During a working visit to Zambia on June 29, the head of the Anglican Communion, Justin Welby, showed true global leadership when he reportedly told Zambian journalists and Christians what they may not have wanted to hear. “Homosexuality is a global issue,” the Archbishop said. “We need to treat others with respect and dignity. It is a human rights issue… there is need to treat everyone with respect and dignity.”
For those who don’t know Archbishop Welby, he belongs to an Evangelical Wing of the Anglican Church, and is a highly respected leader in the evangelical community. In American Culture Warriors in Africa, I explain that unlike his predecessor, Rowan William, Archbishop Welby met with African leaders of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON)—founded by American Conservatives opposed to LGBTQ advances in the Episcopal Church—on October 20, 2013,following the Westgate Mall bombing of September 2013, and again just before the official GAFCON (October 21-26) in Nairobi, Kenya. After leaving Kenya, he sent a video message to GAFCON participants explaining his absence at the conference. Part of his message addressed the issue of human sexuality. “We are dealing with very rapid changes of culture in the Global North and the issue of sexuality is a very important one,” he told the participants. “How we respond rightly to that, in a way that is holy, truthful and gracious, is absolutely critical to our proclamation of the gospel.” Anti-LGBTQ Archbishops of Uganda, Rwanda, and Nigeria and their counterparts in the United States—the very bishops U.S.-based pastor of Saddleback Church, Rick Warren, has long been working with in both African and here in the U.S. to promote and extend the culture wars—misinterpreted the Archbishop Welby’s words as endorsements of their anti-gay position.
This time, however, the Archbishop made it very clear—the issue of human sexuality is a human rights issue. His words attracted the attention of conservative pastors.
Addressing the local media, Rev. Pukuta Mwanza, Executive Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, rebutted the Archbishop’s message and instead of heeding the calls for love and tolerance, encouraged sexual minorities to “cure” their homosexuality through prayers and counseling.
The Archbishop’s courageous words came at the time when Zambians were awaiting the ruling on a same-sex couple James Mwape and Phillip Mubiana, who were pulled from their home and arrested on charges of being homosexual in May, 2013. After spending over a year in jail, subjected to dehumanizing “medical tests” such as forced anal examinations by the state, the court finally ruled on July 3, 2014, that the state did not prove beyond doubt that Mwape and Mubiana had engaged in same-sex sexual relations.
James and Phillip’s acquittal also brought to the foreground what many Africans believe, thanks to the propaganda spread by U.S. conservatives who travel to their countries, that LGBTQ people are foreign to Africa.
“We, the Youths of Zambia Say No to Gay Rights,” and “Abash Homosexuality, —Leave Zambia,” were some of signs seen outside the courtroom the day of the acquittal. At the same time, the presence of family members of the couple—particularly Phillip’s grandmother, who courageously stood by her grandson—proved the Archbishop’s point, that persecution of LGBTQ persons in Africa is not a political issue; it is a moral issue; it is a human rights issue. It is time to stop playing politics with human lives. We all have the moral responsibility to stand up and be counted—gay rights are human rights! The Archbishop’s example is commendable, for religious leaders to hide behind diplomacy when human lives are being destroyed is a betrayal of our sacred calling.
Moreover, the persecution of LGBTQ persons in Africa is defended by the myth that they can somehow be “cured.” Alan Chambers, the American Evangelical leader who made his career claiming he could “cure” homosexuality, was one of the Speakers at the Evangelical Lausanne Conference in Cape Town in 2010, and whose presentation was later deleted from the Lausanne website. Yet although he later retracted his claims, and apologized for ever claiming that sexual orientation could be altered, African politicians and pastors are busy repeating these made-in-the-USA lies.
Let the sacred truth be said, LGBTQ persons are human beings with fundamental human rights to be protected and defended. To deny these rights is to dehumanize and harm ourselves. As the Archbishop said, this is a global issue, and it deserves a global response. As Africa’s problems multiply, LGBTQ persons have become the easiest scapegoat at political gatherings for African politicians eager to turn public attention away from issues of corruption or economic inequality. And some local religious leaders, who receive funding from these American culture warriors, then celebrate such demonization as courageous leadership.
Global religious institution such as the Anglican Communion and the Vatican need to speak out against such atrocities—failure to do so is to sanction the persecution and discrimination our fellow human beings, and a sin.
The Archbishop refused to separate our common humanity into camps—“us” (heterosexuals) and “them” (homosexuals). He did not say one thing in Africa, only to turn around and deny it to a Western audience (as did Saddleback pastor Rick Warren); he did not condemn the decriminalization of African sexual minorities to a Western audience only to allow local African clergy to support anti-LGBTQ legislation in Uganda and Nigeria (as the Vatican has done). He defended our common humanity, calling on all people to respect the dignity of every individual regardless of the person’s sexual orientation.
The story of the Good Samaritan is critical here. The Archbishop of Canterbury has done his part. Will Pope Francis, Bill Graham, and Rick Warren follow suit? I hope so!