Gay Rights, the Devil and the End Times: A Post-Secular Perspective on Homosexuality-Debates in Africa, Part Two

Adriaan van Klinken
Adriaan van Klinken

In Part One of this post, Adriaan van Klinken described the Zambian case of how Ban Ki-moon’s recent call to recognise the human rights of homosexuals was interpreted according to a millennialist worldview, characteristic for Zambian Christianity. In this second post, he will analyse this discourse.

I interpret the millennialist rhetoric on homosexuality as a form of public religion or political theology in our post-secular, postcolonial and globalising world. The discourse reveals that Ban’s call is experienced as a threat to Zambia’s status as an independent nation that governs its own affairs, and it is interpreted in relation to a long history of Western colonialism and neo-colonial imperialism in Africa. Where an emerging homonationalism has been observed in the West, in many African countries we can speak of an emerging anti-homonationalism. Here, the rejection of homosexuality and the opposition against gay rights is central to the constitution and defence of a national identity that, in Zambia, is defined as Christian. Millennial eschatology offers people a powerful language through which they understand and respond to the international pressure to recognise gay rights. To claim that gay rights are a sign of the end times, and that Ban Ki-moon and the UN are the Antichrist promoting the Devil’s agenda, is a highly political statement and is a form of postcolonial resistance. Unfortunately, this is a resistance “from the margins” that creates new marginalised and excluded groups.

Scholars of religion in Africa have argued that eschatological expectations and beliefs about the Devil help people to cope with issues and challenges related to modernity and globalisation. Following this analysis, I think that the Zambian millennialist discourse reveals a clash with modern Western perceptions of homosexuality and the subsequent politics of gay rights. Same-sex practices are not alien to Zambia but were to a certain extent tolerated in a culture of discretion around sexual matters. Here, ‘acts which were forbidden in theory could be tolerated as long as the community was not compelled to pay explicit attention’ [1]. Ban’s call threatens this culture by making same-sex practices an issue of identity politics and individual rights and making it impossible for the community to avert its eyes. Foreign pressure to publicly recognise homosexuality generates a counter-response: instead of averting its eyes the community is now forced to speak out against “immoral” same-sex practices publicly. In this context, millennialist beliefs provide people with a powerful language to demonise homosexuality away, into the secret again.

Even though the millennialist discourse is not representative of the Zambian public debate on homosexuality as a whole, it frames the debate in a powerful way. All Zambians who present a more nuanced understanding of homosexuality or even express sympathy for gay rights are directly associated with the same Antichrist and Devil as Ban Ki-moon and the West. In this way, an open public and political discussion about the call of Ban Ki-moon, as one may expect in a democracy, is made impossible. Of course this is not surprising, as the God of this type of Christianity certainly is not a democrat.

Though I feel deeply uncomfortable with the discourse on homosexuality and gay rights I have discussed here, I think that scholars of religion with post-secular sensitivities have to take seriously this type of religious discourse and the sensitivities, anxieties and concerns it reveals. This may also imply that “we” in the West have to rethink the politics of human rights, particularly in relation to issues of homosexuality, in Africa and other parts of the world, because the effects can be counterproductive. In the words of two progressive-minded Zimbabwean scholars, as long as Western discourses and politics reinforce ‘the perception [in Africa] that Africa is being “civilized” or talked down to accept same-sex sexuality, it will remain extremely difficult to make headway in changing attitudes towards same-sex relationships’ [2].

Adriaan van Klinken holds a PhD in religious studies from Utrecht University and is a postdoctoral research fellow at SOAS, University of London. His research focuses on issues of gender, sexuality and public life in African Christianities.

[1] Epprecht, Marc. 2012. Religion and Same-Sex Relationships in Africa. In The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions, ed. Elias Kifon Bongmba. Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 515-528, p. 522.

[2] Togarasei, Lovemore and Ezra Chitando. 2011. “Beyond the Bible”: Critical Reflections on the Contributions of Cultural and Postcolonial Studies on Same-Sex Relationships in Africa. Journal of Gender and Religion in Africa 17/2: 109-125, p. 122.

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