A Theological Challenge to Christian Homophobia

The stand taken by Cardinal Gracias, the inter faith declaration on the acceptance of homosexuality and the release of a Christian book on the church and homophobia show religion in India is opening up to the LGBT community.

The stand taken by Cardinal Gracias, the inter faith declaration on the acceptance of homosexuality and the release of a Christian book on the church and homophobia show religion in India is opening up to the LGBT community
Dr. George Zacharia_chruch and homophobia

“How do we enable our faith communities to realise homophobia is a sin? How can we work with the congregation to help them realize heterosexism and heteronormativity are sins?”

These were the questions asked on a wet Monday evening in St. Marks Cathedral in Bangalore. On November 23, the convention hall on the Cathedral grounds hosted a reading and discussion of Disruptive Faith, Inclusive Communities: Church and Homophobia, a book launched in August this year. Through a collection of chapters written by Christian writers and theologians, the book contextualizes homophobia and heteronormativity in biblical history and seeks to positively reinterpret the Christian view on homosexuality.

The book’s editors, George Zachariah and Reverend Vincent Rajkumar, aim to disrupt theological legitimisation of ‘heterosexism and homophobia’ and transform faith communities towards justice and inclusivity. Zachariah teaches in the department of Theology and Ethics in United Theological College, Bangalore, while Rev Rajkumar is the Presbyter of the Church of South India and serves as the Director of Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society.

The book, published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is part of a larger campaign by a collective of Christian theologians and rights activists that came together after the (shortlived) Delhi High Court verdict striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality. “We initiated different programmes across the country to create awareness among the Christian communities to affirm rights of LGBT communities. The book is the second stage of the campaign, where we thought of initiating more theological discussions and literature”, said Zachariah.

Rev Rajkumar says that the church has been closing its eyes to instances of oppression for a long time, whether it is homophobia, racism or Dalit oppression. He said, “Many in our community are living in fear and marginalization. Their families rush to get them married and the church goes along with it”. While they faced a lot of opposition in the initial stages and are anticipating more trouble,  Zachariah is hopeful that the book would get congregations out of denial mode on homosexuality. “It will take time which is why we started with addressing homophobia”, he said.

Traditionally, church and Christian leaders have frowned upon homosexuality as a ‘sin’ that counters the Genesis of creation as intended by God (Adam and Eve) and the purpose of intercourse as procreation. In India, the most notable exception to this has been the views expressed by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay and a member of the Pope’s council of nine cardinal advisors. Last month on a Synod visit to the Vatican, he spoke about the importance of a non-judgmental attitude when dealing with LGBT community and on their right to love and compassion by the church. On India Today TV’s ‘Nothing But the Truth’, he said, Cardinal Gracias urged politicians to decriminalise homosexuality.

Despite being the highest authority in India, the archbishop came under considerable fire from some Christian groups and members, although this wasn’t the first time he came out in support of the LGBT community. Since Pope Francis’ statement, “Who am I to judge?” to allegations of a ‘gay lobby’ in the Vatican in 2013, the Catholic church has been moving towards an attitude of acceptance of LGBT communities.

LGBT community in Mizoram

In the same year back home, the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram (one of the largest denominations in the North East) cut off ties with their American counterparts over ordaining gay ministers. While covering this story for The Sunday Guardian, the synod secretary at the Presbyterian synod executive committee (SEC) told me, “We feel that going against the teachings of the Bible, as against losing fellowship and funding, is more harmful in the ministry of our church”. The SEC also issued a decree to excommunicate gay members who were living with same sex partners, as long as they lived with them. A Mizo gay man I had spoken to for this story sent me a message me on Facebook shortly after it was published – “We have a sexual urge for the same sex. But, we can suppress this sexual urge if we put our WHOLE FAITH in JESUS CHRIST and of the fact that CHRIST had killed all of these humanly desires when he was on earth (sic)”. He claimed he had been ‘born again’.

While organizing a seminar on homophobia in Aizawl, Rev Rajkumar observed that the LGBT community in Mizoram were brainwashed into believing that they were living in sin. “They’ve been forced to believe that because of their sexual desires”, he says. “We’ve faced more opposition within our own faith from other denominations than from other religions. Many churches from the North East wanted to de-link from us on this dialogue”.

In India, Christians make up 2.3% of the population, with the third highest rate of growth at 15.5% as per the 2011 Census survey. Even as a religion imported from the West, certain Christian groups have united in the right wing discourse to criminalize homosexuality to protect “traditional moral values”. In the 2013 Suresh Kumar Koushal & others vs. Naz Foundation Supreme Court judgment, Utkal Christian Council (UCC) and Apostolic Churches Alliances (ACA) were among the petitioners who challenged the 2009 Delhi High Court judgment to criminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults.

‘You don’t represent us’

Speaking on the panel at the book discussion, Anthony Thottingill, a partner in a design and research firm in Bangalore, said that the religious groups among the petitioners only exist in the fringes yet the media generalised them as “Christian groups”. Addressing the Christian community, he said, “I think it’s important to not remain silent but come out and say, “You don’t represent us”. And it’s not okay to just say you’re accepting and inclusive but to also talk about it because a lot of people are suffering in silence – gay men, women and transgenders”

A perusal of the SC judgment does not list any information on UCC while ACA is listed as a registered body of pastors from independent churches in Kerala. While Google threw up nothing concrete on ACA, UCC was listed as a registered body in Berhampur, Orissa. In 2008, UCC had petitioned against the state of Odisha in the high court on a bandh proposed by the state on 25 December, Christmas Day. Despite various attempts to contact Jyostna Rani Patro, the honorary secretary of UCC whose name is mentioned in the Supreme Court judgment, she did not respond to any of my questions.

Zachariah and Rev Rajkumar have also been working with other religious groups and leaders. “Last year we had an interfaith roundtable on ‘human sexuality and homophobia’ where we presented perspectives from different theological traditions. Leaders like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Swami Agnivesh were present and there were also representatives from Jainism and Sikhism”, he said. The outcome of the roundtable was the collective release of an inter faith declaration signed by over 30 faith practitioners, theologians, academicians and faith based rights defending activists last year in a public meeting in Bangalore.

It is easy to summarily dismiss religious groups for violating the rights and dignity of LGBT communities, especially when Baba Ramdev claims to “cure homosexuality” through yoga. The stand taken by Cardinal Gracias, the inter faith declaration and the release of a Christian book on homophobia show that diversity exists in how religion looks at homosexuality in India. As Zachariah puts it, “We often operate within the binaries of religion and secular. We need to take religion out of the hands of the fanatics “.

Makepeace Sitlhou is a freelance writer based in Bangalore. She tweets at @makesyoucakes.