Sex, Colonialism, and Anglicanism: the ethics of mourning.

When I have time, I enjoy reading the New York Times online with my morning breakfast.  As I opened the “world” section of the paper, I noticed a headline and read the article at once:  “Same-Sex Couple Stirs Fears of a ‘Gay Agenda.'”  I shut the computer and finished my breakfast, trying to think through the problems, again.

Skyler and I have been talking a lot about the Anglican church in Africa and the issue of homosexuality.  We are Anglicans, in AMIA (and so under the Rwandan Anglican church), and want to go to over to Rwanda.  We’ve also been following the Ugandan Anglican Church’s response to the proposed bill that would allow the execution of homosexuals (interesting enough, a bill that came a month after three American evangelicals gave a series of talks on the evils of the gay rights movement, how it would destroy a family-based society, and how homosexuals can be converted into heterosexuals–read more HERE).
The article I read at breakfast discussed the arrest of a same-sex couple in Malawi after having a party to celebrate their engagement.  The whole article painfully illustrates the complexities of even holding a discussion on this topic between the two continents, let alone reaching some kind of mutual understanding.  For instance, the article quotes the Rev. Zacc Kawalala, who says, “The West has its gay agenda.  It wants to look at Africa and say, ‘If you don’t accept homosexuality, you are primitive.’ But we’re not as wicked as the West.” Another person comments, “These immoral acts are not in our  culture; they are coming from the outside.  Otherwise, why is  there all this interest from around the world?  Why is money being sent?”  Discussing a different case, in which a person was arrested for putting up posters supporting gay rights as human rights, a police spokesman commented, “You wouldn’t allow a poster that says, ‘Let’s Rape the Women,’ would you?”
Within these few quotes we encounter the history of European and American imperialism, in the idea of its “agenda,” in its self-professed superiority over the “primitives,” and in its attempts to control politics through finances.  We have the creation of a cultural unity by the declaration of the “transgressor” as fundamentally and irredeemably “alien” (the purity of Ugandan culture being safeguarded from the “threat” of homosexual acts by declaring these deeds “foreign”).  This cultural practice is, sadly, something countries in the West share (note, not “used to have”).  Finally, we have a question that vexes our own political institution, namely, that we all agree government needs to legislate morality, we just disagree on whose morality it ought to legislate.  The idea common among many that homosexuality is wrong but that the government should not legislate against it depends ultimately on the evaluation of how socially “harmful” such an act is to the political body (I will have to speak further on this attachment to the governmental investment to “ensure, maintain, or develops it life”–to quote Foucault–at another point).  And if this latter analysis is correct, then we return to the first two problems with even more force:  how do we talk about these problems beyond “the West’s” past and present assumption of “cultural strength”?  Given the deep history of imperialism, how can we expect those who’ve experienced the horrors produced by our imperial endeavors to not assume that we are, once again, trying to export our own sense of our superiority?  In short, we can’t figure out how to discuss these questions within our own country, even among the predominantly white, middle-to-upper-class Americans that form a large portion of the Episcopal and Anglican church.  How can we do it across these divides?
It is perhaps this seemingly insurmountable divide that points us in the exact direction we must travel:  we cannot discuss the question of sexuality apart from the operations of European/American, Christian, colonial endeavors.  The inability to “bypass” this painful, problematic history forces all of us to go right through it, into the middle of it, and try to find our way out.  The “West’s” arrogant pretensions are cut out from under it by this lingering awareness of its guilt, a history that cannot be forgotten or evaded, but must be confronted and mourned.  
It’s the “Western” Anglican church’s inability to mourn this tragic history that creates its tendency towards amnesia.  As Behdad argues in a different context, this kind of amnesia functions as a “Freudian notion of negation,” a “repudiation, by means of projection, of an association that has just emerged” (__A Forgetful Nation__, p. 4).  In “negation,” one “may acknowledge an event, but the subject either denies its significance or refuses to take responsibility for it” (p. 4).  The refusal to take responsibility often takes the form of projecting “his or her guilt onto others by blaming them for what has occurred, attempting thus to hide the implications of his or her own action” (p. 5).  The Church of Uganda identifies this kind of projection in the issue of women’s ordination.  They say that comparison of women’s ordination to homosexual ordination is insulting, for the patriarchalism of Western Christian missionaries actually curbed the religious leadership of women traditionally found in Ugandan society, and that Ugandan Christians started allowing women into positions of leadership before the West.  In other words, the Western church tries to secure the high ground by projecting their own sinful heritage (patriarchalism) onto the African church; they then tried to use this “disavowal” (they are backwards and guilty, we are moral leaders) to advocate their continued leadership (as “innocent” moral authorities).  
The conservative American Anglicans under African leadership (AMIA), have often used this post-colonial context to berate the “liberals.”  However, placing oneself under the authority of bishops in Rwanda does not ipso facto mean that the colonial history has been effectively confronted,  mourned, and surpassed.  Churches like AMIA have the ability, and calling, to remind the “Western” church that it cannot declare itself a moral authority on sexuality and dismiss its African brothers and sisters.  To do so is to take the position, again, of imperial sovereignty.  But these AMIA churches do this not from a place outside of the problem, but from an awareness that they too have been formed inside of the problem.
Perhaps it would be easiest for white, Western Anglicans to start by mourning the loss of their cultural supremacy as well as their sinful enactment of and attachment to this supremacy.  Most realize that the project of imperialism was indeed sinful (though most mistakenly think of it as “safely” lodged in the past and overcome); but recognizing that a broken attachment was/is sinful does not mean one no longer suffers from the loss of it.  The loss must be acknowledged, which is why the mourning must address both the loss of the sinful power and the sinfulness of the power now lost.  
This ethical stance of mourning is not an attempt to stall the church, to bide our time, to wait passively or ignore the political urgency of people who face jail, and possibly death, for being gay.  Much needs to be said.  But we won’t get anywhere if we keep trying to ignore or evade our guilt, for our attempt to render ourselves “innocent” not only ignores the imperialist history, it reenacts it.  To begin with mourning necessitates starting in a place of dependency–we do not know how to mourn this history, and so we cannot mourn it alone, but we must seek the help of those whose did not benefit from the cultural supremacy but suffered under it.  
(it should be noted that I stuck with the term “western,” sometimes in quotes, sometimes not, because it was introduced by the persons in the article and it provided a convenient shorthand; it should be read with all the typical qualifications and disavowals.  
This entry was posted in anglicanism, colonialism, ethics, homosexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sex, Colonialism, and Anglicanism: the ethics of mourning.

  1. Steve Hayes says:

    Very interesting post, though I'm not sure that I grasp the concept of "mourning" as you use it. But I think you put the idea of agreement that the state should enforce morality very well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s