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RGOD2: Religion and HIV

(Editor’s note: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle delivered these remarks today at the International AIDS Conference at a panel on “Religion, Culture and Law.” This will serve as his weekly RGOD2 column.)

The word religion is from the Latin word religio “to bind.” It is also sometimes described as law – a divine obligation, or sacred covenant which binds humanity with the mystery we call God.

Never before has the human race dealt with a global health crisis that has bound us together. The Acting Dean of the National Cathedral, Frank Wade, welcomed us all to the opening Inter-faith service on Saturday evening. He told the congregation that we were all sitting in the NAVE of the cathedral. Nave is from the same root of the word navy meaning “a ship.”

In “Turning the Tide Together” his opening image was powerful in that we are all literally “in the same ship.” A colleague from Nigeria lost his sister, Stella, to HIV on Tuesday. Instead of returning home to mourn, he joined 25 people from countries where it is still illegal to be LGBT to visit conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill. We were speaking for some of the most marginalized and at-risk populations and our lawmakers listened respectfully. We are all in the same ship.

Binding and law can not only hold us together but can also be seen as a constraint or something which can separate us. We do not have to either apologize for or defend the faith community’s overall response to this epidemic, but our focus today needs to be on the future. The context of indigenous people and migrant populations is also challenging because we are talking about populations who are difficult to quantify, who are often isolated or excluded from dominant social networks where their stories are silenced and their footprints on the earth unacknowledged. These forms of binding become a kind of imprisonment and when it is sanctioned by law, culture and religion it inevitably ends in genocide. The context of these marginalized ones can only be understood fully in the context of colonization and the violence of the state, often in the name of religion and the mystery we call God.

The spiritual journey begins in exile

My own story began in Ireland, a subjugated colonial state where the domination of a different God and a foreign culture above another, has permeated the soul of every person born or descended from that island. The spiritual damage caused by colonialism can never be fully changed. It can be healed and transformed, but the wound that your identity is “less than,” or your identity can only be made complete in “a more powerful and dominant culture,” remains in our collective DNA.

As a gay Irishman, I lived under the Victorian law that homosexuality was illegal that was only fully repealed in Ireland in 1993 in the Republic and in 1982 in Northern Ireland. The most significant groups to oppose repeal of the former colonial laws were the churches. Evangelicals and Catholics in the middle of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s found a strange unity in “Saving Ulster from Sodomy.”

My own Anglican church of Ireland thought homosexuality was incompatible with an understanding of Scripture and in 1980 when it was discovered I was living in a five-year relationship with my partner, I was fired. I lost my home, job and family and we were forced to limp off to London and join the millions of LGBT global refugees who are still largely invisible all over the world. We looked for a new community where our identities could be acknowledged fully for its own reality.

Sexual colonization

LGBT people share a similar process of being “colonized” by the dominant and more powerful heterosexual cultures we are born into. Heterosexual identity, for this largely invisible population, is something which is alien to our inherent being, yet is imposed upon us from every major institution in our society. The process for healing and transforming sexual colonization for LGBT people globally, is a difficult process that could be compared to emerging identities of nations and indigenous peoples within nations engaged in the process of establishing their own identities. LGBT people often have a double portion of work to do, often with little or no support from their own countries.

The anti-LGBT laws I spoke about which defined my identity and love as “criminal” in Ireland for the first three decades of my life, are still in existence in 76 countries, with the same colonial toxic residue. Penal Codes from the 19th century describing homosexuality as “a crime against God and nature,” or in some countries as a “crime against God and the constitution” of a particular country, reinforcing the reality that LGBT people are among the most marginalized and invisible communities.

Half of these countries remain within the Commonwealth, half are in sub-Sahara Africa and seven still enforce the death penalty. It is unknown how many LGBT have been forced to leave their countries and lands of birth because the stigma is so pervasive, even to officials as the seek refugee status or asylum. We often claim political reasons or other reasons for our claims rather than risk further rejection because of sexual identity issues.

I was fortunate to found a home in the Episcopal Church in Los Angeles in 1982 and ended up working with “high risk” homeless street youth. Thousands of young Americans joined the throngs of homeless refugees on the streets of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, often the rejects of Christian Middle America. Parents would rather reject their own children than to reject the churches who taught the evils of homosexuality.

By the mid 1980s, many of these children, involved in survival prostitution, drug use and low self-esteem, became the front line of young people infected with HIV. These were the invisible refugees, the migrant army of the “sexually colonized.” My partner Frank remained in London. We ended our seven-year relationship when I moved to the USA. Two years later he was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1985.

The next 10 years of my life was to take me on a journey I did not expect as a religious leader. I helped to bring many organizations together in the first comprehensive AIDS plan for the State of California and 1991-97 worked closely with the Church of Uganda on its multi-sector prevention strategy to bring down infection rates to under 7% and become a model for the world.

In my years of working closely with Uganda, homosexuality was seldom discussed because the issue of HIV was so overwhelming. Beginning in 1997, I saw the growing influence of Christian fundamentalism from the United States in evangelical and vulnerable communities like Uganda. The Anglican Church there was conservative and evangelical but it was not homophobic in the way we see it today.

This new 21st century wave of colonialism remains largely invisible to the faith communities in the Global North. We can see the result of these relationships in specific cases like the Anti-homosexuality Bill (Bahati Bill) in Uganda where life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” is proposed. We know deliberate misinformation and fear has driven individuals like American evangelist Scott Lively to directly influence Ugandan lawmakers and religious leaders. We may disagree about gay marriage in this country but surely we can agree that killing gays and lesbians or imprisoning them in any context should never be sanctioned in the name of God or of the state.

In the past two years, I have observed that every time an American evangelist appears in Nigeria, Malawi, Uganda or Eastern Europe, lecturing on the need to protect marriage from the homosexual agenda of the West, discriminatory laws often increase, not decrease. Lesbianism has been recently added to the Penal Code in Malawi and only last month, the Ugandan Joint Christian Council, (Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox make up 80% of the population) called for the passage of the anti homosexuality bill.

“Human wrongs do not make human rights”

The Global South churches often say “Human wrongs do not make human rights” and part of the difficulty of creating dialogue and moving forward is often because we are struggling to find a common moral language or framework. My friends in Global South churches define their moral compass from Scripture and theology and often expect the state to enforce biblical interpretation and church moral teaching as state law.

When Secretary Clinton describes “gay rights as human rights,” as much as most Global Northerners may welcome our concern for millions of invisible LGBT people globally, this development is seen as negative neo-imperialism by the vast majority of Africans of faith. We need a new vocabulary and a new language that focuses on values and outcomes so that we can move beyond our isolated “cul-de-sacs.”

“When a man has his foot on the neck of another man” as the maxim concludes, “both of them are going no-where.”

Our delay in learning this new language is costly, both in time, resources and human lives. I propose a framework that has been inspired by German Lutheran Bishop Wolfgang Huber who gave a lecture in Ireland in 2008 on the contesting claims of human rights and religious values that appear to be in opposition to one another as moral core values.

His model is quite simple. “Human Rights” provides an internationally agreed framework, however limited and imperfect which provides a red line under which the family of nations has agreed not to go. Above the red line for people of faith is the Imago Dei – the image of God that each human being carries by our very being as part of God’s own creation. All religions share some agreement of the mystical connection we share individually and collectively to the prime source of our creation. The Imago Dei is about our limitless potential as human beings created by God and “bound” sacredly to God and one another. To use the power of the state to enforce theological viewpoints and unscientific observations deserves to be challenged by all people of goodwill. Both theology and human rights need each other if our ship is to be guided towards less stormy waters.

A little phrase is attached to my Irish grandmother’s photograph. It conjures up the smell of sweet grasses and burning peat fires around which Irish families would gather to tell stories and feed each other.

“Grace is very difficult to understand. It is an expression of freedom behind law”

The gift of Grace through graceful engagement – the integration of human rights and Imago Dei, the sacred binding with the law, is our challenge and I believe, our priority, if transformation and healing is to take place.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.