Christians attend an anti-buggery rally in Half-Way Tree Square on June 29. The gathering was spearheaded by a church group called CAUSE. – Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer
Ever since Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller intimated her intention to review the buggery law, the discussion has increased on the buggery law, in particular, and homosexuality in general. It is both a philosophical and theological debate that if not managed or moderated properly, runs the risk of leaving many casualties behind.
I am reminded quite recently reading Neville Callam’s book, Deciding Responsibly: Moral Dimension of Human Action, about the great moral debate concerning the proposal for unwed teachers to be given maternity leave with pay in the 1970s. A very large section of the Church and the Jamaica Teachers’ Association issued press releases denouncing the Government’s proposal.
Callam observed that it was a few church leaders who met with the Government and brokered a cessation of hostility, and the rest is history.
Historically, crusaders are never winners. Winners stand on the bedrock of love mediated through God’s grace, a grace that none of us can truly fully comprehend or articulate.
Veteran journalist Ian Boyne, last year in an article, appropriately laid down the gauntlet for the debate to continue. Says he, “In my view, Christians have to separate the political from the philosophical. I don’t believe the Christian – or Muslim – majority should impose their will on minorities.”
Our legal framework, including our Constitution, is grounded in the Judaeo-Christian philosophy. What this means in fundamental terms is that biblical thoughts have influenced the way laws are shaped and behaviour normalised in much of the former British Empire. If one agrees with this view, it must also be agreed that this was the basic assumption for much of the Western civilisation.
Society has evolved from this core principle of the Judaeo-Christian ethic of ‘being’ and in ‘relationship with the other’ and has been moving towards a rights-based approach to being in the world and in relationship with each. This Judaeo-Christian biblical philosophy approach gave legitimisation to slavery, the apartheid system, and many other atrocities for which the Church has repented.
Even in declaring this fact, it is not to be assumed that such an approach will, of necessity, be flawed, but rather to recognise that even in our search for wholeness and truth, sometimes we are passionately off target and blinded by our own fury, interpretation and belief.
There are some fundamental principles within Western society that we take for granted – and some of these are normal, acceptable behaviour or conduct – however, in some societies, these are socially and legally unacceptable. The reasons, for the most part, are grounded in a set of religious assumptions that are not acceptable within the Judaeo-Christian philosophical and theological thought. As Westerners, we readily detest the Shari’a laws for very good reasons.
Western societies have to wrestle with secularism and changes in laws globally that do not necessarily reflect our traditionally Judaeo-Christian assumptions. This sweeping modernism – others would say secularism – has caused a tsunami of panic not only in the Caribbean, but in the developed, industrialised nations.
The liberalisation of laws on homosexuality within those societies did not happen overnight, but has been a long struggle and deep debate between the traditional Judaeo-Christian ideas and values within the context of growing secularism, in general, and the issues of human rights, in particular.
There are, therefore, some fundamental questions that must be placed within the debate, the push-back and the tension between the fundamentalist Judaeo-Christian philosophical thoughts, and the human rights approach to issues.
1. Can we say that we love each other unconditionally?
2. Do we really know enough about each other to the extent that we see others as equally loved and valued by God?
3. Should the homosexual act be an offence under the law?
There is no easy way out or Bible-thumping of views to these simple but profound questions. At the end of the debate, we must decide whether a society is going to be governed by laws that are universally consistent and respectful of its people (the common-good approach to moral decision making); or whether the decision will be taken to provide the greatest good to the majority (the utilitarian approach); or whether the decision will be based on the rights to privacy by consenting adults (the rights approach to ethical decision-making); or whether the focus will be on what kind of persons we want to develop and what kind of community we want to create (the virtue approach); or whether we will decide on the justice approach, which seeks to gauge the fairness of an action, not only for the majority, but for the minority.
All of these approaches to ethical decision-making must be brought into the debate because in a secular society, the views of the faith community and its interpretation of the text are important but not exclusive.
Says Desmond Tutu in his book God is not a Christian: “I am proud that in South Africa, when we won the chance to build our own new constitution, the human rights of all have been explicitly enshrined in our laws. My hope is that one day this will be the case all over the world, and that all will have equal rights. For me, this struggle is a seamless robe. Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice.”
Gospel of justice
The issue of homosexuality raises the emotional temperature and causes even the unbeliever to resort to the Bible. People like Tutu recognised such reality and preach a gospel of justice and unconditional regard for all those who are oppressed within our midst.
My views and beliefs as a Christian must contend with those who do not share my views or my faith. At the end of the day, the Christian cannot seek refuge or protection in state legislation. And yet, the Christian, as well as the non-Christian or those who are Christians but disagree with a particular church position, has all rights to free expression and public demonstration. This right behoves each side to be reasonable and moderate in its utterances.
The Church will only win followers by and through its unconditional love of the ‘other’ and the witness of God’s redeeming grace. It doesn’t have to ‘accept’, but it must tolerate and recognise the complexity of the society and acknowledge how much is not yet known.
In this period when the temperature rises, let us find common ground for sober reflection that will engender an atmosphere of mutual respect, care and consideration for each other as we debate and express our views. In the end, we are all Jamaicans entitled to the protection of the law and all should be free to self-determine, to accept or reject, but still love without condition.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Jamaica; buggery is. But buggery is an act that occurs not only between males, but between females and males. However, when you listen to the discussion, the greater concern is the men who have sex with men (MSM). I think that Parliament should take another look at this dated act in light of other issues pertaining to the Offences against the Person Act.
The Rev Dr Paul Gardner is president of the Moravian Church, former president of the Moravian Church Worldwide, and former president of the Jamaica Council of Churches. He also chairs the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.