T.J. Tallie

In a call to LBC Radio on 4 April 2014, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned against the Anglican Church’s embrace of same-sex marriage for fear of inciting anti-Christian violence in African countries. Welby made reference explicitly to an attack that occurred in Nigeria; he described seeing a mass grave of 369 people who had been killed by neighbors. According to Welby, the perpetrators justified the killing by saying, “If we leave a Christian community here, we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians.” Welby subsequently described the event as one “that burns itself into your soul, as does the suffering of gay people in this country.”

It is a curious and powerful discursive move to link the murder of hundreds of people in Nigeria to the vaguely described suffering of British queer people, particularly in the context of same-sex marriage. In so doing, Welby draws a line between two complex and interlocking processes on two continents. The violence in Nigeria becomes abstracted and brutally apparent simultaneously: 369 bodies are depicted for the listener, but divorced from any larger political, cultural or social context. Instead, the victims are rendered abject and abstract—simply labeled as victims through their Christian identification, murdered at the hand of unnamed killers.

It is, to be sure, a powerful rhetorical device—the direct linking of anti-Christian murders to the potential ramifications of shifts in the wider Anglican Communion’s stance on homosexuality more broadly and same-sex marriage more specifically. It is also an equation that then seems to attempt a utilitarian (and paternalistic) admonishment to queer British people, namely, a denial of access to state recognition and legal benefits through marriage for the sake of suffering Anglicans worldwide (who not so coincidentally inhabit former colonies).

Welby went on to argue that “the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world.” In some ways, this argument is refreshing in its avoidance of imperial solipsism, the navel-gazing focus on interior concerns divorced from larger global realities. Yet, this approach is deeply imbricated in imperial thinking. The global Anglican Communion, then, is linked to larger fears for the impact on non-Christians in other countries.

While Welby is certainly right to think through the potential negative effects of Western Christians around the world (the relationship between evangelical American ministers and Ugandan anti-gay legislators comes to mind immediately), there is a secondary question of scale and agency.  To what extent do African actors respond to Western Christian initiatives and how does one properly recognize individual motivation and agency in these actions?  Many analyses of recent African incidents of homophobic action have reductively assigned ignorance, Christian coercion, or simple backwardness these events, instead of interrogating the complex and multi-faceted relations of power that structure legislation and other forms of state violence against sexual minorities.

Such a call also ignores the complex histories of colonialism and imperially-linked Christianity in postcolonial countries. As recent events in India around Section 377 and African pushback against Western condemnation of anti-gay legislation have made clear, the histories of state-sponsored heterosexuality are as lengthy as they are entangled. Instances of contemporary anti-gay discriminatory action (both legal and extra-legal) have been articulated through potential post-colonial sovereignty and in interplay with laws remaining from colonial administrations. The Anglican Church, as the official state church of the British Empire throughout the nineteenth century, is not free of these entanglements of sexuality, history, and imperialism.

What is truly disappointing in Welby’s argument against official Anglican support for state initiated same-sex marriage is that it reduces actors to monolithic identities: Western Christian, British queer, African Christian (without sexuality), African attacker.  It also potentially over-emphasizes the importance of metropolitan Anglican decision making in view of the rest of the globe.  Same-sex marriage has become a legal reality in the United Kingdom, and the decision of the archbishop whether or not to endorse this legislative shift cannot be seen as the sole motivator for African homophobic anti-Christian violence.  This argument also paternalistically ignores that there are real, breathing queer African people on the ground who have to articulate the complexities of their lived existence every day; instead the church hierarchy assumes a conservative and defensive stance in order to protect their fellow believers from other Africans.

At another point in his call, Welby argued that there is a “danger” in looking for “simple solutions” to the massive and multi-sided issues of Christianity, same-sex marriage, global faith communions, and colonial legacies.  But to make this push against Anglican approval of same-sex marriage for fear of a generalized African (and beyond) homophobia is far less complex than the situation warrants.

T.J. Tallie is an Assistant Professor of African History at Washington and Lee University.  His work focuses on race, masculinity and sexuality in nineteenth-century colonial South Africa and other settler societies.  He also tweets from @Halfrican_One

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