Spiritual colonialism hurting Africa
"African parents in church wail, jump and scream for some so called god to save them, while their lives deteriorate further." - Teekay Akin
"The oil that keeps this machine (anti-gay violence) moving is bad religion."
- Bishop Joseph Tolton
Bishop Joseph Tolton heads the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a network of African-American churches rooted in the Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal traditions.
A social justice activist, committed to securing rights for Africa's gay community, he was one of three speakers briefing journalists at the New York Foreign Press Center on January 12.
Other speakers included Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of Dignity USA, and the Reverend Dr Ngeo Boon, director of Asian affairs at the Global Justice Institute, Metropolitan Community Church.
Their theme was unified. The culture of marginalisation and violence against homosexuals are endemic in certain parts of the world.
Later, I arranged a meeting with Tolton at his office in Chelsea, New York. His ministry is a network of pro-LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer, and Inter-sexed) congregations committed to establishing a progressive Pan-African faith-based movement.
With penal codes outlawing homosexuality (the death penalty in Uganda was only recently repealed due to United States pressure), and visceral attacks tacitly and openly spurred by politicians and Christian clerics, Africa is now entering another phase of human degradation.
The actors are the same, but the script is different. The outcome, like centuries ago, is predictable. Africa is in the throes of what Tolton calls, "spiritual colonialism".
As an openly gay bishop, his experience in Uganda proved harrowing but gave him a deeper understanding of the religious and economic forces that leave the continent with staggering unemployment, and at the mercy of foreign companies.
Christianity has grown exponentially in Africa from nine per cent of the population in the sub-Sahara region to 63 per cent a few years ago. In fact, six in 10 persons in the region identify themselves as Christians.
According to the latest Pew Report, Christianity boasts of close to 100 million believers in Nigeria and by 2050, Africa will be the home to 40 per cent of the Christian population.
Intriguingly, Tolton attributes the economic stagnation of the continent to the proliferation of well-orchestrated religious distortions, or "bad religion".
"As a Black American, I quickly realised the hypocrisy of the religious right who present themselves as interested in Africa's well-being but are driven by racial insensitivity," said Tolton, as he added that, "the enterprise of turning Uganda into a Christian Kingdom, funded by America money, is the height of spiritual colonialism and economic exploitation."
Echoing the Marxian dictum, "Religion is the opium of the people", Tolton argued that Christians are hoodwinked into believing their sense of moral superiority at the expense of others and pitch battles based on moral codes are unleashed while the economic carpet is pulled from under them.
He described an unholy marriage of politics and religion that controls the fate of a people. "These interconnected and complex factors," he posits, have resulted in "LGBTQI people becoming targets of national strife and violence, resulting from a web of moral panic, political manipulation and personal greed."
'Where is the outrage?'
He questions: "Where is the outrage in Africa over unemployment and the staggering digital divide? Where is the outrage against Chinese companies who are using Chinese labour in Africa with little care transferring technology? Why isn't the church in Africa up in arms?"
He points at the political influence of American pastors who also serve as conduits for US businesses.
"Rick Warren, a celebrated pastor, has diplomatic status in Rwanda."
He later explains that the East African Law Association, funded by controversial pastor Pat Robertson, shaped the Kenyan constitution to reject equality for the gay community.
On the subject of Christian bioethics and the gay movement, Tolton balks at a literal interpretation of the Bible, stating that such an approach will validate and justify all forms of slavery, referenced in Genesis 9:20-27, and a slew of other biblical verses.
Tolton is mindful that his sexual orientation will cloud his message, especially among machismo, homophobic audiences in the Caribbean and Africa.
Recently, the magazine, Out Traveller: The Standard for Gay Travel, listed the 10 places that gays should not visit. It included Jamaica, Sudan, Nigeria, Senegal, Honduras, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Tolton is disappointed but hardly surprised by this report. "Christians should embrace the inclusiveness of Jesus."
He goes a step further: "I follow Jesus not Paul," citing a verse from in Acts 10:15 that reads: "What God has cleansed, you do not call common."
And from Matthew 19:12 he quotes: "For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it."
Tolton elaborates: "Based on art and history, we can safely argue that eunuchs were effeminate, without interest in the opposite sex, hence their work alongside females. Jesus' ministry was predicated on inclusion, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and class. He came to broaden the table. Sadly, we have decided to make the table smaller."
And he adds: "We perceive tribalism as a source of power and self-preservation, but strength or enduring sustenance is only possible through the power of love."