When it comes to matters of sexual ethics, no one can quickly iron out the deep differences in the church today. So why should Christian Courier publish an article on same-sex marriage from distant Uganda? Well, I figure if we are truly part of a catholic church, we ought to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters across oceans and borders.
What is the goal of transnational conversation on this tender topic? Listening first. Just that. Maybe listening that might lead to understanding, which could develop into mutual correction and sanctification, and the expanded witness of Christ’s body. But listening is a good start.
How does listening happen without offense being taken from either side? For some it will be hard, and they will have to endlessly forgive. The conversation may have its limits; not everyone need participate; and we can expect the issue will probably be unresolved this side of the new earth. There are other matters to attend to beside sexual morality!
Besides our catholicity, another good reason to listen is to enact our postcolonial commitments. The Western church has been speaking from a position of cultural dominance for hundreds of years and the majority world has been listening, more or less, voluntarily or not. Consider that we have an overabundance of books, institutions and teachers in the West and we have been consistently sending a portion of them to the majority world. The flow of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual discernment needs to be more multi-directional. You could say that now Joseph wishes to speak back to those who sold him into slavery, opening up a difficult family conversation.
In my circles of transnational mission, the motto has been: “Not from the West to the rest, but from anyone to everywhere.” This is a polycentric model, and in such a scheme the weight of moral authority, too, is decentralized. In fact, the current deconstruction of the Western church begs the question: what moral authority does the shriveling Christian West have in the majority world? This is a contentious question, as family members should always be calling each other to account. But consider that the legacy of slavery and Western imperialism cast a dark shadow on the credibility of the Western church. Two world wars, global warming due to Western industrialization, and the influence of a fast and loose Hollywood morality cast Western Christians into further moral dubiousness.
Many are acknowledging the wisdom of Indigenous ways when it comes to global ecology. Naive Western notions of unambiguous modern “progress” are burning up with climate change. There are certainly other Western assumptions that need chastening. Our credibility is currently weak.
A third good reason to particularly listen to the voice of the majority world is that they are now the vast bulk of Christians on the planet. “The average Christian today is a poor Nigerian or Brazilian woman,” writes Philip Jenkins (quoting Dana L. Robert) in his now aging book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002). The majority can be wrong, but those on the margins of the vital, expanding movement of God’s people should at least care to listen to the core. Christianity is now a southern phenomenon and gaining acceptance in East Asia, too.
The fact is, the church in the West is in numerical decline, and, more particularly, the liberal wing of the church is closing its doors at an astonishing rate. Take for example the venerable Anglican Church of Canada, which was about 1.3 million members strong in 1961. By 2017, while the population of the country doubled, the Anglicans shrank to 282,412 and most of these members are in their retirement years. The Anglican Journal entertains the projection that, at the current rate of decline, there would be zero Anglicans by 2040 (Jan. 6, 2020). I’m sure more than a few will stick around by then, but their recent split only exacerbated the situation.
Indeed, numbers are only one gauge of fruitfulness. Academics are fond of validating the epistemic privilege of the marginal. But we remain privileged and powerful economically, politically and culturally, which may be again more of a spiritual liability.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his fascinating book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) cites a study showing that the middle-class Western demographic is globally WEIRD. The word is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, and the adjective is apt because such people are outliers; they are “the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature.” Maybe we are cutting-edge, avant-garde. But maybe we are just WEIRD.
We know that in the majority world, tolerance for same-sex marriage is very low, although Pew Research reported in 2020 that acceptance rates have been rising slightly over the last 20 years. I suspect these increases are represented mostly in the more wealthy, urban, educated sectors, where WEIRD influence would be most prevalent. Overseas churches and their agencies generally remain in line with historic Christian teachings in moral matters.
Logs in Eyes
Our dearest idols are often located in our cultural blind spots that others see too clearly. Theologian Esther Acolatse (from Ghana but now at Knox College, Toronto) has argued that there remains a hermeneutical gap between the church in the global South and modern West. The African church, with its animist cultural heritage and the influence of divination found in African traditional religions, lives in an enchanted world where the conflicts of angels, witches and demons affect the details of everyday life. While this runs close to the Biblical worldview, it can be too dualistic, distracting from Christ’s victory at the cross and missing the joy of living filled by the Holy Spirit. It is an over-emphasis on the spirit world and its uncertainties.
The situation in the West is the opposite – a church disenchanted by the modern worldview, where science is the supreme authority. As assumed by liberal theologians (like Bultmann), we can’t use jets and computers, MRIs and vaccines, and at the same time take seriously the miraculous wonder world of the Bible. For example, Walter Wink showed how New Testament references to a spirit world could be reinterpreted as socio-political forces and psychotherapeutic conditions, taking out the idea of supernatural beings as distinct entities that impinge on everyday life. In effect, Acolatse suggests Western theology is practically materialist.
When it comes to issues of human sexuality, a gulf is growing. The majority world has a different take on the importance of individual expression from the West, and often champions more communitarian and traditional values. This comes with its own weaknesses. There are laws in some African countries that endanger the lives of those exploring their same sex desires, to which human rights groups from the West are applying political pressure. Africans need to hear from their own minority subcultures, from their women and students, too. We all have cultural baggage that Christ seeks to correct, reform and redeem.
That means it may be not only good family relations to listen but an act of spiritual growth. In David Smith’s Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity (2009), he urges the reader not to see cross-cultural interaction in instrumental terms – in order to change the other or achieve some ecclesial goal – but as a process that itself involves discipleship and spiritual growth. In other words, the interaction itself is part of the journey to spiritual maturity. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin often said that intercultural encounter was necessary not only for the salvation of those who have not heard the gospel, but also for those who bear witness to it as well. No one possesses God’s Spirit alone, and no one has arrived at the end of spiritual maturity.
Consider this an opportunity to cultivate our spiritual life as rooted Christian cosmopolitans, world citizens still planted in local culture, leaning into a transnational give-and-take. We don’t have to agree; but we can learn respect and humility in the encounter, and hopefully come away a little more like Christ.
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