Faith communities must engage with issues of sexual diversity in a life affirming way.

This emerged at a panel discussion co-organised by SMMS in partnership with Ujamaa Centre and the Old Testament Society of Southern Africa (OTSSA), at UKZN, on 18 September.

Giving her input, Prof Charlene van der Walt of UKZN said the jury is still very much out when it comes to faith communities and their engagement with issues of sexual diversity.

“There is still a landscape of African communities that do not consider people representing sexual diversity as human beings. Faith communities are still asking: ‘Are they human beings? Do they deserve God’s love? Are they worth inclusion into faith communities?’ It is important that we encourage the church to take up a position of justice, inclusion, and care,” Prof van der Walt said.

She spoke of what Sarojini Nadar and Tinyiko Maluleke call the “unholy trinity” of gender, religion and culture, adding that a lot of life-denying reality happens somewhere where the three meet each other.

She said, “We see the sparks of these realities in homophobia, the pandemic of gender-based violence and hate crimes, among others. We have not asked the question: what is religion’s role in the construction of gender and sexuality in the African faith communities? We ought to interrogate toxic theologies that inform these realities. We ought to acknowledge that the bible has often been used as a tool to oppress, exclude and silence. It is also probably the most profound tool in the African context to liberate people.”

Speaking about the work of Ujamaa Centre around issues of sexual diversity, her colleague and Ujamaa Centre Director, Prof Gerald West concurred, adding that their pedagogy is aimed at enabling students to build a sense of “critical distance”, that is, engaging the bible in its own terms rather than in the theologically over-determined way.  That way, he said, the bible can be a tool of liberation.

He cited Genesis 2 and 18-19 as examples of biblical texts that have been erroneously used to condemn sexual diversity when they are in actual fact not about homosexuality.

Prof West said, “What is fascinating about the narrative shape of Genesis 2 is that it validates human choice about who one recognises as their sexual partner. God makes animals out of the ground and brings them to Adam, but Adam does not see any that is fit to be his partner. God tries again, this time making Eve out of Adam’s side. It is true that the text ends up with a man and a woman but who then decides that the woman is now Adam’s partner? It is Adam, not God.”

He also argued that Genesis 18 and 19 are not about homosexuality but about hospitality.

“When read together, it is clear that Genesis 18 and 19 are not about homosexuality, but about hospitality, rural hospitality from Abraham and urban hospitality from Lot. Rural hospitality shown by Abraham is lavish and as the two beings make their way into the Sodom, they are received by lot. But the men of Sodom are not impressed that these strangers have come without greeting them and so they rape them or they try to rape them because that is what men do in order to dominate people they consider to be subordinate to them. When one reads Genesis 18 and 19 together, it is obvious that the story is not about homosexuality,” Prof West said.

Contributing to the discussion, Ujamaa Centre Deputy Director, Rev Sithembiso Zwane urged faith communities to interrogate dominant religio-cultural narratives that are life-denying.

“Religion and culture are fundamentally flawed in dealing with issues of sexuality. We have to challenge the thinking around sexuality even though it is not easy,” Rev Zwane said.