The churches must become part of the solution – and no longer part of the problem

Opening statement by Sarah Kohrt, LGBTI Platform for Human Rights at the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation, at the 2019 Evangelischer Kirchentag (German Protestant Church Conference)

Deutsche Fassung hier

Foto: Wolfgang Schürger

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here, which I greatly appreciate. It is wonderful to see that the Kirchentag has had a Rainbow Center for many years now. That is an important step – just like events such as this one today.

My talk will consist of four theses. The first comes from a text written by Tim Kuschnerus, the managing director of the Protestant office of the Joint Conference Church and Development (GKKE), for the blog of the LSVD (Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany): “The Christian churches are part of the problem. This realization can lead to only one conclusion in my opinion: churches, and by that I mean primarily their development organizations here in Germany, must work toward becoming part of the solution.”

This is also my first thesis: that the churches must become part of the solution, and no longer part of the problem.

I would like to illustrate this with the help of a few examples. Recently someone from Nigeria visited my office in Berlin and we spoke about the Kirchentag. He told me the following about the Anglican Church of Nigeria:

Anyone who has too close a friendship with someone of the same sex, even as a pastor, is confronted and told that this lifestyle is not appropriate for the country and is not in keeping with its tradition. Higher-ranking church officials take notice, and the pastor, regardless of how popular or good he might be, will in all probability be dismissed and humiliated in the eyes of his parish. The bishop has done this in an accusatory and defamatory letter. That spells the end of the pastor’s livelihood. Any simple parishioner who falls under suspicion faces exclusion, demonization and violent attempts at exorcism.

An example from Namibia: women who do not appear to be sufficiently feminine, or who cannot or do not wish to fulfil traditional gender roles, are isolated in their communities, stigmatized, and subjected to violence.

Here is a different example from Uganda: a cleric opens his church to all people, including those in same-sex relationships and those stigmatized for unconventional gender expression. They are welcomed in the parish, they are not denounced or reported to security officials, but instead are included in a new family. They enjoy what was otherwise denied to them – protection and recognition as members of a community of faith.

However, most cases tell of violence in the name of religion, and of missionaries of hate. The film Call me Kuchu is a documentary about the situation in Uganda around the year 2009 or 2010. It shows how preachers demonize homosexual people and tell their parishioners that same-sex preference comes from the West. Such statements are common. But in fact it is the other way around: the prohibition on homosexual acts comes from the West and is a legacy of British colonialism. Fundamentalist evangelicals from the USA are the ones who have made the situation in Uganda so extreme. Preachers who foster violence and hate are systematically supported by missionaries from North America. These cases are not few or far between.

The second thesis: A worldwide movement with religious support is promoting what it calls traditional or family values. This movement opposes both women’s and LGBTI rights.

Kapya Kaoma, a theologian from Zambia, has shown in multiple studies since 2009 that a type of proxy war is being waged in Africa. He documents a war of cultures that US conservatives lost in their own country in the 1990s and 2000s but have been pursuing since around 2000 in places like the African continent.

We are seeing something similar in Europe, especially in eastern Europe, namely a fundamentalist movement that is aggressively, militantly and systematically attempting to reverse legal and social progress. Some of its representatives receive guidance from the Vatican. Money is not an issue. Funding is provided by very wealthy individuals, businesses, and foundations.

There are fundamentalist Evangelical movements here too. They hold conferences and workshops with harmless sounding titles on family values, gender roles, legal issues and notions of natural law. Fundamentalist lobbying groups are increasingly active at the EU Parliament. This war of cultures is being waged over religion. It hits the churches from both the inside and the outside. This is also a problem for the Christian community worldwide.

The third thesis: homosexuality and women’s rights are threatening to divide Christian churches on an international level.

Conflicts over questions of gender, love, sexuality and family are dividing nearly all churches and faiths. I don’t mean only the fact that the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany have completely different ideas about homosexuality. The far greater problem both for us LGBTI people and for the churches themselves has to do with the conflicts or unwillingness to engage in discussion within churches. Bishops from some African countries, for example, will not be attending the 2020 Anglican world conference. The threat of schism exists both within the West and between North and South.

Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Protestant, and Association of Protestant Free Churches invited to an event organized by the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation in 2012 all described similar problems: they had been warning strict churches about the danger of North-South and East-West splits between liberals and conservatives. But the stricter churches also have a strong argument. They say their pews are full, and that the more liberal churches are losing members.

There are serious concerns, in other words, that world churches will split up over these questions. Many are afraid. Afraid that dialogue will break off. Afraid to speak openly against persecution of lesbians and gay men. Afraid to speak out against discrimination, stigmatization and violence against trans* and intersex people. They are also concerned about taking a neocolonial approach to other countries’ affairs by calling for openness about same-sex love.

So what can we do – what can we do with and within churches to maintain church unity but still protect LGBTI people against persecution, discrimination and violence?

That brings me to the fourth thesis: the solution can only be to agree on the smallest common denominator. The smallest common denominator is: no violence! Love your neighbour. Violence is the opposite of Christian teaching.

Tim Kuschnerus expressed the same thought at the joint event held by the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (LSVD), the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation (HES) and Christian churches in Berlin in 2012: This is not a matter of expecting our partner churches to take on liberal positions. It is a matter of enduring dissent while accepting that LGBTI people have inalienable human rights. Each person was created in the image of God. Each person has the same inviolable dignity. Rejecting a certain lifestyle or sexual orientation must never mean encouraging discrimination or violence against others.

The LSVD/HES has organized several visits by African activists to Germany. These visits have included talks with politicians and police officers. But talks with pastors and bishops have been so striking and special for these quite religious activists that they were moved to tears. Especially by the fact that Catholic bishops spoke with them. At the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Berlin!

And the bishops, pastors and staff of the Bishops’ Conference were shocked by what they had to hear. Many of them had no idea of how much violence, stigma, and spiritual anguish LGBTI people have to suffer, or that church representatives are involved in persecuting them.

One example of a cleric who stands for a promising approach is Desmond Tutu, a priest and Nobel Peace Prize winner from South Africa, who said:

God does not say black is better than white, or tall is better than short, or football players are better than basketball players, or Christians are better than Muslims… or gay is better than straight. No. God says love one another; love your neighbour. God is for freedom, equality and love.”

That is the mission.

To conclude I’d like to give one more example from Namibia, about how things can work:

The feminist Women’s Leadership Centre has worked with religious leaders very successfully for years in rural parts of Namibia to increase awareness among women about their rights. It does not start with the abstract idea of rights, but rather with conversation and dialogue within communities. Activists from this women’s group have lived for long periods in and with these communities. They build trust and seek dialogue. The women first speak among themselves, and then are listened to. The work is done in close cooperation with recognized religious leaders. It shows that under these conditions, heads of traditional and religious organizations understand the situation and respond very positively. They are ready to reassess traditional practices that are harmful to women.

My appeal is to courageously pursue this important process! The churches must become much more a part of the solution! And each one of us can contribute. To promote humanity and freedom, and to prevent violence and discrimination.

Thank you.

Opening statement by Sarah Kohrt, LGBTI Platform for Human Rights at the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation, at the event Equality and Queer Human Rights – A Worldwide Church Learning Process? on 21 June 2019 at the 2019 Evangelischer Kirchentag (German Protestant Church Conference) in Dortmund, as part of the Rainbow Center program in the Hörde district of Dortmund

Foto: Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung

Podium with speakers:
Host: Professor Heike Walz, Intercultural Theology, Augustana Divinity School, Neuendettelsau
Persecuted and dismissed: A gay pastor in Riga: Maris Sants, London/Great Britain
Gender justice – Leitmotif of the Lutheran World Federation for the 21st century: Astrid Kleist, Provost, Senior Pastor St. Jacobi and Vice President of the Lutheran World Federation, Hamburg
Women’s rights and human rights for queers – The story of an intimate relationship: Sarah Kohrt, Director of the LGBTI Platform for Human Rights at the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation, Berlin

Deutsche Fassung hier

Links:

  • Talk by Tim Kuschnerus (managing director of the Protestant office of the GKKE – Joint Conference Church and Development) at the conference “Religious Communities in Africa: Supporting and Protecting Defenders of LGBTI Human Rights ” at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin on 22 November 2012 (only in German)
  • LSVD/HES visit to Germany by activists from African countries in 2012 (only in German)
  • Kapya Kaoma 2009: Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia
  • Kapya Kaoma  2012: Colonizing African Values – How the U.S. Christian Right Is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa
  • A study by the EPF in 2018 shows a strong oppositional movement to women’s and LGBTIQ* rights in Europe: “Restoring the Natural Order: The religious extremists’ vision to mobilize European societies against human rights on sexuality and reproduction”
  • Women’s Leadership Centre Namibia (WLC): blog article (only in German) and commentary



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