A Note to the Reader: I began this series of articles before the storm now raging over the insensate decision of President Goodluck Jonathan to withdraw a phantom subsidy on oil products. I submitted this concluding part of my argument to The Guardian (of Nigeria) on 2 January, at about the same time the policy was announced. While waiting for the editors of The Guardian to publish it, I have written and published online three essays on this burning issue. But it stands to reason that I cannot leave my argument unfinished, having indicated to my readers that the concluding part was to follow. In any case, homophobia, especially when it takes the dangerous form of the imprisonment of persons of same-sex orientation as proposed in a bill pending before the national assembly, is just another form of oppression. And it is worthy of the protest of any person of conscience, as—to quote Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr,— “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is in that spirit that I post this first part of the conclusion of my essay.

In this concluding essay of the series published under different titles beginning on 19 December 2011, inspired by the pending bill to criminalise homosexual relationships in Nigeria, I turn to the question of the sexual politics of the church which poisons every attempt to have a rational discussion of the subject. The church, I will point out, has a problem with sex in general and not just homosexuality. I began the first essay on the note of irony, and will conclude on it as well. I confess that I’m unable to resist the temptation offered by Rev. Jasper Akinola in the non-ecclesiastical ground of his campaign of hate against fellow human beings: his new-found but strident anti-imperialist stance. (Oh, yes, I will hear that it is the “sin” he hates and not the sinner, though no one ever heard of sin serving jail terms.) Every literate adult must know what the missionary position means in sexual intercourse. For the benefit of those who may not, it describes the coital position in which the man is on top. It is also known as the dominant position, with the man dominating and the woman dominated.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, but especially since the 17th Century, the church has occupied the dominant position in matters of (sexual) morality. To put it plainly, the God of the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is obsessed with sex. The roots of this obsession trail from the mythical Garden of Eden. Not even the dainty language of the Old Testament could conceal the fact that the original sin, the forbidden fruit, was carnal knowledge. In the sixth book of Genesis, it is plain what the first “wickedness” is that caused God to wipe “man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air” (every sensate thing God created had sinned against him) save Noah “from the face of the earth.” By the time of Christ’s sermon on the mount in the New Testament, the actual act of copulation has become irrelevant: one commits adultery by merely looking at a woman lustfully. Mercifully, a woman, it seems, cannot commit the sin by looking with lust at a man; or, perhaps, reduced to a mere appendage of man, a spare rib of Adam’s, the woman’s lust does not rise to the level of sin. But we have the fourteen-year-old African-American boy, Emmett Till, lynched by the devout racists of Mississippi in 1955, as the poster-child of this sin.

At the heart of this strange obsession of the church is the dubious division of the human person into body, soul and spirit; with the body, or the flesh, posited as the repository of evil; in particular, sexual desire. The body is that which perishes, which decays at death. The soul, on the other hand, represents the eternal breath of life, that which is worthy of salvation.  By the combined strength of this obsession with sex and the separation of the body from the soul, the flesh — not the love of money — was transformed by the church into the “root of all evil.” The process of this great transformation has been documented by the French philosopher of the history of ideas and their (discursive) power, Michel Foucault, in his magisterial three-volume History of Sexuality.

The depth and scope of this obsession is revealed in one striking instance: the practice of confession in the Catholic church. An astonishing degree of importance was increasingly given to penance for not only actual acts of fornication but to even mere “insinuations of the flesh”: thoughts, desires and dreams. Thus, this passage quoted by Foucault from a confession manual aimed at purging the merest stirring of desire:  “Examine diligently ... all the faculties of your soul: memory, understanding, and will. Examine with precision all your senses as well ... Examine, moreover, all your thoughts, every word you speak, and all your actions. Examine even unto your dreams, to know if, once awakened, you did not give them your consent. And finally, do not think that in so sensitive a matter as this, there is anything trivial or insignificant.” Yes, when it comes to sex nothing is insignificant, so the modern day Pharisees will have all of us go with them to peer into bedrooms to see what transpires behind closed doors day and night, and to listen to the dreams of their occupants at dawn! Because the body is treacherous, we are to stand sentinel against it awake or asleep. The greatest moral attainment became “mastery of oneself,” but in a concession to the lecherous body made by God, convents and monasteries were built so it would be easier to resist temptation. But we know, don’t we, what sins of the flesh lurk in their cloistered rooms?

Worse for the church, sex is at the heart of procreation, of the fulfilment of God’s command to Adam and Eve to multiply and fill the earth. Hence the contrivance of marriage, and not without further curtailing desire through monogamy. But it left unsolved the problem of pleasure, though sexual pleasure is indubitably the most joyously intense sensuous experience known to primates. Calvinist puritanism and the Victorian period in England show us the ludicrous excesses of a morality aimed at restricting sex to the utilitarian function of procreation. But here again biology proves the enemy of religious dogma. Evolution teaches us to examine questions pertaining to our nature by asking how any of its observable traits may have been shaped by the survival instinct. Accordingly, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the greatest exponent of Darwinism, argues in The God Delusion that sex was designed by nature to be pleasurable. In order to perpetuate the species, there had to be an irresistible urge to copulate against the immense constraints and difficulties of raising children.

And he is right. Just think of it: those long-forgotten times of roving bands of hunter-gatherers, riddled with high infant and maternal mortality, all kinds of diseases, and ever-lurking danger from fellow inhabitants of the caves and wilds — in short, the Hobbesian state of nature where life was “nasty, brutish and short.” Then think of the woman in labour, without anaesthesia or any means of safe-guarding life, who had to watch child after child dearly begotten die in her arms, and yet having to start the dismal process all over again if she was lucky to survive it herself. Then think also of the fact that human offspring require an inordinately long period of nurturing. Why would the man or the woman wish to be so burdened or repeatedly heart-broken but for the indescribable, compensatory, pleasure of sex? The sceptic might concede the point but insist that if pleasure is crucial to procreation, homosexual desire serves no useful purpose. Not so, according to Joan Roughgarden, professor of biology at Stanford University who has advanced the theory of homosocial bonding as a survival strategy in contradistinction to the conflict-laden idea of sexual selection in orthodox Darwinism. Homosocial bonding may not lead directly to multiplication, but by reducing conflict, especially among co-wives and concubines, it proves conducive to procreation.

The mantra of sex-for-procreation-only creates the classic scenario for repression and social neurosis: what is most pleasurable about sex must at the same time be denied. It is as if sexual intercourse were an ordeal, at best a tilling of the earth and at worst divine penal servitude! I dare say that any man or woman who, barring incapacitation, either abhors or is unable to enjoy sex is best advised to seek medical help. In any case, what are we to make of nuns and monks, those who take the vow of chastity, since like homosexuals, they too commit a fraud against nature? In the avowed service of God, they disobey his clear command to procreate. Their refusal or inability to multiply, as the homosexual’s, has not endangered the human species. Despite the presence of homosexualism among humans since recorded history — and from emerging scientific evidence, among animals as well — the only thing the world has had to worry about is its exploding population: at present, seven billion and counting!

Expectedly, the first two essays led to an avalanche of responses, most of them incomprehensible ejaculations, as if their authors were still foaming in the corners of the mouth as they wrote. But from the few who managed to make any sense came two questions that I should address: would I have been born were my parents gay, and if homosexuality is not unnatural why do animals not engage in it? How the first is an argument in favour of jailing homosexuals, or proof that if a fraction of the population is gay everyone else would be as well, sooner or later, is best left to my interlocutors’ fertile imagination. Let it be restated, however: homosexuality is not a disease, never mind a contagious one. Obviously, homosexuals are born by heterosexual parents and live with siblings, friends, schoolmates and professional colleagues without ever “infecting” them. But what if anyone were to be become gay by the sheer force of influence; that is, by choice? If the chaste opponents of same-sex relations are right, then such persons are all headed to hell. And unless the holy crusaders are prepared to follow God’s example and advocate for a change in the pending bill so that offenders are burnt to death, eternity in hell seems to me adequate punishment for this as for all sins. One more response to the previous essays worth mentioning reflects the view of those whose opposition to “male” homosexualism stems from revulsion at the idea of anal intercourse. They assume, wrongly, that anal sex does not occur in a heterosexual setting, but shouldn’t the appropriate response even then be to turn their nose in the air while “pitying” those who make such a poor choice of orifice in which to evacuate their most precious bodily fluids? As for the second question, it happens that there are gay and lesbian animals too. The work of Roughgarden, author of the critically acclaimed Rainbow Kingdom, points conclusively to this fact of nature. She has catalogued 450 cases including the male big-horn sheep known to live in homosexual societies, giraffes which habitually engage in all-male orgies, the ardent lesbianism of Japanese macaques, and the famous bonobo monkeys whose insatiable libido renders them oblivious to gender come time for intercourse, which, indeed, is often. So much, then, for that!

But if homosexuality is a fact of nature, why then does it evoke such extreme negative reaction across cultures? For the West, far from being tolerant of same-sex love, has, until quite recently, reserved some of its most barbaric treatment for homosexuals. I will permit myself to play armchair psychobiologist or psychoanalyst and speculate as follows. The antipathy towards homosexuals must be ingrained in us by evolution, inclining us to deplore any activity that does not advance the propagation of the species. Since gay sex is one such activity, the church merely exploited this animus. With the added pressure of socio-religious conditioning, we tend to react negatively to homosexualism at the purely visceral level. To the extent that this is true, homophobia can be seen in part as the result of our unexamined primordial fear, atavistic in nature and stoked by our religion-induced anxieties. It is akin to our fear of darkness, which makes our very backyard assume fearful portents and dangers at night. Achebe captures, once again in Things Fall Apart, precisely this state of mind when he writes of the Umuofians thus:  “Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string.” In those distant beginnings, night rendered our ancestors most vulnerable to a brutal end, perhaps while asleep and it came to symbolise their worst fears. Like the fear of ghosts, it is not easily dispelled: you cannot assure the person who claims to see one by saying, “But there is nothing there!” Yet, it is the only answer to irrational fears — such as the fear that accepting same-sex relations would mean the end of this world — and so we must persist.

But to return to the theme of power and the metaphor of the missionary position. The church’s assumption of dominance in matters pertaining to sex results in a political exercise of power. By power, however, I do not mean only the legally sanctioned authority of government and institutions. The ordinary citizen who is heterosexual enjoys an unequal power relationship vis-à-vis the homosexual. To be heterosexual is to be privileged and expect the state to protect your privacy, but not that of the homosexual defined outside the norm. It is the same way that whiteness conferred power and privilege on the ordinary European, however distant he or she was from the gruesome theatres of colonialism; however low in class or social status under slavery and apartheid. For along with the power to name comes that of excluding, as the anti-gay marriage bill in question demonstrates. Which brings me, in conclusion, to the irony of Akinola’s new-found anti-imperialism. If he were ever the cultural nationalist that he claims to be, then he would know that Christianity is not the religion through which God was, or ought to be, revealed to the African, least of all the Yoruba. He would know that Christian missionaries armed with the Bible waged the war for the mind, the very heart and soul, of the African while armies of occupation armed with gunships and rifles seized and plundered the land.

Bolaji Idowu’s Olόdùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief was published in 1962, thirteen years before Akinola began his training for the pulpit, but I doubt that his instructors in the ways of the colonizer’s God mentioned it to him. In spite of Idowu’s obvious bias towards the Hebrew God, a product perhaps of his training and institutional setting, he succeeds nonetheless in making the Yoruba beneficiaries of a moral and theological order the equal of anything to be found in the so-called “revealed” religions. So that rather than settling for being an after-thought recipient of Christian grace — “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” — or for being the dog under the table that must content itself with the crumbs of the food meant for the children (of Israel, who by the way, are overwhelmingly non-Christian), he might have elected to be the Primate of Ijo Òrunmìlà (the Church of Òrunmìlà) which, as Idowu informs us, was already established with branches across the country by the early forties. Let Akinola accept Ile-Ife, and not the Garden of Eden, as the cradle of humanity. Then I might believe his plea of African customs and traditions in defence of bigotry. For why not Ile-Ife, when its myth of origin is not more, nor less, fantastic than the Garden of Eden version? Obviously, because Akinola had already been convinced to surrender belief in an African cosmogony, in any autonomous sense of self. He had swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the lie that his Yoruba God was inferior to the Jewish God brought to him by Europe as part of an ideology of conquest. To follow Derek Walcott in the aptly titled poem, “White Magic,” he had concluded that the “fables of the backward and the poor” had to “grow white and richer” since “Our myths are ignorance, theirs are literature.” Actually, Akinola would rewrite Walcott so that Judeo-European myths are “divine, universal and eternal truths.”

Which is why I can’t escape the niggling thought that the retired primate’s angst, his belated radical anti-colonialism, rises partly from a feeling of betrayal. Having been told by the imperialist missionaries that his God was a mere fetish, that he should burn every of its icons and worship the only true God, Jehovah, they have abandoned their teachings to sanction every manner of immorality, chief of which is same-sex relations. And they may even be laughing at him behind his back: “The uppity African heathens! Put a bishop’s hat on their head and they think themselves holier than Christ!” Does Akinola remember that it was King Henry the Eighth’s concupiscence that led to the establishment of the Church of England, and that until today the titular head of the church is the reigning British monarch? But it is not too late for a Road-to-Ife conversion!
 

You may also like

Read Next