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Some Nigerian Christian leaders have tried to defend a new law that violates human rights and is contrary to Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbour as oneself. All too often, churches are captive to the prejudices and power-games that dominate their society and era.
In Nigeria, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people already face hatred, violence and criminalisation. The Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014, makes matters worse.
“Even before this Act was signed into law, consensual same sex relationships were already criminalised in Nigeria – violating rights to privacy and to freedom from discrimination, both of which are protected by the Nigerian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Nigeria has ratified,” stated United Nations human rights commissioner Navi Pillay, a South African lawyer and former anti-apartheid activist.
This law “purports to ban same-sex marriage ceremonies but in reality does much more,” she explained. “It turns anyone who takes part in, witnesses or helps organise a same sex marriage into a criminal. It punishes people for displaying any affection in public towards someone of the same sex. And in banning gay organisations it puts at risk the vital work of human rights defenders who speak up for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.”
The Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria also fear that the new law could prevent access to vital HIV services for LGBT people. “The provisions of the new law in Nigeria could lead to increased homophobia, discrimination, denial of HIV services and violence based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity,” noted UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, who is from Mali. “It could also be used against organisations working to provide HIV prevention and treatment services to LGBT people.”
However some Nigerians proudly claim that this law reflects national culture and religious values and that the West’s interference should be brushed aside, as if universal human rights were a western concept not in tune with faith-based as well as broader values. Yet when the Universal Declaration was drawn up, numerous cultures and faith groups were involved, and Christian theologians have continued to explore this practical means of doing justice, loving kindness (Micah 6.8) and not handing unwarranted power to the state over humans, made in the divine image.
Across the globe, churches have at times got caught up in the worst forms of injustice towards the vulnerable, especially at times when scapegoating was rife. Sometimes power-hungry religious leaders as well as politicians have tried to outbid one another in peddling unfounded allegations and calling for tougher measures against a vulnerable group. Even if, later, they become alarmed at the extent of hate-mongering and persecution, taking a less cruel stance can be difficult for fear of being associated with people who are scorned and under attack.
Less than a century ago, anti-semitism in the churches – drawing on questionable interpretations of Bible passages – helped to pave the way for fascists in Germany to pass increasingly anti-semitic laws, then engage in mass murder of Jewish as well as disabled people. Leftists, gays, lesbians and non-submissive women, gypsies and many others were thrown into concentration camps. Some Christians resisted, numerous others played along or stayed silent. Even in Britain and the USA, gays faced harassment and imprisonment.
Some churches sought to learn from the past, repent and follow Christ in standing up for the hurt and oppressed. Whatever the pros and cons of same-sex partnerships, it was recognised that consensual heterosexual sex outside marriage was, rightly, not a matter for the criminal law, and that same-sex lovers likewise should not be imprisoned or treated with contempt. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets,” says Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (Mat 7.12); and “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25.31-46).
Trampling on the human rights of migrants and refugees, ethnic or religious minorities, LGBT or disabled people is morally wrong, if all too common. In Christian language, it is also an offence against God, who will ultimately be victorious over all forms of malice and injustice, bringing instead a commonwealth of love.
* A petition asking the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to speak out against human rights abuses in Nigeria has been established here: http://www.change.org/petitions/to-the-archbishops-of-canterbury-and-yor...
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.Tweet