Building bridges at the intersections of faith and sexual diversity

By Reverend Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth

(Guyana Presbyterian aChurch, Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association)

Almost every society faces issues of discrimination to varying degrees, where people reject others because of differences and where various forms of domination and control affect relationships – whether it is men over women, leaders over followers, large nations over small ones or in different forms of gender/sexual orientation, age/race/tribe/caste/class supremacy. The Caribbean is not an exception, influenced by our history of oppressive relationships where the convergence of economic control and violence, and a legacy of colonialism and imperialism created powerful forces for purposes of exploitation and conquests.

Patriarchal ideology was instrumental in maintaining an ordered social system for entrenched hierarchies, gender constructs and control.  The structure of “father ruled society” based on Victorian principles and religious teaching ordered norms for gender relations and patriarchal rights of males as heads of households, Christian heterosexual marriage and nuclear families as widely accepted and God-given. As such, Christians struggle with issues of sexual diversity, especially since it probes into the area of sexuality, which is difficult for the church to speak about. The influence of Victorian norms has led to an unhealthy approach in understanding family dynamics, human sexuality, and the “othering” of persons who do not conform.

According to the World Council of Churches: “Traditional sexual ethics are inadequate because a) they themselves are flawed, and b) they are inadequate to deal with the new world that the people of God find themselves in. A new practice and theology of sexuality need to be forged. This theology needs to reclaim the theology of the body and to practice pastoral care and approaches that are more appropriate for the varied human sexual experiences.” (Churches’ Response To Human Sexuality, https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/2006-porto-alegre/3-preparatory-and-background-documents/churches-response-to-human-sexuality)

On June 2, 2018 Guyana held its first Pride Parade, organised by a coalition of LGBT organisations. The organisers must be congratulated for a beautiful, peaceful, courageous and historic event which will be long and widely remembered as a significant forward step in the struggle of LGBT persons who are claiming their equal rights as Guyanese citizens, free from discrimination, threats and violence. The event drew attention from many persons, among them Christian leaders, some of whom decried the call for sexual rights and flexed their fundamentalist religious muscles to shore up their negative power and influence in the society. 

To portray sexual oppression as virtuous and morally defensible is to alienate oneself from society and the cries of persons who are pushed to the margins and sometimes disposed of.  This includes LGBT youth who suffer detrimental effects to their mental health, resulting in depression, guilt, anxiety, suicidal ideation and alienation. Silence, misinformation, and condemnation of differing sexual and gender identities have resulted in despair and depression, destroyed relationships, and led to violence, suicide, and also murder.  The Christian community has been largely complicit in the injustices, perpetration of intolerance and other death dealing ways of those who harden their hearts and refuse to hear the cries of brothers and sisters who are downtrodden, cast out and disposed of by our institutions.

Following the Pride Parade, on June 6, at around 18:30, a colleague of mine left the office and was walking toward his car, which was parked alongside Demico Qik Serv Restaurant on Quamina Street.  As he was approaching his car, he was verbally and physically assaulted by the security guard outside the Restaurant, who aggressively accosted him with homophobic rantings of disdain and abhorrence.  As my colleague proceeded into the restaurant to make a complaint, the guard followed him in continuous aggression, which drew the attention of the customers, who responded with firm objection to the guard’s behaviour. They stood in defence of my colleague, forming a human barrier of protection. I was very heartened to hear about the response of the customers and also the staff at Demico who recognized and called out a wrongdoing and took action to protect my colleague.

Where do we as people of faith locate ourselves in this scenario?  We need to prayerfully examine our complicity in such acts of hate and violence. Are we still locked down in colonial mindsets, quoting Bible verses to justify homophobia, condemning and excluding non heterosexual persons who do not seem to fit into the norms that were set for the Victorian age?  Are we co-opted into an oppressive religion which was appropriated and used to enslave and denigrate persons based on differences?

Texts such as “Israel’s Holiness Code” in the Book of Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 are often used without a critical understanding about the text and context.  The Leviticus texts speak about laws which were written to provide instructions for the ancient Israelites to resist the influences of their neighbours (Babylonians, Assyrians and the Canaanites), who practised cultic sexual rituals of all kinds of sexual acts imaginable, including incest. Let us also note that Leviticus also has a word for slavery: “You may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you.” (Lev 25:44). In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul told slaves to obey their masters, and he told masters how to manage slaves (Eph. 6:5–11; Col. 3:22–4:1). Yet in Galatians Paul had a shift in his thinking on divisions/barriers/segregation and wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Discerning how God is speaking to us in the 21st century necessitates a critical reading of the context and the writer, an open mind and a shift from our colonial mentality. To be true to our faith, we must dare to let our life experiences affect our biblical interpretation, grounding ourselves in a critical reading of the signs of our times, our history as a people, and be open to the witness of biblical narratives to challenge our societies and our thinking.

The church in Guyana lives and witnesses in a context where LGBT persons are castigated and forced to deny who they are, if they are to be welcomed in the church. This cannot be God’s intention for the community of believers. The church cannot continue to judge persons or to remain silent when a part of its body is cast-away because of their sexual identities. Many churches have made courageous and significant steps, finding their way to a greater connection with vulnerable persons and communities, many of whom live in death dealing situations. In Guyana, LGBT persons are denied their fundamental human rights, and are left unprotected.  Surely, this cannot be the world that God intends.

We are called to take a stance for justice and righteousness, like the Qik Serv customers, who stood firmly in condemnation of the aggressor and in defence of the violated. Looking to the Bible for a word on being human in God’s world, recognising that we are all made in God’s image, we can join with all who struggled for freedom and dignity that we celebrate.

At the core of Christian faith is a God who became a human being, who came into the world as a vulnerable baby into the arms of a young woman, who was displaced, excluded and vulnerable. The reality of the incarnation calls us to participate in ending discrimination, pain and marginalisation. The Pride Parade was an occasion which is much needed as a positive space for disclosure of sexual orientation and pride in one’s sense of self, bringing about positive affectivity that embraces peace, joy and fulfilment. This is necessary for a healthy and productive nation. Peace.

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