If we dragged a gay or transgender person to Jesus for judgement today, what would Jesus do?
The Impact of Cultural, Traditional and Religious ideas on Fundamental Rights of Sexual Minorities in Nigeria
Being a Keynote Address by Chude Jideonwo, chief executive officer of Joy, Inc. at the annual Human Rights, Sexuality and the Law Symposium by The Initiative for Equal Rights on 13 December 2017, in Lagos, Nigeria in commemoration of the International Day for Human Rights
One of the tragedies of human progress is this constant tug between two stubborn binaries: progressive and conservative. People often camp in front of their worldviews, either progressive or conservative and refuse to move from thence, ensconced comfortably in a space where they believe they are inexorably right and everyone else ignorantly wrong. The constant battle between these two perspectives is why much of modern human progress has been slow and bitter, rather than accelerated and joyful.
But because reality is not discontinuous. Reality is almost constantly found in a midpoint of a spectrum between conservative and progressive, where the best of binaries converge to create a space where humans can commune, advance and make progress.
“When we look at the history of life,” said the British essayist, Paul West. “We see two complementary forces at work that, together lead to healthy evolution. The first holds onto and preserves the learning and contributions of the past. This is the conservative impulse. The other explores new possibilities by pushing beyond the status quo to ever-wider circles of inclusion. This is the liberal impulse.”
To advance the human evolutionary epic, it is important to respect the past, to treasure its gems, and to preserve its essence, just as much as it is crucial to march boldly into the future, to embrace the uncertain, to find peace with the fact that humanity inexorably discovers and advances.
However, in maintaining the past – and its custodians are often tradition, culture, history and laws – we must ask ourselves: why? Why are we preserving the past, and to what purpose?
That it’s our past is not enough. In the march towards progress, the past must always justify why it must join the future.
There are parts of our past as Nigerians that have resonance today. For instance, the fact that our traditional religions were intrinsically open to a variety of experiences. I didn’t believe in your god, but I wouldn’t disrespect you, hate you, or fight you because I thought my god superior. As Ama Ata Aidoo reminded us at the Ake Festival this year, our past also had intrinsic respect or all humanity, many of our tongues having no binary gender pronouns, allowing us to respect people not for their penises or testicles but simply cause they are human.
This convergence of openness, would have been, some have argued, our most important contribution to global cosmology. Unfortunately, then came the British in their white robes, and their religion. These guys, who were still trying to figure out their own cultural insecurities, came into our space, interrupted our evolution, and then forced their binary views of the world on us, leaving us with what American-Nigerian anthropologist, John Uzo Ogbu has called ‘secondary differences’, a confused cultural milieu developed both in opposition to and assimilation of the cultural references of the dominant group; in this case are our colonial masters.
This ‘culture’ – or better put, traditions – that we have, forced upon us in the infancy of our consciousness by thoughtless trading Europeans is not ours any more than the iPhone is a Nigerian invention.
Unfortunately the network of our historical and contemporary realities as Nigerians – including religion, mores, norms, dominant attitudes, and of course our system of archaic laws – came out of this mishmash of confusion and oppression. We acquired a way of life that was not ours, inefficiently adopted it into a way of life we were still evolving, and have ended up with confusion as the grundnorm for our legal system.
It is the reason why Nigeria’s ‘culture’ has often been a cooking pot of inane debates, like the ones we used to have conscientiously in the 90s: should women be allowed to wear trousers? Neither first lady Aisha Buhari, nor First Bank chairman Ibukun Awosika would seriously entertain this debate today of course. But such is our culture that many women were actually called prostitutes in the 80s and the 90s because they wore what some religious leaders – ignorant of the non-binary, constantly evolving category-boundary history of male and female attire – called ‘men’s clothing’.
When you mix a confused culture, with an insecure and badly thought out system of laws, kept in place by clueless politicians and maintained in stone by religious leaders who have not read and understood enough of the world, what we have is the Nigeria of today: where minority rights are tramped upon, inane rules guide our conduct, and lawyers still wear ridiculous attire to represent clients in badly ventilated courtrooms.
It is from this same conundrum of ambiguity that we have that most oppressive of all Nigerian laws: that which stops two consenting adults from having a legitimate non-criminalised relationship, simply because they have the same reproductive organs. For us as a country, we insist that for people to love each other in a romantic, sexual, intimate way, they must find someone with a different sexual organ than they, someone with a different gender construct than they. We are a society very obsessed with penises and vaginas.
When you ask people why they insist on this restrictive legal and cultural regime even though the global body of research across the world pinpoints homosexuality as a legitimate stop in the evolutionary epic, they say either of three things a) it is not part of our culture b) it is not natural, and c) our religions forbid it by which mostly they mean the imported Christian and Muslim faiths, because there is nothing in the canon of Ifa, Ogun or any of the Igbo pantheon of gods that speaks against the freedom to love irrespective of gender and sexual organ.
I believe I have already addressed the question of culture, so let’s turn our minds to the question of nature.
Is it true that men having sex with men and women having sex with women is simply not natural? The preponderance of biological and anthropological evidence begs to disagree. And really it’s embarrassing that people are still making that argument in 2017.
“Sex-linked biology and gender relations, as well as the concepts of race and ethnicity, require conceptual clarity in order to determine the interactive influences of each in giving rise to health differentials. To narrowly focus on such concepts impedes an appreciation of the rich variety among humans.”
People of same gender have been having sex with each other for, as long as know, the five thousand years of recorded history, everyone from Alexandra the Great to Virginia Woolf. And, of course, everything from paintings of the San people of Zimbabwe to evidence from the Nzima people of Ghana shows proof of not just African homosexual sex, but also homosexual marriage. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing sensible about the accusation of unnatural as the Isreali historian, Yuval Noah Harari reminded the world in his spectacular book, Sapiens last year. Anything that can happen is by definition, natural. If two women can find a way to sexual pleasure, then by the obvious evidence nature already allows it, if a man can wear what we now call ‘female clothing’ and not fall down and die because of it, then it is by nature natural. Nature allows a massive spectrum of possibilities, he reminds us, it is us humans that limit the possibilities with our fears, taboos and phobias, not nature.
But let’s still investigate the word ‘natural’. Is there anything intrinsically positive about the Natural? In the first few centuries after Christ, it was very natural for a man to have 14 children and to lose more than a dozen of them to disease, and it was very natural for bacteria to wipe off millions of people because there was none of the medicines we have now. Those were very natural. And yet here we are now, as a race, having overcome those challenges, because we found ‘unnatural’ ways to fight nature through medicine. Indeed, humanity has spent the past two million years since man discovered fire-fighting and running away from ‘nature’. We build houses to escape the rain, we buy shaving powder to get rid of the natural hair that grows on our chins and armpits, and we have unnatural caesarian operations because sometimes nature is careless, thoughtless and pointless.
Nothing about how we live our lives today is ‘natural’. Indeed, if a man from ancient Greece woke up today and saw a world with stock exchanges, female presidents, iphones, and Twitter threads, he would scream and rave at the unnaturalness of it all. But that is how humanity advances. We move forward. We leave the past behind, not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with the past, but because the past is limited. We now know so much about our universe and ourselves than people of the past knew.
Indeed one of the most fascinating things about human nature is how many of us are here, free, today because of the ways that society has advanced beyond what was natural many decades and centuries ago including slavery, segregation and female circumcision, and yet we want the world to stop moving because we have now arrived.
To excuse this dissonance, point often to ‘nature’. We then purport to speak for God, by claiming that what we deem natural today – even though it wasn’t ‘natural’ for people just a century ago – is what God says is natural for all people as well. We take God as our all-purpose excuse to fight change, to fight difference, to insist on our own intrinsic superiority.
Ridiculous isn’t it?
And this is where religion has played a villain’s role. As Ali A. Rizvi author of The Atheist Muslim presciently points out: “culture is always evolving. But religion freezes culture in time. Religion dogmatizes culture and arrests its evolution.”
I am going to stick today with the Christian faith, not just because that is my tradition and the one I have studied extensively, but also because our criminology in Nigeria is founded on a basic, prudish, British protestant Christianity, the word ‘sodomy’ in fact having a biblical etymology.
Religion takes the innate human fear of change and a misappropriation of the word natural as it has calcified into culture and gives it the dubious stamp of divine approval. There lies the link between all the three elements in the theme of today’s event: we take culture, we freeze it through religion and we mummify it through the law.
Now of course, I say this as an active, excited, declaratory Christian. As I often remind people, I am but just a Christian but I am a tongue speaking, bible-toting, loud praise and worship singing Pentecostal.
And so how can I be a Christian, and yet be so clear eyed about the dangers that this religion has unveiled in being deployed to oppress, repress and suppress people who act differently from what our Holy Book say?
My answer is simple, really – when I decided to become a Christian, I received Jesus of Nazareth into my heart, not Paul of Tarsus, or the Prophet Moses. I am follower of Jesus Christ, and it is because I have carefully read and paid attention to everything that Jesus taught, over and over and over again, in the original King James version, that I am convinced that those who wield his teaching as a tool to oppress any minority have misunderstood the character of the Christian savior.
Of course first, I align with historians who find deeply suspicious the fact that Moses and Paul had very plenty to say about homosexual sex, which was obviously personally abhorrent to them, and yet Jesus who was God from the beginning of time according to John the Beloved writer of the fourth gospel, had absolutely to say about the matter.
Jesus met all the dregs of society so to speak – prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves, adulterers, you name it – but somehow he managed not to find or meet one homosexual person. In fact, not one fully-fledged gay human being has his story told by any of conservative, powerful men (and the traditions confirm that they were uniformly men) who reported both history of the bible.
This cancelling of the gay experience certainly proves that homophobia is a historic reality for the origins of the Christian faith. Just as Apostle Paul telling women to shut up in the church and the burning of witches at the stake by bible-toting Europeans (and many Nigerians) is also a historic reality.
My reading of Jesus is simple on this matter therefore, since the recorders of history have silenced his perspective. He covered all of these broadly in two crucial pillars of his theology a. Love and Acceptance b. Zero tolerance for judgment.
People often say, love doesn’t mean acceptance. But I fundamentally disagree. For Jesus, Love was acceptance. As Archbishop John Shelby Spong brilliantly noted in his remarkable book Jesus for the non-religious, Jesus’ idea of love was radical (which is perhaps why he probably went too far on homosexuality and the gospel writers couldn’t take it anymore). He accepted all kinds of unsavoury characters, who were hypocritically cast aside by the religious leaders of his time just as they are by the religious leaders of our time. And he not only accepted them, he went to their houses, he drank wine with them, he broke Sabbath rules with them, he had a blast embracing them without any record of condemning them.
Matthew 9: 10 – 13 brilliantly captures his radical (or what the author and pastor Brian Zahnd calls the scandalous) theology of acceptance. It reads: “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus (my guy!) said, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call (you) the righteous, but sinners.”
I like the Luke 19:27 version even better.
Jesus reached the spot where Zacchaeus was. He looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay at your house today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once and welcomed Him gladly.
All the people saw this. They began to whisper among themselves. They said, Just look at this: “Jesus has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ ”
People often say that Jesus promised hell for sinners. But it is perhaps important for them to go and read the bible again. Jesus promised hell for the wicked. He made a very clear distinction between the legally defined idea of sin, for which he had nothing but affection and acceptance for the likes of Mary Madgalene for whom he had nothing but affection and acceptance and the Jesus-defied idea of wickedness, as he saw in the lives of the Pharisees and scribes.
Indeed, in the Matthean parable of the sheep and goats he makes it clear those who he said “will go away to eternal punishment”. Go read it yourself in Matthew 25, in the oldest Revised Standard Version or in the original Koine Greek.
He directed his angst always not for personal weakness, not for the kinds of people religious people then and now tend to thumb their noses at, but to those who he called “wicked”, the selfish, the greedy; those who would not help those in need, but would rather judge harshly and pray loudly.
Of course, if this isn’t a theology many have been taught in their churches, it is because biblical exegesis is often coloured by the prejudice of the person who is preaching. As respected bible believing theologians from Marcus Borg to NT Wright remind us, there have always been and always will be multiple interpretations on fasting, on divorce, on women speaking in church, on tithes etc. Rapture theology in fact is one such controversy, being a theology that originated in America only in the past 100 years, made centuries after Jesus’ death.
I never knew the day would come that I would quote Apostle Suleiman, but just a month ago, in response to radio host Daddy Freeze, this mainstream Pentecostal preacher confirms in video that the Bible can be used to defend anything.
But no matter the contradictions between the original gospel of Mark and the later interpretations of John, the one thing we know is uncontroversial is that Jesus was radical in his love, boundary less in his acceptance and fervent in his warnings that no one should ever condemn anyone else for failing human standards of morality.
It wasn’t because Jesus was permissive. It was because he clearly saw that human morality is a cultural construct (“the Sabbath was made for man he said and not man for the Sabbath”) that is situational, evolving and contextual. These ever changing laws throughout Jewish history were simply not worth his time. He left that to Caesar, allowing the dead to bury the dead, and focused instead on teaching a transcendent message of love, service, and meekness.
We see this radical theology again in Matthew 19. When a rich young man comes up to him to ask about the law, both of them make it clear that some of the laws are not as important as others. “Which ones,” he asks Jesus are the ones that would give him eternal life. “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[c] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]” It is important to note that Jesus – who called himself the fulfillment of Mosaic law – deliberately avoids, in his answer, the moralism of Moses and focuses on actions that hurt other people –lying to your wife, hating your neighbor. When the Saducees came to him with small legalistic questions in Mark 12, he told them that they did not understand “the power of God”.
Indeed this is perhaps why Apostle Paul was slightly schizophrenic in the conflicting laws he gave the various churches, commanding women not to speak in one and giving free rein to Pricilla to speak in another. Scholars, including Edwin Freed in his book, The Morality of Paul’s Convrts, understand that Paul was giving administrative and not divine rules to different believers in different contexts.
More importantly, and this is what most concerns me here today, Paul directed his moral laws (even if you consider them, for some reason, divine) to his congregations alone, and not to the wider world, telling his self-righteous followers in Romans 14 in on3 instance to “Keep your belief between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.”
In short, if you think homosexuality is a sin against God, then YOU don’t be a homosexual.
He reminded them, using the Old Testament example of the redeemed prostitute Rehab, that God’s love is so radical that it can love, accept and embrace a person who has not even renounced what we call sin.
In so doing, he learn very well from the Master, Jesus who famously told his disciples the same thing about forcing others to believe what they believe or act how they act or treat as sin what they treat as sin.
Listen to Jesus’ very direct instruction in Luke 10:5-7: “And into whatsoever house you enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the laborer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house.”
This makes sense, since according to Jesus, it isn’t human preaching and moralizing that draws people to God, but in John 6:44, 65 he says “No man can come to Me [Christ], except the Father which has sent Me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day…And He [Christ] said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto him of My Father”
Instead, we are supposed to “let your light so shine before men” through our lives and work (Matt. 5:16). Light does not make noise.
But what do we find today? We find born again warriors of the faith, who insist instead on forcing others to live by their moral standards using the laws, the courts, the police, fear, oppression and intimidation to force others to adopt their own moral codes.
Whereas Paul says it is the Christian duty to live peaceably with all men including – especially – those who disagree with them, we have a modern day Christian mainstream that chooses the opposite, fighting culture wars, going to court to stop sexual minorities from living peaceful, honorable lives. It makes you wonder, as we say here in Nigeria where did they learn that one from?
Where did Christians learn to create and perpetuate a system of laws that are discriminatory, oppressive and distasteful against people of minority sexualities and genders, even when the convergence of scientific knowledge across biology, ethology, anthropology, history, evolutionary psychology and even expansive divinity shows that these laws are in fact unfair, unjust and the wicked.
Jeremy Bentham, whose philosophy is the ground of much of our legal regimes, already gave us a more sustainable foundation for making laws: “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” an elaboration of Jesus’s teaching that we should do unto others as we would have them do onto us. For Bentham, and for others whose jurisprudence rest on social justice, the laws of a nation (and Apostle Paul, as far as Romans 12:8 and Hebrews 12:14 tell us, would certainly agree) shouldn’t come from our personal distastes and discomforts whether legal or religious, but from the greatest happiness of the greatest many.
So, yes, two people having sex through the anus is weird, unusual, strange. By God, it may even make you puke because that’s not how your father and your mother did it. But seeing a person eat their egusi soup with lizard meat is also guaranteed to make me puke, but it will not inspire me to create a law against them living their lives in peace.
The test of how we make a law should not be disgust or distaste. It should be its verifiable negative impact on society, not whether or not we like lizard egusi soup.
The minute I discover evidence before prejudice that any kind of sexual orientation fundamentally harms humanity, then the conversation should change. But right now, all we have is our distaste. We cover our distaste in culture, and we wrap it up in religion.
Isn’t it fascinating for instance that most people who are conservative in their religion are also conservative in their politics? How is it so that their religion and their politics align so neatly? “People often persist in long held beliefs even in the face of evidence that invalidates them,” a Stanford Graduate School of Education research paper by Geoffrey Cohen synthesising multiple studies on the role of ideology in identity, belief and bias. “These beliefs and attitudes affect social policy, law and government decisions including whether to go to war or what economic policies will be implemented.”
This is why science as the overriding human technique of enquiry, and lawmaking based on the evidence from science rather than the bias-re-enforcing interpretation of religious traditions is the most effective way of creating laws. That is why the 14th and current Dalai Lama, in his book Ethics for a New Millennium, has thrown a challenge for us to create laws and moral ethics outside of a religious prism, while maintaining a timeless personal connection to God.