Some of us have experienced a phobia after the horrendous attacks of 9/11. Some of us reacted with a fear of some from the Middle East or of Muslims. In some, that fear grew to hatred that led to attacks. And like the child who loses the ability to distinguish between a friendly dog and a dangerous dog after being bit, some Americans have become xenophobic to certain groups.
It is with this knowledge that we should attempt to understand the recent statements on homophobia (see BBC article) by Bishop Desmond Tutu. The most alarming statements that came Bishop Tutu are as follows,
I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place
I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.
To us religious conservatives, rejecting these statements is a slam-dunk, a no-brainer because we know what the Bible says about homosexuality and we know what it says about God and eternal life. However, how should we regard the person who made these statements? Also, in so easily denouncing these statements, are we missing some grains of truth which could be hidden deep inside these statements? To answer these questions, we must look at the context of the statements made. The first part of the context is to look at the Bishop Tutu, the man who made these statements. And the second part of the context is to look at the people he is defending. And in both cases, we should look to see if trauma has played a role in blurring distinctions.
Bishop Tutu grew up and lived under horrible racist conditions in South Africa for decades. The apartheid system sought to separate the races, Black, Colored, and White, and to separate nonWhites from wealth and power. Blacks and Colored, with the Colored consisting of people who were of mixed races, had land stolen from them and were often placed on unproductive land called "homelands" which plunged many into poverty. In addition, they were stripped of their South African citizenship though they were ruled over by the South African government. Both Blacks and Colored faced constant humiliation, police repression, torture and even murder by death squads. Dissent was harshly punished and sometimes met with deadly violence. There was resistance which sometimes included violence.
Despite these horrors, Bishop Tutu headed the Truth And Reconciliation Commission after Apartheid. This commission sought to peacefully resolve the conflicts and hatred that came because of the atrocities. Since then, Bishop Tutu has spoken out or has been active against other instances of racism in places including Zimbabwe, the Solomon Islands, Israel and Palestine, and China. He has been harshly condemned by some for some of his work such as his criticisms of Israel's actions against the Palestinians.
Lately, Bishop Tutu has been working for equality for gays. Approximately one-third of the nations in the world make homosexuality a crime and there are some countries that punish it by death. Though homosexuality is legal in his own country of South Africa, some in the LGBT community there have been harassed, assaulted, sexually assaulted, and even murdered. Since Bishop Tutu rightfully equates this persecution with racism, it seems that he might attribute homosexuality to physical causes.
What we should note here is that we who have lived as privileged people haven't a clue when it comes to understanding the atrocities that Bishop Tutu has had to endure, resist and work through in his life. When he is defending gays, he is defending people, some of whom are oppressed, and working for equality. And what I would add here regarding those who have criticized his statements on preferring hell to a homophobic heaven is that they have neither mentioned nor criticized the horrible atrocities being committed against some in the LGBT community. How is it that people offering a "Christian" analysis on Tutu's not so good choice for eternity are so quiet about the persecution and even murdering others which he is reacting to? How?
Just as Tutu could not be more wrong in saying that he would prefer "the other place" to a homophobic heaven, he could not be more right in both opposing the brutal abuse some in the LGBT community have to live through as well as working for equality for gays. And Tutu could not be more correct than when he equates persecution of those in the LGBT community with the racism he has so heroically opposed in South Africa and other places.
So with all that he has lived through and all the good that he has done, can we understand why he confuses man's inhumane acts of homophobia with God's judgment on sinners? Is it possible that Tutu would not have made his statements if Christians had not so harshly persecuted those in the LGBT community or had not remained silent about the severe abuse some of them must live through? In other words, are Tutu's current sentiments and confusion a reflection on some of us Christians?
Tutu's startling statements are not new, they have been said before. Consider what the Indian chief Hatuey from Haiti said before he was to be burned at the stake by Spanish "Christians." This chief sought refuge in Cuba because of the Spanish atrocities in Haiti and the surrounding islands which, according to Bartolomé de Las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus and an eye witness to the Spanish violence in Haiti, killed millions of Indians. Being tied to the stake in preparation for his execution, a priest told Hatuey what he must believe in order to go to heaven. Hatuey asked the priest if all Christians went to heaven. The priest said yes. Hatuey then told the priest that he preferred to go to the other place.
- Voices of a People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, pg 35-41