I had just started reading Ekow Duker’s latest offering “The God Who Made Mistakes,” when I woke up to the news of Noluvo Swelindawo’s death. Here I was, reading a book that starts with Sipho Sibanda’s death; he had been murdered, mutilated and dumped by the banks of a river in the Alexandra township. It was as if the universe was making some kind of sick twisted joke. Both Noluvo and Sipho were black, poor and gay, and in sum, their lives were inconsequential and dispensable.
Here I was, reading a work of fiction that so accurately represented the experiences of actual people. Noluvo had been kidnapped overnight, beaten, raped, murdered and then dumped on the side of the highway. All of this done by a group of 10 men from the township of Khayelitsha where she lived. Her sin? Being an openly lesbian activist who dared to live her truth. Reports of her death sent SA Twitter into a frenzy; “stop the homophobia,” “criminalise hate crimes,” “love the sinner; hate the sin,” their voices echoed.
It is common cause that the church occupies a prominent position in our society. It is also no surprise because South Africa is a deeply religious society. Churches are often found issuing statements condemning government (in)action(s), high ranking politicians are usually seen in churches addressing congregations, and sometimes the divine is invoked to explain and justify the abuse of political power. Heck, even the leader of the liberal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is a pastor himself. The church therefore forms part of our social DNA, for better or for worse.
This has the result that church doctrine and attitudes have a lasting impact on public policy. The prohibition of abortion, the resistance to euthanasia, the SANBS ban on gay men donating blood, and for the longest time, corporal punishment, were (and still are) all justified on religious grounds. The church then, is the vanguard of the Moral Majority. The church’s response to the growing acceptance of homosexuality then becomes important for how communities treat homosexuals.
The church’s opposition to homosexuality has always been strident, it was an abomination and that was that. The church rejected any notion that non-heterosexual orientations could ever be natural or acceptable and instead encouraged Christians to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” In the days following Noluvo’s murder, religious organisations released statements stating that while they “condemned” Noluvo’s killers, they did not “condone” her lifestyle.
It is a strange thing to love the sinner but hate the sin when the sinner is the sin. Sexual orientation is a matter of identity, a core aspect of one’s being. Sure, it is not all that a person is, but it is a very huge part of their existence. The (literal) demonization of homosexuals as ‘perverse,’ ‘deviant,’ ‘abnormal,’ has the effect of making them ‘lesser beings’ in the eyes of the church and effectively makes the very human need for companionship, love and affection, the preserve of heterosexuals, – and not for those engaged in the wicked “practice” of homosexuality.
This antiquated response flies in the face of scientific research that shows that homosexuality may be genetic or at the very least, epigenetic. While this approach may seem like a principled approach to the issue, remaining steadfast in the face of a changing world, the church inadvertently fosters an environment that nurtures homophobia. A homophobe feels most comfortable in church and nowhere else. The logic of loving homosexuals whilst disapproving of their ‘lifestyle’ (which by the way, is the only way they know how to love, how to be), is a flawed one.
What would the best explanation of the motives of the men who murdered Noluvo? Did they hate her or her sin? If they only hated her sin, why is she not alive? Where is the Noluvo whose sin has been cast out, a Noluvo free of her homosexuality? This is not to say that these men were necessarily Christian, but that their attitudes to homosexuality were shaped by the church’s own attitudes.
And therein lies the conundrum of regulating hate crimes. How do you determine that a perpetrator of a so-called “hate crime” was indeed motivated by hate? At what point does religious speech become hate speech when the verse that succeeds the oft-quoted one in Leviticus states that they must be killed?
Quite frankly, to assert one’s homophobia as Biblical truth is not out of step with the Bible itself. Unlike science, whose hypotheses we can question and test to ascertain their veracity, the Bible is above reproach. To question it is to question God himself. But question we must. What then becomes of this 6000 year old historical text? What is the Bible’s response to artificial intelligence, climate change, in vitro fertilisation, transgender identity, etc.? The question often becomes “what the Bible would say” on the issue and not what it does say, pointing to the pitfalls of it (as a historical text) being the infallible authority on everything.
But there is another problem. In the aftermath of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting (where a gunman shot and killed 49 people in a gay club in Florida), the Centre for Inquiry published an article titled “The Problem of Hell”. In it, the writer argues that preaching that some people are destined for brimstone and sulphur is dehumanizing, and makes the lives of gays and lesbian so inconsequential that it becomes easier to visit violence and oppression upon them. Surely, if gays are destined for hell anyway, it would not be wrong to kill them? If they are perverted, abnormal and immoral, and already in hell anyway, why would it be wrong to send them to meet their fate earlier? How useless and valueless are the lives of gays and lesbians that they, while still on earth, are destined for hell? This thinking does not only manifest itself in violent ways. It also legitimises the denial of rights for gays and lesbians because they are simply not as worthy as their heterosexual counterparts are; or the verbal, psychological and emotional abuse that come with being gay.
It is perhaps surprising that with a constitution as progressive as ours, we remain a deeply conservative society. So conservative that even the emerging radical black politics of the youth still cling on to Victorian ideals of sexual morality, the strangest of bedfellows. Homosexuality is unAfrican, they say. But if black people are human, and homosexuality is a human condition, then gay black people are as human as they are black and as gay as they are human.
In “The God Who Made Mistakes” the protagonist Themba Khuzwayo approaches his pastor, Ps. Michael and tells him that he thinks he’s gay and asks him why God made him that way. In response, the pastor tells him that he should never say it was God who made him that way because God does not make mistakes. What is the conclusion then? There is either an alternative Creator busy churning out an army of gays or a sole Creator who created everyone the way they are.