Friday, December 4, 2009

Sex, Death, and "The Family"

The legislature of Uganda is considering the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009. The bill is sponsored by David Bahati, and endorsed by the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. It calls for harsh punishment of gays, including imprisonment and death. Ugandans could even be incarcerated for not notifying the authorities about a gay person. Uganda, like much of Africa, has been the target of American Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians. In particular, a cult-like entity called “Family” or Fellowship of C street, has been influencing Uganda. This group has been investigated by noted journalist Jeff Sharlett, in his expose The Family. American right-wingers like Rick Warren, Governor Mark Sanford, scandal-plagued Nevada Senator John Ensign, and nuts like Dr. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are part of this group. Warren expressed surprise that anyone cares what happens to gays in Uganda. Rachel Maddow and Teri Gross deserve praise for covering a story few MSM reporters are discussing.

Is it even necessary to say how appalling this legislation is, and how shameful the behavior of Warren et al is? This issue illustrates three things: the legacy of post-colonial missionary zeal, the intersection of sex, death, and taboo, and the inherent violence of the Abrahamic religions. It’s not my intention to savage Christianity or anyone’s beliefs. I only want to make a few observations.
Africa is still experiencing the consequences of colonialism. In the nineteenth century, the continent was carved up among the European nations. Before that, Africa and its inhabitants were targets of the slave trade. The missionaries who evangelized Africa were, necessarily, extremists. Only the most earnest, true believers become missionaries. Is it surprising, then, that Uganda suffers from the most fanatic form of Christianity? Because of European influence, indigenous religion is rarely practiced by Africans in Africa. If you want to learn about Yoruba, for instance, you have to come to the “New” World. The African Yoruba religion, with its reverence for orisha, is expressed in the Caribbean religions of Voodoo and Santeria. Colonialism and missionary work have effectively relieved Africa of its native traditions and beliefs, for better or worse.

Sexuality, death, and taboo are woven into the fabric of the human psyche. Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, was not the first to note the relationship between sex and death. It is through sex that we mortals, subject to death, come in to being. Religion, as it shifted from tribal to national, sought to control sexuality. In the ancient Near East, fertility rituals were a part of religion. The most common item found in ancient burials are so-called Venus figurines, violin-shaped effigies of women with exaggerated sexual organs. These figurines are believed to be part of fertility worship, and the ancients certainly made the connection between sex and death.

It’s hard to understand the Judeo-Christian taboo about homosexuality. It’s tempting to say the ancient Hebrews were anti-sex, but that can’t be shown. The Hebrew Bible was written by various authors over many centuries, and sex taboos change in the text. It’s impossible to read Song of Solomon and say Hebrew writers are anti-sex. The Christian Bible was written by fewer authors over the course of less than a century, and its beliefs are more consistently anti-sex. Christian authors are against sexual expression, revealing the influence of Greek ascetic and Gnostic traditions. This said, Jesus never mentions homosexuality. The only universal taboo about sex seems to be incest, according to sociologists. Like all taboos, it can be violated by the powerful. Egyptian rulers celebrated brother/sister love, and these creepy overtones can be seen in Song of Solomon.

The most disturbing aspect of all three Abrahamic religions is human sacrifice. Yahweh is angry at Cain for not offering a living sacrifice. Yahweh commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Bizarrely, Abraham complies. If your new God wanted a human sacrifice, wouldn’t you shop around for a kinder, gentler deity? As Rich Cohen notes, children rightly understand this story, and aren’t convinced by adults who tell them it is a test of faith, and Yahweh doesn’t really want this child to be slaughtered. I wasn’t convinced when I was a child in Sunday School. Archaeologists and religious scholars maintain that human sacrifice was common in the ancient Near East. Mount Zion was a center of this cult.

I like to go to church during Advent. The Christmas carols are great. But last Sunday I sat through a sermon preached by a seminary student, who covered the traditional orthodox scheme of regeneration, where God is propitiated by the death of his son. I reject this theology. What father would have complicity in the death of his son? And once a month, the church wants us to “eat” Jesus. Maybe I should stay home with the CD player and skip the human sacrifice. I could sing hymns at home, and drive the neighbors crazy. I grew up steeped in Jewish and Christian belief. The older I get, the more I am bothered by the violence inherent in traditional theology.

The link between Abrahamic religion and murder can’t be considered latent: it’s obvious and celebrated in many churches, synagogues and mosques. Enlightened clergy try to spiritualize and change violence into metaphor. It’s a hard sell. When the Rick Warrens and Tom Coburns of the world are responsible for the death of innocents, it’s not a surprise. They are true to the tradition. The only sects that are truly pro-life are the Friends (Quakers), Evangelical Brethren, Mennonites and Amish. They are anti-death penalty pacifists. People who are anti-abortion can’t be considered pro-life. They operate on the Fisherman’s theory: put ‘em back in till they get bigger.

People of good will who want the world to be a better place need to disavow the inherent violence of Abrahamic religion. They need to lobby and work against the Rick Warrens of the world, who may be truer to the spirit of these religions, unfortunately. Humans have a fifteen thousand year history of violence and capital punishment. For the survival of the species, it’s time to find a different way.