultation/Ujamaa Centre Consultation on Sexuality in Durban, South Africa

Today, (Wednesday 12/10/2011) our third day since we congregated here, we have spoken about the Church ad infinitum, in doing this we have all assumed we have also been speaking about the Bible. Our assumption as Christians coming from Africa, America, Europe, India and New Zealand, is that when we talk about the Church, we have spoken about the Bible. However, as fellow African Christians here would possibly concur with me, talking about the Church in Africa is not necessary the same as talking about the Bible (West 1991:81). The assumption that Church entails Bible has already been challenged by some African scholars, among them Gerald West in his book, The Academy of the Poor, primarily because the Bible sometimes has a life of its own, a life independent of the Church. In fact, one could speak of the Bible “outgrowing the Church”, especially because “Africans feel that their own lives are described in the Bible, they as human beings are affirmed in it and that they belong to the world of the Bible” (Mbiti 1986:26). These observations have to be understood in the context of western Christianity which had disenfranchised the African converts by insisting on the non-existence of any elements in the history of black Africa that could be in continuity with Christianity. In our speaking of the Church, even though we would all agree that Church signifies something more than the buildings, there is no doubt in my mind that when you ask African Christians where their Church is, they would direct you to their Church building.

The Bible among African Readers

Since we have spoken so much about the Church, let me therefore try to draw our attention to the Bible. While churches are sometimes 10 kilometers or more away from Christian homes, the Bible is in most cases within Christian homes. The most readily available “literary resource” for Christians in Africa remains largely the Bible. “It is the book. It is read in times of joy and in times of sorrow. It is read to instruct children in moral issues” (Togarasei 2008:73). This is the book that most people come into contact with after birth and possibly the last book that most people see before they die (Gunda 2010:71). This availability and accessibility of the Bible is the major reason why the Bible sometimes outgrows the Church in Africa. The Bible has over the century evolved from being the white man’s book to being “our book” as Africans, reading the text of the Bible for themselves have discovered themselves in the pages of this once “foreign book”.

The Bible has risen from being a “suspicious magical book that speaks to the white man” (Banana 1991) to being the sole Word of God that legitimizes everything that people did, are doing or want to do in the future. African Christians will not hesitate to throw the question: “Is it in the Bible?” to anyone who speaks about things they do not approve but which things they also believe the Bible does not approve. There is a supposed oneness between the African worldview and values and those of the Bible, allowing African Christians to selectively and literally appropriate some texts of the Bible. Their “prejudices” in that regard are therefore not necessarily understood as prejudices by them, especially when they can invoke the Bible to legitimize their positions. To this extend, let me clearly reiterate the point that Christians of all ages have not read Scripture to frustrate their aspirations but to sustain and entrench their aspirations and desires. This is not to say, their “aspirations and desires” are not prejudices, it is just that they do not see them as prejudices until such time as they are convinced that they are indeed prejudices.

Our Inheritance: Reading the Bible to confirm our positions

This particular use of the Bible to sustain and never to frustrate their aspirations is not something African Christians can claim to be of their own making. African Christians, I argue, were not pioneers of this skewed use of the Bible. This is an inheritance! The use of the Bible by some western missionaries, Christian colonial agents and fortune hunters provided the foundation for contemporary uses of the Bible in Africa. As I have a few minutes to do this presentation, I will briefly highlight some of readings of the colonial era, which clearly help in making my point clear.

The Bible, as I noted above, the magical book which spoke to the white man, was used to legitimize the plunder of African resources by colonial regimes. We are meeting here in South Africa, the land that was identified by some Dutch Christians as their promised land and themselves as the Chosen people. Plundering the land was therefore not a problem since they had divine title to the land. The same Bible was used in the era of slavery, when it became clear to slave traders that slave trade was indeed “in the Bible”, especially, trading in black slaves, the descendants of Ham, the cursed one. Oppressive and inhumane treatment of blacks was therefore seen as legitimate business and God had indeed ordained that business. Was this not one of the reasons why America had to go to a civil war? The “hamitic myth” born out of a reading of Genesis 9 was the legitimizing text for such callous business. Clearly, the question of monogamy and polygamy/polygyny is a question that is not as clear and straightforward as we all here may want to suggest. In Europe, monogamy became the way of life many centuries after Europe had become Christian, it would appear that what made monogamy appealing was not the Bible but capitalism, if my reading of Michel Faucault (1990 in: Gunda 2010) is correct. But this European cultural practice was transposed by a reading of the Bible that would not frustrate the European desire for monogamy, into a Christian practice. This was the gospel preached by western missionaries; God desired monogamy, even though this God had no wife! The idea of sex as an act performed by one on another was also clearly articulated by western missionaries to the extent that only one sexual position was taken as “godly” and in that position both partners had their fixed position, in tandem with their God ordained social position. Man on top, woman below! This position was christened “the missionary position!”

African uses of the Bible with a bearing on Sexuality

Contemporary African Christians have adopted and adapted the framework of reading the Bible bequeathed to them by the colonial legacy of seeing “the Bible” as the legitimating force; hence there is little or no resort to “systematic theology” in the everyday life of the Christians. Our faith is not based on some systematic understanding but rather it is based on a very deliberate selective literal, metaphorical, typological and allegorical reading of the Bible. The key to understanding the deliberateness and selectivity of this use of the Bible lies in what I said earlier, the idea is “not to frustrate one’s aspirations but to entrench and sustain those aspirations” whether such aspirations are valid or prejudice is another issue all together. In saying this, I am not at all suggesting that African Christians are monolithic in their deployment of the Bible; these agreements are at a broad and general level. When it comes to particularities there are as many disparate groups as there are in the United States of America, Europe, Asia or anywhere else where there are a sizeable number of Christians.

In Africa, the engagement with the Bible especially on the subject of sexuality or sexual minorities (LGBTI community) cannot be fully understood outside the major theological strands that define African engagement with Scripture. I must hasten to point out the idea of non-theological biblical scholarship is still not well established in African societies.  This non-theological engagement is mainly practiced in State Universities (I am here making a distinction that is in Zimbabwe between State run Universities and privately owned Church run Universities), the output in terms of books and articles remains highly negligible. This is possibly the reason why the prominent African scholars that are cited as authorities in biblical studies are the same scholars who have also been the dominant voices in African theology. The key voices on the use of the Bible are therefore those of “African theologians” such as John Mbiti, Laurent Magesa, Jesse Mugambi and others.

While there are various ways in which Africans have engaged with the Bible, depending on the theological agenda, African theology has often been categorized in a twofold scheme of inculturation and liberation theology (Martey, 1993). This two-fold categorization is not without its own merits and even though I will here identify other theological approaches to the Bible, to a certain extent, one could argue that the other approaches are essentially an extension of one of these categories or even a combination of both categories. Of these two categories, it would appear to me that African liberation theology, and its South African counterpart black theology, forms a major strand in African theology. Liberation and black theology are mainly concerned with social-political categories, and their involvement in the fight against colonialism, racism and oppression gave them the upper pedestal when compared to its counterpart, Inculturation theology. The primary concern of African liberation theology has been white and Western socio-economic and political oppression of Africa. However, as Emmanuel Martey (2000:127) indicates, liberation theology also is ‘a response to oppressions of Africans by Africans’. He concretely refers to the oppression of women, but in this time and age the question arises whether it may also include the oppression of homosexuals in Africa. However, as liberation theology has identified oppression and marginalization as its  enemies, it is not surprising therefore that some voices, sympathetic and supportive of sexual minorities have been heard from among African liberation or black theologians, chief among them, the retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1997). He has made as many friends as he has made enemies owing to his unwavering support for the LGBTI community across the world. The hermeneutics that made it possible to challenge racism, apartheid, colonialism etc, have been taken by Tutu as relevant and valid in addressing the subject of sexual minorities in Africa and throughout the world. In doing liberation theology a largely historical approach to the Bible has been used coupled with the preferential option for the poor as a hermeneutical principle. Lately, postcolonial readings have also begun to hold sway among liberation theologians and through them, opportunities and possibilities abound that issues of sexuality will continue to find their space in mainstream discussions.

Inculturation theology is a very prominent strand of African theology, dominated in Africa by Catholic theologians but equally recruiting from among Anglicans as well. It seeks to develop a Christianity with an “African face”, that is a type of Christianity that (re)values African cultural and religious traditions positively (though critically) and seeks to incorporate them in an expression of the Christian faith that is authentically African (cf. Magesa, 2004). As a response to the colonial denigration of African traditions, inculturation theology can be considered a theological expression of the post-colonial quest for African identity and African Christian self-understanding (Antonio, 2006). The emphasis of inculturation theology has been on the dichotomy of “Western values” as opposed to “African values”, “Western culture” as opposed to “African culture” and in this dualism homosexuality has been opposed because it is allegedly not part of “African culture and values”. To this extend calls for ‘authentic inculturation’ have been heard, meaning that “the Church” is to appreciate and promote the ‘African values of human sexuality and family life’ (Nwaigbo 2004:336). These “African cultural values”, argue inculturation theologians, correspond with the biblical and age old Christian values that the theologians derive from the Bible and the Christian tradition. For scholars operating under the inculturation paradigm, the historical approach has been used as well but this time coupled with the hermeneutic of cultural particularism. Similarly, postcolonial readings feature in such works but mainly under the influence of cultural particularism which means there are fewer possibilities for inculturation to accept the destabilization of “culture” in my thinking.

As I indicated above, while the major categories of inculturation and liberation may go a long way in understanding the major strands of African theology, some variants refuse to be subsumed into these major categories and they have very good reason to refuse! While liberation theology was instrumental in galvanizing Africans to fight the common enemy in the colonial era, at independence not everyone was independent! African women, for example, woke up on Independence Day, to realize they had collaborated to free their fathers, brothers and husbands but they had not attained independence. African women theologians are largely engaged in the paradigm of liberation theology as they seek to achieve what their fathers, brothers and husbands achieved on Independence Day! African women’s theology has become a third and influential strand in African theology, characterized by a focus on the category of gender. African women theologians critically address women’s issues in African societies, cultures and religions, and they persistently call for the liberation of women and for gender equality (cf. Oduyoye, 2001). In the last decade, African women theologians have been in the forefront of discussing issues of gender and sexuality in relation to the HIV epidemic, and they have developed progressive theologies of gender justice (Phiri et al 2003; Dube and Kanyoro, 2004). It is also through the work of African women theologians that again voices are being heard that are sympathetic and supportive to sexual minorities in Africa. But even among women theologians, these voices are still largely “murmurs”, still in the minority or strategically silenced, as they navigate the dangerous and gendered wilderness of human sexuality. Among women theologians, the historical approach coupled with the hermeneutic of suspicion was the dominant approach to the Bible but as in mainstream liberation theology or maybe even more so in African women theology, postcolonial readings of the Bible have opened up new opportunities and possibilities that are challenging patriarchal prejudices and biases in new ways. These approaches may also open new possibilities for sexual minorities in Africa.

In my presentation so far, I have done what a mere scholar like me would naturally do, look at what scholars are doing. This however is not the complete story on the use of the Bible in Africa. All these approaches do not really explain how the majority of African Christians, the ones I said have one piece of literature in their homes, engage with the Bible. The millions of African Christians who are not trained in any Bible college, those who sometimes do not even know that they are theologians, read the Bible for confessional reasons. They read the Bible in a confessional approach, to aid, augment, entrench and sustain their faith! A confessional reading is especially sensitive to self-frustration. Among these Christians, the Bible (meaning particular texts) is read to address the question at hand, and the Bible’s (again, those particular texts) position is always final, for as long as it does not challenge our comfort zones. On the issue of sexual minorities (in Africa, homosexuality suffices, and even so, homosexuality applies mainly to men and not women), the biblical texts considered explicit in their reference to homosexuality are taken as “good news, the gospel” on the subject. It is particularly among these readers that the challenge of Christian sexual minorities becomes a huge problem in Africa. Attempts at critically interpreting texts of the Bible are treated with suspicion and where evident power dynamics are against them, they silently resist any attempts to whip them into line.


With this final observation, let me dare say that there is a gulf among academic approaches but an even bigger gulf exists between academic approaches and the confessional “pragmatic” approach to the Bible, practiced by most African Christians. The questions that this observation poses to us here as we continue to discuss issues arising out of this presentation include but are not limited to: How can we bridge the gap between academic and pragmatic readings of the Bible? How do we reconcile the Universalist and relativist uses of the Bible? How can we make the Bible a resource for addressing cultural, religious, political and economic prejudices against sexual minorities without alienating the masses of African Christians? (Clearly, while we agree here that these are prejudices, they do not see them in the same way, they see them as values.) Finally, how can we make the Bible the place of refuge for victims of homophobia and homomisia? (Gunda 64). While these questions are important, what is critical is for us to note the importance that is attached to the “text of the Bible” by African Christians. It is what the text says that has carried the day so far on homosexuality, not as ordinary Christians would put it, “your interpretations!” This accusation assumes that ordinary readers “read” while scholars “interpret.”



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