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Rights or righteousness? Seeking common ground on sexual-identity issues in church and society

(Editor’s note: To the casual observer, Evangelical Christians, the Vatican, African Anglicans and Muslims in half the planet are united in a hard line approach to “deviant” behavior (men who have sex with men MSM, intravenous drug use and commercial sex work) that may lead to higher risk for HIV infection. The institutional response has been to criminalize these populations while ignoring the advice of public health experts. Holy texts are invoked in Uganda, Malawi and Nigeria to support state-sanctioned violence against minority populations who are three times more likely to get AIDS in developing countries than their neighbors. Lack of access to information and services because of these laws is the problem, and not only their actual behaviors. LGBT advocates and legalists on the other hand appear to be influencing political leaders like David Cameron to cut foreign aid to countries that persecute homosexuals and other at risk populations using the secular holy texts of “human rights.” Both sides believe righteousness to be on their side. Meanwhile for every two people who are lucky enough to have access to medication, five human beings have been newly infected. How can we move beyond the apparent polarization and build upon common ground?

Recently returning to his native Ireland after a two-day conference in Geneva, Switzerland on HIV, theology and human rights, the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego reflects on the unique contribution Irish Christians could bring to the standoff. He describes it as an “identity conflict” where human needs and values must trump ideologies. After thirty years of violent sectarian conflict (where religious and political identities are both part problem and part solution) there may be an opportunity to present “best practices” not only to Irish discussions about homosexuality but a framework for some difficult conversations and policy changes over sexual identities and the place of sex workers and IV drug users in the AIDS pandemic.)


GENEVA, Switzerland -- The two-day conference was organized by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, a broad-based largely Christian coalition based in Geneva with support from a variety of UN bodies and NORAID, a Norwegian aid organization working on global AIDS issues.

For 30 of us, it was an opportunity for secular and religious leadership to review the UNAIDS High Level meeting where the Global AIDS Declaration was crafted by world governments this summer. Although the religious community plays a vital role in the creation of preventive and response strategies to the 30-year epidemic, there are some hurdles we have to still to jump if we are to meet the new challenges of the worst health threat yet known to humanity.

Almost 40% of HIV services are delivered through faith-based programs in Africa and all of the UK and Irish religious aid organizations all have multimillion-dollar programs caring for AIDS orphans, the infected and the dying. The religious community is united in its response to many aspects of the crisis – governments in developed countries should not step back from providing funding to “get to zero” new infections, zero discrimination and zero mother-to-child HIV transmission. (“Getting to Zero” has become the theme for global AIDS work in the next five years).



Of the 76 countries where MSM, IV Drug use and prostitution is illegal, almost half are in sub-Sahara Africa, the epicenter of the epidemic


We could, if we wanted, provide inexpensive medication to prevent any child from being born with HIV through vertical transmission from mother to child at birth, but the moral issue has become- “who is going to pay for the cost it takes to save a life?” The religious community is united in its call to governments to “do no harm” to significant “at risk” communities, but we have yet to define what that might look like when we consider 76 countries still criminalize sex between men (MSM) intravenous drug users and commercial sex workers.

The recent UN High Level meeting on HIV (June 2011) demonstrated the urgency of addressing the moral and political problems associated with sovereign government’s role in protecting all their citizens and allowing for equal access to education and treatment. However, some governments are further criminalizing homosexuality in places like Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda. The dilemma is further complicated when religious communities in all 76 countries are playing a significant role in not only maintaining 19th century colonial punitive laws, but in some places, making them even more stringent.

Appealing to a universally agreed “Human Rights” framework by local and international activists or governments can bring pressure on other governments for legislative reform, but this strategy is proving to have significant limitations. At the Geneva conference, it was noted, for every two people who gain access to treatment, they are replaced with five new people with HIV. We are losing the battle.

The theological battle which in turn influences politicians (always looking for electoral support) may now become an issue hindering sound scientific public health policy. For example, gender inequality, often reinforced by traditional Christian and Muslim family values results in women continuing to be at higher risk for HIV than men. Domestic violence and religious taboo against divorce and condom use all contribute to an escalating pandemic.

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt

Recent statistics from Africa show that even previously “safer” populations such as married couples are also at risk, particularly when one partner tests positive. ( see latest report from Uganda).

This new situation is forcing the churches to look more critically at the realities of sexual behavior of married heterosexuals. A pastor from the Caribbean shared how he created his own research project among young evangelical “born again” teenagers helped to confront the idealism and false security of his religious community assuming their teenagers were less sexually active than non-Christian teens. The UN statistics that 1% of local children under 14 were engaging in sexual activity were challenged by the pastor’s blind survey that showed higher percentages. Faced with a new reality, the local pastors began their own campaign to help their young people have assertiveness training and more discussion within their peer group about preventing the spread of HIV.

The old strategies of either ignoring the problem or refusing to listen to the voices of those at most risk, are creating the fastest conduits for the virus to enter more bloodstreams. Over 40% of new infections are among young people under 25 and the religious community’s historic ambivalence about sound sexual education is failing to address something beyond our control. Even when it is shown infection rates in at risk populations can decrease by 300%, (as reported by South East Asia when decriminalization of same gender relationships or IV drug use was adopted), there is still an ideological struggle between religious leaders who see legal sanctions and deterrents as a necessary moral and public health protection against behaviors deemed immoral or evil. Others see them as barriers to full protection and access for all citizens. So the conference asked: Where can we go from here?


Sharon Slater of Family Watch International, a Mormon organization in Arizona, was particularly active in the campaign to misinform on MSM and other HIV prevention issues at the UN.


This ideological struggle was also at work during the UN High Level meeting when the African delegations (excluding South Africa) refused to discuss any references to MSM, IV drug users or sex workers. An alternative draft Declaration was created by a coalition of Evangelical, Catholic and Mormon organizations where all references to these at risk populations were either removed or framed in a way their identities were reduced merely to behaviors that needed to be healed. This controversial solution was reinforced by a Vatican statement released in March suggesting that homosexuality as a sexual orientation was actually not a real identity but merely an intrinsically disordered state – a series of behaviors than needed correction. Mormon and evangelical belief that homosexuality is chosen rather than already determined, also shaped their proposed solutions to the epidemic by calling for more treatment programs where so called “ex-gay” therapy could help people stop homosexual behavior and drug usage, while women could find alternative employment from sex work. The premise of the dominant religious community’s contribution to the High Level meeting and their alliances with other Muslim fundamentalist countries almost derailed the discussions. The final resulting Declaration made no mention of Lesbian and Gay people, and MSM was mentioned in one out of 105 paragraphs.

The problem of assumptions and theologically based responses to complex issues

Although there was a strong advocacy for women in the alternative draft Declaration and the need to address gender-based discrimination and violence, there was also a lack of advocacy for decriminalization of homosexuality. For some, decriminalization meant having to sanction homosexuality or admit it might actually exist as an identity.

If, for example, we look at the proposed Bahati bill in Uganda, we see how the rationale of punitive state intervention may lead people into therapy to return to heterosexuality. The bill suggests life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” (meaning you just keep on being gay) or measures to punish counselors, neighbors and family members who do not report known homosexuals to the police. The underlying premise is homosexuality is an alien vice (it is seen as a Western-learned behavior and not indigenous) and if the social climate is so prohibitive to any homosexual behavior (i.e. you can be sent to prison for life) homosexuals would choose therapy and get back on the “straight and narrow” way to a healthy life. Punishment is seen as a deterrent for a chosen anti-social and irreligious behavior.

The limitations of the human rights framework

Calling upon a human rights framework within this debate, as we discovered in Geneva, is not helpful either and it may even make the situation worse as David Cameron has just discovered at the recent Commonwealth meeting in Australian two weeks ago.

Cameron linked Malawi’s continued criminalization of homosexuality to a further violation of internationally agreed human rights and is now threatening to withhold British aid from African governments who persecute LGBT people. Given the demonstrated relationship between countries that criminalize homosexuality and lack of equal access to HIV prevention and health services to LGBT people, Cameron has a point. It is morally wrong to define homosexuals and IV drug users as criminals who do not deserve equal access to information and care that would save their lives. This kind of dehumanizing worked effectively in Germany and Rwanda to wipe out whole populations and applied to 76 countries, this policy is verging on pre-meditated genocide.

So Cameron and other governments have a right to pay attention and hold over governments accountable. However, the lack of consultation with LGBT and rights organizations in Malawi before the statement has given the British government an imperious quality that has opened old wounds for many of her former colonies. Rather than help relieve the suffering of millions of marginalized and at risk LGBT people, IV drug users and commercial sex workers and millions more heterosexuals who live and have sex with them, the threat of conditional aid has made these populations more vulnerable to increased blame, persecution and marginalization.

It would have been better for the British government to give grants directly to civil society organizations that are committed to building gay/straight alliances where issues of poverty, health and access to opportunity are addressed for everyone. Nevertheless, we have learned something from Cameron’s bold attempt to begin to address the issues. The human rights model is failing to create a common space where these issues can be addressed.

Opening old wounds

Africans are reminded of their own marginalization in the global processes that either created the UN Declaration of Human Rights and so every time we in the West appeal to this honorable body of international agreements, we are actually sticking our fingers into a very sore unhealed wound of international imperialism.

Africans can say “We were not there!” when the initial agreements between the victors of the Second World War were drawn up. True, but can Africans afford to ignore 60 years of international treaties on human rights that however imperfect and however flawed from the trauma of mid-20th century imperialism? If Presidents like Yowero Musevene of Uganda may suggest to their people - “Human Rights are a fiction of western imperial self-interest and do not apply in Africa,” so who has most to lose? Flawed though they may be, these international instruments need continued revision and adaptation and may no longer be a helpful negotiating tool for churches and civil society organizations to address HIV.

Historically in the 1950s and 1960s when former European powers were seeking exemptions from the emerging body of human rights prior to the wave of African independence, African leaders actually dominated the debate on the universal application of human rights. We need to reacquaint Africans with this forgotten period of history when they championed human rights for the world and challenge the revisionism of the Christian Right.

I suggest three moves that might help the debate and move the religious community into a place of common ground rather than a place of conflict. My suggestions come from the creative dialogue from the Geneva Conference and from recent experiences gained in the Irish Peace Process. As the Anglican Church of Ireland prepares for a conference on homosexuality next year, there may be a mutual learning on how to shape the issues and process. As a conservative evangelical church within the Anglican Communion, the role of the Church of Ireland in the international arena is critically needed. Ireland was also colonized by the British and I remember when it was illegal to be gay because of the same laws that are now being ramped up against African gays in the name of God. The three moves are:

1. Reframing the issues and mapping the conflict.

Although it took 30 years for the Irish Peace Process to come to some initial fruition, there was a lot of local and international work done to bring conflicting factions together and identify what the issues really are about. There were a number of things we discovered we had in common and could actually work on together while leaving the more contentious issues to others to work on for long-term solutions.

The Geneva Conference was a small example that conservative and liberal Christians could agree on a number of issues in a respectful and attentive way to address a complex international issue such as HIV. Our initial temptation in Geneva was to try to come to a consensus and agree on an overarching approach that would understate differences and our concluding decision was acknowledge there was more than one theological position in the room, more than one church and more than one solution to the questions before us. In identifying and mapping the conflict, we could each commit to work not only on the areas of commonality, but also deeper conversation on areas we differed. We cited biblical texts of conflicts within the early church from the mother church in Jerusalem to the unorthodox work of Paul among the Gentiles. We invoked the parables of Jesus as common values for shared ministry, i.e. the Good Samaritan, which illustrated both the limitations of organized religion to respond to all human needs (the clergy who pass by on the other side) and the Samaritan who met the needs of the victim, even though the Samaritan would have been considered an unlikely hero from the margins. The invitation for the faith community to help reduce stigma – a universal outcome of HIV is present in this story and to provide healing and safely for everyone was acknowledged. Referring again to the holy texts, the incident of the baptism of Cornelius in Acts is a foundational story of the gifts of the Holy Spirit clearly manifested in one who is not of the “Household of God,” a non Jew who compelled the Apostles to reconsider religious and cultural boundaries of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and participate fully in the sacramental life and work of the first community. The diversity of theological opinions and arguments in both the attitude to Paul and Cornelius should be an inspiration to the contemporary engagements in the church, particularly around issues of human sexuality and the relationship of law to grace.



One of the oldest images of St. Paul. Thecla's Cave, Ephesus


2. Church and State issues

The conference spent time looking at how the church and the state interact in a shared moral vision. The artificial division between human rights language and values and religious values and laws needs deep reflection and repair. The current revisionist approach that the vast body of human rights international agreements are somehow secular and are counter to some agreed body of religious laws (whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish) needs to be challenged by a careful review of historical religious contributions to their creation and the accountability they required from religious movements who were sadly complicit in much of the genocide and destruction of human life in two world conflicts and in more recent genocides. Conservative religious voices and principles may ask rightly, is there room in the current UN framework of human rights language to talk about “values” for example? It would be better to use the conflict mapping process to also look at values and needs. To understand a conflict, we may reflect on what underlying human needs are not being met – be it access to food, work, opportunity, self-respect or self-identity, freedom of religion or association, societal responsibility and obligations to ones neighbors. If the church has a particular framework of values that may even reflect the majority vales of a given society, what is the moral obligation of the church to ask the state to apply these as law on all its citizens?

3. Including and listening to the community we are talking about

Thirdly, the Geneva Conference attendees agreed that without the voices and active participation of the people we are talking about, whether people living with HIV, at risk populations or representatives of governments, we are diminished in both our full understanding of the complexity of issues and of finding long term sustainable solutions. For example, it took us about 15 years before the voices of people actually living with the virus began to be heard and influenced the policy and economic decisions that have previously been made on their behalf. Listening to the voices and contexts of the people we are legislating for or against is an important conclusion we came to at Geneva. Merely writing people off as immoral, criminal or sinful without including them at the tables of altar, conference or decision making will continue to diminish our effective response to a complex pandemic. HIV has the habit of forcing us all to look at our cherished assumptions and belief systems. Archbishop Yona Okoth of Uganda forcefully told the 1988 Lambeth Conference that there was no AIDS in Africa and he was backed by every African bishop present. He returned home and opened himself up to the listening process and it changed his perceptions and experience to become one of the greatest advocates for AIDS prevention and care. His openness to new information and the gospel imperative to pastorally respond to his community was not only transformational to him personally but it changed and saved lives. It helped to mobilize a large and respected institution to be part of a multi-sector and interfaith response to educate the Ugandan public about the three deterrents to HIV infection – Abstinence, Be careful (limiting the number of sexual partners) and Condom use (the ABC approach). Uganda’s religious communities had differences of approaches to this core prevention strategy. Roman Catholics were unable to endorse condom use and became much more focused on the care of orphans and the sick allowing the Anglicans to freely distribute condoms or emphasize abstinence with the youth. Differences were mapped and became strengths rather than weaknesses. The important outcome from this approach was the very significant impact this strategy had on reducing infection rates from double to single digits in a few years.

Uganda’s international importance

Could the international community learn from Uganda’s experience and diversity in the light of new information today? Is everyone allowed to have equal voice at the table and how are differences minimized or disqualified? By increasing punitive measures against at risk populations through state laws to criminalize sexual behavior, can religious leaders provide both the moral and scientific evidence that this experiment will work? South Africa’s experiment of vigorously seeking the cause of AIDS outside of the science and understanding of the HIV virus – supported by church and state alike had devastating consequences for 25% of its people who are now infected. The models of collaboration and diverse approaches for Africa and elsewhere are certainly with us, as are failed examples of unilateralism. Geneva was a hopeful first step to create some deeper engagement for the faith and secular communities to map the conflict, listen to needs and issues of identity from the people themselves and to see how values and needs might be met. The stakes remain high whether we can allow this process to happen or not. If the process can be agreed and shared there are still difficult challenges ahead, but at least we will be working on them from a common strength and different perspectives.

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is President of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and lives in San Diego. Donations for the work of Bishop Christopher can be made by clicking HERE.