Christianity and new queer African imaginations

The leading African writers and creative artists who are reimagining Christian thought and the several Christian-inspired groups who are transforming religious practice.

Mercy Amba Oduyoye at the 10th Anniversary Phyllis Trible Lecture Series at Wake Forest University in March 2012 (Image via Wake Forest University on Flickr ©).

Ghana is currently causing global headlines for a new anti-gay bill that proposes “up to 10 years in jail for LGBTQ+ people as well as groups and individuals who advocate for their rights.” Dubbed “the worst anti-LGBTQ bill ever,” the bill has been claimed to potentially “destroy lives,” which may not be an exaggeration given the incidents that have occurred in other countries, such as Uganda and Nigeria, that have previously passed similar legislation. (In late May, a group of Ghanaian activists were arrested for attending an LGBTQ workshop. They were held for three weeks, then released. They may still be prosecuted.) Several commentators recognize the hand of the World Congress of Families, an organization with strong links to the American Christian right, in this latest push towards anti-LGBTQ legislation. At the same time, they point out that the bill receives strong local support from religious leaders, especially the influential fraternity of Pentecostal pastors.

The recent events in Ghana are one example of the politicization of homosexuality and LGBTQ rights on the African continent, and indeed worldwide, and of the role of religion, specifically popular Pentecostal Christian movements, in fueling anti-LGBTQ campaigns. However, this is not the only story that needs to be told. For instance, several countries in Africa, most recently Botswana and Angola, have decriminalized homosexuality. In relation to religion, too, the situation is more complex than often is suggested. As historian Marc Epprecht has pointed out in his book Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa with reference to Christianity, Islam, and indigenous religions: “All three groups of faith in Africa have historically been and remain more amenable to accepting sexual difference than is generally understood.”

The main objective of our recently published book Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa is to further explore this point specifically in relation to Christianity. Nuancing generalizing accounts of “African homophobia” and “religious homophobia”, it draws attention to discourses and social movements emerging in Africa itself that engage with Christian faith in progressive ways—in support of sexual diversity and the quest for justice for LGBTQ people.

The book opens with a chapter about the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who is globally known for his stance in support of the rights of sexual minorities. Immediately after the end of apartheid, in the mid-1990s, Tutu stated: “If the church, after the victory over apartheid, is looking for a worthy moral crusade, then this is it: the fight against homophobia and heterosexism.” This statement is significant, because it recognizes the role that churches and Christian leaders played in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the potential for religious organizations to continue contributing to progressive social change. Moreover, it puts the struggle for gay rights in a longer history of struggles for justice. Indeed, Tutu himself opposed racist apartheid ideology and homophobia in the strongest theological terms: declaring them both to be a heresy and blasphemy.

At first sight, it appears that the church has not followed up on Tutu’s prophetic call. In South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, Christianity has often been, and still is, invested in campaigns against homosexuality and LGBTQ rights. There are plenty of examples, such as from Ghana, of church leaders using their influence to make issues relating to sexual diversity a central public concern, and of biblical rhetoric and imagery shaping public debates. Illustrative is how the legendary Tutu was categorically dismissed by a fellow Anglican bishop from Nigeria, Emmanuel Chukwuma, as being “spiritually dead” because of his support of gay rights.

Yet our book presents nine further case studies of leading African writers who are reimagining Christian thought, of several Christian-inspired groups who are transforming religious practice, and of African artists who creatively appropriate Christian beliefs and symbols. In short, Christianity is a major resource for a liberating imagination and politics of sexuality and social justice in Africa today. Because as Achille Mbembe has pointed out, “Struggle as a praxis of liberation has always drawn part of its imaginary resources from Christianity.”

One chapter features the leading African feminist theologian Mercy Oduyoye, from Ghana, who also already in the 1990s firmly denounced religious homophobia and called for respect of sexual minorities in Africa. Then there is Cameroonian church leader Jean-Blaise Kenmogne, and the Botswanan biblical scholar Musa Dube, for whom sexuality is not a single-issue concern but is connected to other concerns, such as with race, gender, HIV and AIDS, human rights, and climate change, and is embedded in a progressive pan-African vision of what it means to be human.

In the category of organizations and movements, think of the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative and Advocacy, a program set up by the World Council of Churches with strong African ownership, which has mainstreamed issues of sexual diversity as part of its work on HIV and AIDS. There’s also  The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, an originally African-American Pentecostal organization that in recent years has become active in various African countries to promote a “radically inclusive” form of Christianity and to combat the influence of white conservative evangelicalism in Africa.

Finally, there are  several forms of queer African cultural production. Their critical and creative engagement with Christian language, symbols and imagery points to new queer African imaginations. The work of creative artists in Nigeria and Kenya among other countries, ranging from novels (e.g. Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees) and poetry (e.g. the anthology Walking the Tightrope) to storytelling (e.g. Unoma Azuah’s collection Blessed Body) and film (e.g. Rafiki), have been decisive in this regard. Importantly, Christianity exists not only in the form of institutionalized religion, but also as part of popular culture and the arts.

Our tone is a hopeful one, because the activists and organizations we discuss  represent a strong optimism that another world is possible and is already in the making. Of course, this does not deny the reality that Christianity is also deeply invested in the politicization of homosexuality and LGBT rights in Africa and elsewhere. However, we  foreground African agency and progressive religious thought, as a way to counterbalancing secular approaches to LGBT rights in Africa, and decolonizing queer theory, theology, and politics. We do so, in order to explore and capitalize on the “community-building, humanistic potential” that faith has, including its potential for stimulating new, queer African imaginations.

About the Author

Adriaan van Klinken is Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds and author of Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa.

Ezra Chitando is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Zimbabwe.

Further Reading