As news of Ebola, Boko Haram, and the overturning of Uganda’s anti-gay law have filled my Facebook newsfeed over many days and weeks, I am reminded of my deeply-rooted love for the people and continent of Africa.

My newsfeed has also been full of articles and blogs about the war waging within The United Methodist Church around homosexuality. Talk of schism is rampant as all sides grow weary of the struggle, and feel increasingly convicted in their beliefs about what is holy, just, and best for our global Church.

I am reminded of my deeply-rooted love for this denomination.

As a progressive in The UMC, I frequently hear it said that Africa is the reason that The UMC continues to uphold language in the Discipline that oppresses LGBTQ persons. As the Church grows rapidly in Africa, the African delegation at General Conference is also increasing exponentially, giving them more votes and power in determining the future of the LGBTQ community and the entire Church. Since these African delegates have tended to vote against changes to the Discipline that would promote inclusion, many have blamed the African Church for the oppression of LGBTQ persons within The United Methodist Church.

And just when we want to cut ties, Jesus says to us, “Why do you notice the speck in your neighbor’s eye?” Jesus calls us to go deeper, to seek an understanding of why things are the way they are, and to work for healing in the context of relationship. Before we can work toward healing, we need to acknowledge some truths about why things are the way they are.

 

1. Homophobia is a Western import.

Prior to colonialism, many African tribes accepted and embraced sexual and gender diversity, and there is even evidence of same-sex relationships in pre-colonial Africa. But as the West colonized Africa, traditional methods of conflict resolution were replaced with a European penal system that criminalized homosexuality. Colonizers demonized tribal beliefs while forcing Christian teachings, along with literalistic Biblical interpretations that subordinate women and LGBTQ people. This practice of Christian colonization continues to this day, as American Christian evangelical leaders travel across Africa spreading propaganda and lies to promote the fear of homosexuality.

And this barely even brushes the surface of the harm caused by colonization. Africans in huge numbers suffer daily because of the economic and political oppression continually imposed by the West.

 

2. Not all Africans are homophobic.

Africa is vast and diverse, and Africans come in all shapes and sizes. They are heterosexual and gay, rich and poor, transgender and cisgender, black and white, and everything in between. South Africa legalized same-sex marriage 8 years ago, and there are African-led LGBTQ groups working for equality across the continent. We really need to stop painting all Africans with the same brush.

 

3. Africans in favor of inclusion lack power.

Many of us remember the Congolese delegate who compared homosexuality to bestiality at the last General Conference… his image is still burnt in my memory. But in contrast to the loud voices, I’ve heard many stories of African delegates who support inclusion but are not able to vote or voice their support, under the threat of economic and even physical harm back home. Just as we (progressives) wouldn’t want to be labeled homophobic by those who associate all United Methodists with a homophobic Discipline, it is oppressive for us to assume that all African delegates are against inclusion, even when based on votes.

 

4. We have been ethnocentric.

I don’t claim to be an expert on African experiences, culture, and beliefs…after all, I am a white American from the United States. But based on my studies of readings by African sociologists, economists, and theologians, I’ve also learned that some African cultures view love and marriage quite differently than most do in the United States. In many places in Africa, the partnership between a man and woman and the bearing of children is now widely understood as essential for survival, making it difficult to accept the idea of same-gender couples starting families together.

In African contexts, polygamy is more often the present subject of debate, a subject that we rarely discuss at General Conference, which is conducted with a Western system based on Western values that focuses on “Western issues.” While polygamy and homosexuality are present everywhere, General Conference is largely biased towards issues that feel the biggest in North America or Europe, and we tend to ignore everything else.

Blaming Africa for anti-LGBTQ policies is oppressive to LGBTQ Africans and Allies who can’t speak out. It fails to acknowledge a complex history of colonialism and oppression by the West, vast cultural differences, and widespread diversity across Africa’s 47 countries and hundreds of ethnic groups. It’s time we acknowledge the log in our own eye and examine some of our prejudices; to stop scapegoating and start listening.

 

Moving forward, together:

Great things are happening. The United States and African leaders are joining to form mutually beneficial partnerships for the development of African business and infrastructure that will also benefit the U.S., a seemingly significant improvement over previous forms of aid disbursement that only increased poverty and suffering in Africa. LGBTQ people are working for change in countries across Africa. RMN just hired Dennis Akpona as African Central Conferences Coordinator, opening new possibilities for bridge-building in ways that honor the knowledge and experience of Africans and promote mutual growth, understanding, and progress. I am hopeful that as we build bridges, work “with” instead of for, and see the humanity in one another, we can find a way forward for The United Methodist Church…together.

Brittany Burrows

Brittany Burrows is a lifelong United Methodist, graduate of Perkins School of Theology, and serves as Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has traveled throughout Central and Southern Africa through her work as a project coordinator, trip leader, and schoolteacher through the General Board of Global Ministries, and has served as an organizer with RMN.

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