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Church leaders who have encouraged mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) have defended their behaviour, after the archbishops of Canterbury and York reminded fellow-Anglicans of a pledge to offer pastoral care and support regardless of sexual orientation. Church of England senior clergy Justin Welby and John Sentamu wrote after harsh new laws were passed in Uganda and Nigeria.
Their critics’ attempts to justify unjust and unloving treatment of vulnerable neighbours, despite Christ’s teaching and example, throw light on the human tendency to find excuses for bias. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19941)
When I first arrived in Britain as a small child, racist prejudice was rife. It was socially acceptable to look down on, discriminate against or even show hostility to, people of Asian, Caribbean and African descent. There were attempts to rationalise this, for instance by claiming that “They take our jobs” or that British culture was under threat. But those who made such claims usually refused to listen to facts and figures which might demonstrate that the presence of black people did more good than harm.
This was sometimes connected with the notion that Britain’s status as a ‘Christian’ nation was being undermined, even if some of the new arrivals were Christians, perhaps because the social cohesion which underpinned habits of belief and worship was becoming weaker. This was largely due to quite different economic and social forces, for instance changing patterns of work, but those of us who were obviously ‘different’ were a convenient focus for a more general sense of dissatisfaction. Such attitudes were so ingrained that even black children growing up here tended to internalise them, feeling shame about who we were.
Racial or cultural ‘purity’ was sometimes believed to be at risk. Elsewhere in Europe just a couple of decades earlier, Jewish people and gypsies, disabled people, gays and lesbians, socialists and many others had been horrifically targeted. Many Christians had taken part in grave human rights abuses, sometimes misusing the Bible to justify their complicity, though some bravely resisted.
The people who displayed ethnic prejudice in 1960s and ‘70s Britain were often likeable, caring for their families, white neighbours and even individual black friends, since “You’re not like the rest of them.” They would not usually have approved of the behaviour of thugs involved in racist attacks and police carrying out racial harassment or refusing to help victims of crime, though there was widespread denial that these were major problems. But there was little awareness of the damage caused by low-level prejudice and how it paved the way for more extreme acts.
Prejudice and victimisation continue internationally. Ordinarily pleasant people are complicit in ethnic or other cultural ‘cleansing’, or try to get neighbours who have done them no harm thrown into jail or concentration camps or deprived of their livelihoods and support networks. Such behaviour will often be rationalised as virtuous, perhaps as a defence of national or religious values or even in the best interests of those victimised.
Bearing false witness, whether intentionally or through readiness to vilify vulnerable groups without checking the facts, often plays an important role in fertilising the ground in which hatred and violence can flourish. Those in other parts of the world may be baffled by such malice, though in their own societies they may fail to notice similar patterns with a different set of victims.
Since the late 1990s, Ugandan archbishops have whipped up prejudice, and called for intensified state repression, against an already stigmatised LGBT minority. “I want to thank Parliament for passing the Anti-homosexuality Bill,” said Archbishop Stanley Ntagali in December 2013. Yet in response to the Church of England archbishops’ call, he was adamant that he held the moral high ground. After all, Ugandan church leaders had successfully urged that the death penalty and requirement to report gays to the authorities be dropped, so that clergy could “offer counseling, healing and prayer for people with homosexual disorientation”.
If another faith leader boasted of his love for Christians on the grounds that he had arranged to get more of them locked up, rather than slaughtered, so that he could try to pressure them into converting to his beliefs in an attempt to save their souls, few would be impressed. Yet Ntagali is so caught up in his own worldview that he sees no flaws in his stance, including his insistence that other churches be punished for not upholding the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 in full, when Uganda’s bishops fail to comply with this and dozens of other Lambeth Conference and Anglican Consultative Council resolutions.
Likewise, on behalf of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) primates’ council, Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya insisted that the real problem was in churches which did not comply with his faction’s view of what the Bible teaches about the family and sexual morality. Christians may disagree about the ethics of same-sex partnerships. But imprisoning a young person for having consensual sex, just once, with someone he is attracted to, or bullying him into getting married to seem ‘normal’ then depriving him of access to safer sex advice so that he and his wife get AIDS, is deeply immoral.
It is important to bear in mind, and remind one another, of how persuasive prejudice can seem and how it can cloak itself in the guise of righteousness. Yet Christians can hope that, in the power of Christ crucified and risen, victimisation of various kinds can be ended and authentically loving relationships restored.
* You can read Ekklesia's response to the Pilling Report on sexuaiity by Savi Hensman here http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/pilling
© 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