IN A century blighted by two catastrophic world wars, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands out as a great moral achievement. It affirms the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings and insists that those rights should be protected by the law. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, notes, it has established a global benchmark for identifying injustices to those who have never been able to make their voices heard.
Moreover, the Declaration has acted as an energising force in the witness of more than one community of faith in their struggle against arbitrary oppression and in securing protection for the vulnerable. Yet for all its achievements the language of human rights has not gone unchallenged. One of the most potent lines of criticism relates to cultural issues, which have been a particular concern of religious communities. Examining the validity of these concerns will be the focus of this article.
As the argument goes, there is an anxiety and fear about human rights being used to impose alien cultural standards particularly in relation to inherited views of marriage and family. The argument has, I believe, taken an even darker turn when one considers the panoply of harsh laws imposed on gay communities in some parts of Africa and in places such as Russia and many Islamic countries. What is more, these laws have the full support of many churches. In a press release issued 2012, the Council of the African Apostles (CAA) voiced opposition to statements made by the British and United States Governments exhorting African governments to observe the ‘rights’ of gays and lesbians in their constitutions.
Whilst acknowledging the universality of human rights, the CAA noted that these rights should be observed and enjoyed within the confines of what the Word of God clearly establishes. Their opposition to attempts to legislate for gay rights, the CAA believes, is informed by Holy Scripture and it is their considered view that homosexuality is not a natural condition and hence the opposition to any attempt to legislate it into African constitutions. The rest of this article will attempt to challenge the view held by the CAA and seek to show that this view may be misguided whether held by Christians or people of other faiths.
Whilst there are understandable concerns that Western governments, as some would say, have abused the language of human rights by tying aid to attempts to impose their moral agenda on African States, it is important not to lose sight of the essentiality and universality of human rights as the CAA, to its great credit, affirms. It is also important to acknowledge where the universality of human rights stems from. The language of human rights cannot be dissociated from a religious understanding of what it means to be human. A useful theological concept here is the concept of Imago Dei or the Image of Godwhich is not only limited to Christianity but to Judaism and Sufi Islam, which affirms that human beings are created in the image of God and thus have an inherent dignity and value independent of their utility or function.
In other words any human being whether saint or sinner has certain inalienable rights and deserve to have their rights respected. It is by no means an exaggeration to conclude that it was this insight which informed some of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who included prominent advocates of the Christian Democratic movement. Following the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany against minorities and Jews in particular, it was essential that the rights of individuals should be specified and given special protection. As a result, the United Nations charter on human rights was born.
It is hard not to be struck by the terrible warning which the history of Jews in Europe presents when considering the attitude of some Christians to the “problem” of gay people. In the same way that the medieval Church viewed the refusal of Jews to convert to Christianity as being a sin, indeed a criminal act of rebellion against God, so too is “giving in” to homosexual desire viewed as a sin and (now) a crime. From these circumstances harsh laws could be justified (from 1215 all Jews were required to wear distinguishing clothing) whose aim was to exclude such deviants from society, and degrade them in the eyes of normal people, so that knowledge based on actual contact, was replaced by credulity, hostility, ignorance and even paranoia.
In the same way that gay people are routinely blamed today with spreading disease (AIDS), or molesting children, Jews (“the murderers of Christ”) were blamed with causing the plague, or being responsible for the ritual murder of children (so called “blood libels”), as any reader of Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale would know. Such demonization inevitably led to Jews becoming the targets of communal hatred on a day-to-day basis and being subjected to insults, humiliation, and a sustained attack on their hated way of life, culminating in the appalling pogroms, and (arguably) in the Holocaust. It is chilling to witness so many modern “Christians” ready to embark on the same journey of hatred and spiritual barrenness as their medieval forefathers, whilst claiming at the same time the authority of a God of love and compassion.
Tragically however, and in a sadly recurring theme in the history of the Church in Europe; hostility against Jews emanated from a flawed interpretation of the first letter to the Corinthians 10:11. The Apostle Paul in that passage had described the sinful habits of Jews in the past and how God had punished them. Unfortunately for the Church, St Augustine amongst other divines, read the Greek word ‘typoi’ as archetypes instead of illustrative instances thereby condemning Jews on the basis of this phrase to a collective and eternal damnation. As a result of such beliefs, space and context for the persecution of a minority, the Jews, was created. Much in the same way, anti-gay laws are being used to persecute and discriminate against gay people. These laws are purportedly derived from cultural and religious understandings of what it means to be human.
In Zimbabwe, gays and lesbians live a double life trying to avoid stigmatisation, discrimination and arrest. Coming out as gay or lesbian is a risky if not deadly proposition. In South Africa for example, there has been an appalling rise in what is termed ‘corrective rape’ which ostensibly aims to convert lesbians to heterosexuality. This appalling crime and other instances of violence directed against gay people ought to make people who profess to be Christians and who believe in the fundamental dignity of human beings take stock and pause for thought.
No matter what one thinks of homosexuality, gays and lesbians are human beings and children of God whose inherent dignity entitles them to lead their lives free from fear, persecution and discrimination. As The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu so powerfully wrote to the presidents of Nigeria and Uganda, “The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us. We assure homosexual people that they are children of God, loved and valued by Him and deserving the best we can give - pastoral care and friendship.” To the Christian, what may first appear to be principled opposition to sin, may actually be enabling or at least creating the conditions for the perpetration of violence against innocents.
One of the things I find and still find compelling about Christianity is the premium placed on persuasion and not compulsion. To underline this point, there is a passage in the second epistle to the Corinthians wherein the Apostle Paul, speaking in the context of judgement says that “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” Christianity, to my mind, rests on that principle and when we deviate from that we run into all sorts of problems. Ours is the business of persuasion. Even if one is convinced that homosexuality is sinful (and, for full disclosure, this is not my view), it makes sense to support the enshrining of gay rights into our constitutions for this gives room for persuasion. It is quite difficult to evangelise or provide pastoral care to those who are ostracised and live in perpetual fear because of your beliefs.
The Apostle Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to pray for Kings and all in high positions so as to lead a peaceable and quiet life must therefore be seen in a new light and not as self preservation, as some may churlishly claim. A Christian desires peace in order to freely proclaim what she believes and by extension desires freedom for others so that they are first, free to live according to their beliefs and second, space is created for the Christian to share their beliefs with those who are either amenable or hostile to the Christian’s worldview. That is one of the reasons why, despite its manifold faults, the Church has been supportive of anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements. It would have been hypocritical, as indeed it was in many instances, for Christians to proclaim liberty whilst condoning or actively supporting its restriction to other groups.
To conclude, something else to consider for a Christian living in a pluralistic society where there are varied beliefs is the risk that minority rights are trampled upon by the majority. Christians will not always be the majority and we need to consider who will speak up for our rights and civil liberties when we become minorities when we failed to speak for others when we were the majority. It is quite difficult to envision that, in the light of appalling persecution at present, Christianity used to be the dominant belief in the Middle East. In Europe as well, even though Christians do not face the risk of persecution, Christianity is fast losing that position of being the regnant belief. All it takes is just a generation and we will come to feel what it means to be ostracised and to be on the fringes of society.
Or picture a scenario where through anti-discrimination laws, churches are compelled to issue marriage licenses to gays or employ gay pastors. Now I am personally in favour of full equality for gays, but I will defend to the hilt the right of religious organisations to set their own rules when it comes to these things, for I believe in religious freedom and the rights of minority groupings. I take this approach because I am convinced that this is the only reasonable way for people in a pluralistic and democratic society to live together in concord. In writing this, I follow the Christian, time-honoured, tradition of persuasion and I hope other Christians will re-examine and reconsider the way we look at our gay brothers and sisters.
When not pretending to study law in Edinburgh, Bernard Mukwaira is an otherwise committed follower of the life and teachings of a certain Nazarene Rabbi.