What Uganda Can Teach the West
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
February 21, 2010 - The 2009 “Anti-Homosexuality” bill under consideration in Uganda continues to draw fire in major western media outlets. Over the past few months, the pending legislation has been sharply criticized by prominent Christian leaders in the West. Martin Ssempa, a prominent Ugandan pastor who is leading support for the legislation, has publicly responded to his western Christian critics. And at least one Ugandan Christian pastor has urged western Christians to refrain from public comment on the legislation.
Regardless of one’s take on the moral legitimacy of the bill, the debate that surrounds it is instructive about the degree to which even western Christians have undergone a wholesale conceptual shift regarding the nature of homosexuality. The Ugandan legislation explicitly defines homosexuality in terms of behavior or acts, rather than dispositions or so-called “orientations.” At one time in the not-too-distant past, homosexuality would have been understood in the same way in the West. Today however, the conceptual battle is over. The West – including most of the Christians therein – either tacitly or overtly endorse an understanding of the nature of homosexuality based on inclination or desire, not action.
Ironically, the consequences of this shift were noted rather succinctly by Andrew Sullivan, an openly gay columnist for The Atlantic who actively advocates on behalf of homosexual causes. Sullivan wrote:
“The premise used to be that homosexuality was an activity, that gays were people who chose to behave badly; or, if they weren’t choosing to behave badly, were nonetheless suffering from a form of sickness or, in the words of the Vatican, an ‘objective disorder.’ And so the question of whether to permit the acts and activities of such disordered individuals was a legitimate area of legislation and regulation.
But when gays are seen as the same as straights—as individuals; as normal, well-adjusted, human individuals—the argument changes altogether. The question becomes a matter of how we treat a minority with an involuntary, defining characteristic along the lines of gender or race. And when a generation came of age that did not merely grasp this intellectually, but knew it from their own lives and friends and family members, then the logic for full equality became irresistible.”
Western Christians currently find themselves in the grip of the irresistible logic of which Sullivan speaks. We read the Ugandan legislation through the lens of the conceptual shift that has taken place. Thus, from our point of view, legislation that forbids homosexuality does not merely forbid certain kinds of sexual acts (which, by the way, is what the Ugandan legislation actually does), it rather forbids the existence of certain kinds of people.
The consequences of this conceptual blindness are disastrous. It results in the haste with which we condemn the Ugandan bill and the simultaneous paternalism with which we treat our Ugandan brothers and sisters in Christ. (To their shame, prominent western Christian leaders have publicly addressed themselves to Ugandan Christian leaders as though the latter did not even begin to possess a basic understanding of the love and compassion of Christ.) Even if the bill’s contents warranted modulation on solid scriptural or moral grounds, western Christians would be wise to remove the conceptual beam in their own eyes before pointing out what may or may not be the legislative speck in that of our Ugandan brethren.