Viewpoint: Will Jamaica Stand Firm in One Love and Mutual Respect?


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A number of Jamaicans, myself among them, are finding it difficult to process what, exactly, former Prime Minister Bruce Golding (once regarded as the country’s “most cerebral” prime minister), wanted to communicate to a wide newspaper readership in his June 22, 2014 Sunday Gleaner op-ed, “Yield No Ground to Gays.”

Equally boggling is trying to discern the fear that drove “thousands” (according to media reports) of the nation’s fundamentalist church faithful into the streets of the capital city’s Half-Way Tree square the Sunday evening of 29 June 2014. Organizers loudly proclaimed that the crowd had come out to protest Jamaica’s capitulation to “the homosexual lobby.”1

The implied message that Mr. Golding sends, and which is often stated explicitly in the ongoing protestations of the Christian church communities (along with a few Rastafarians), is that nations around the world — all friends of, and economic partners with, Jamaica — may have deliberately chosen, in their laws, institutions and broader culture, to protect the rights and defend the dignity of every member of their respective societies; but Jamaica should not.

Is Mr. Golding along with the churches urging Jamaicans, who have long championed the cause of the oppressed and downtrodden everywhere, to now reverse course; to “yield no ground” but to stand firmly in opposition to the major equal rights issue of our time? To stand firm with Uganda, whose president in February this year signed into law a bill imposing harsh sentences for homosexuality, including life imprisonment? To stand firm against any embrace of the humanity of three to four percent of the island’s population, a tiny minority, not because they pose threats to the security of the state, or to civil order, but because they have a different sexual orientation?

Push back?

What are national church leaders and other usually well-intentioned Jamaicans so fearful of, to the point where they have made Jamaica appear, in the eyes of the international community, rabidly — and uniformly — homophobic? What is this push back to, anyway? Is it putting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons — who have always been in the society, and will, as long as time lasts, always be part of the society — back into the proverbial “closet”?

Does the push back mean, as it is often stated, taking “a righteous stand” against homosexual members of the society choosing to affirm their humanity? Not permitting them to insist that the rest of us treat them with respect and accord them the rights of personhood?

I prayerfully contend that the “push back” that several church groups, organizations and individuals in the Jamaican society are waging is fundamentally misguided.

The science

Since 1975, the American Psychological Association (APA) — the international organization of academic and practice professionals, which all the credentialed psychologists I know in the island claim or aspire to membership in — has called on people in the discipline to take the lead in removing the stigmas of personality disorder and degeneracy that have long been associated with homosexual orientation. “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations are not disorders,” the APA states in an accessible online booklet.

Rather, “research has found no inherent association between [homosexuality] and psychopathology. Both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality. Both have been documented in many different cultures and historical eras. Despite the persistence of stereotypes that portray lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as disturbed, several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations. . . to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience.”

The APA stresses this because the discipline’s main concern — as it should be for anyone decent and compassionate — is the well-being of everyone. Prejudice and discrimination against people who identify as homosexual result in negative psychological consequences — including, in the extreme, suicidal deaths. A society that persists, then, in threatening the well-being of others is therefore, itself, disordered.

Science is not yet able to fully explain all the complex variables that cause people to develop a particular sexual orientation. But what is unmistakable from the findings is that people experience no sense of choice in the matter. Signs of well formed, and unchangeable, same-sex attachments come with the onset of puberty. The particular orientation requires no “grooming,” and it is not a “preference.”

The inescapable conclusion, then, is that sexual orientation comes at birth. So no use denying that, born randomly in all social classes and persuasions (from the poor and vulnerable, the educated and upscale, the religious and non-religious) are already determined gay and lesbian youngsters. It is therefore critically important that, in Jamaica as elsewhere, these youngsters are educated and counseled on how to cope with matters of self-worth, and with societies and environments that may not as yet have developed sufficient compassionate understanding to affirm, love and embrace them.

A theology of compassionate understanding

The patient (or perhaps the naïve?) among us who enter the conversation on sexual orientation from an informed, scientific perspective, had expected that the Christian church, with its emphases on love and human worth, would have rushed to our side, pointing the way to compassion and loving understanding. Instead, what we’ve been getting from pulpits across Jamaica is, at best (i.e., in the respective denominations’ less-venom-driven moments), pabulum about “love the sinner but hate the sin,” which shows neither love nor understanding. The Christian church community in Jamaica (which is believed to have more churches per square mile than in any other place on earth) will have to do better than this!

Unfortunately, Seventh-day Adventists in Jamaica — who comprise the single largest denomination on the island, and are counted among the most influential — preach with other fundamentalist Christians this love-but-hate heresy, though with less remonstrance and at lower decibel levels. The deliberate approach of the Adventists has been to step (slightly) to one side of the issue and to preach unequivocally instead about “strengthening” the traditional patriarchal family, with men standing up to being (non-effeminate) men, and staying mindful of the “danger of deviating from the right path,” as Pastor Peter Kerr, Executive Secretary of the Atlantic Caribbean Union, advised in his Sabbath sermon at a recent Central Jamaica Conference “Men’s Convention.”

“Evil lurks at the doorstep of many, but God is able to do all things,” Pastor Kerr said. On Sunday morning, at the same gathering, conference president Pastor Levi Johnson called on men “to be vigilant that the enemy won’t take [them] by surprise.”

If there was any doubt as to Pastors Kerr and Johnson’s meaning, the Jamaica Union Conference’s Family Life Ministries Director, Pastor Eric Nathan, made it plain. In his folksy, hour-long Family Life Ministries Day sermon, to the congregation at the SDA Church at Northern Caribbean University, he urged Adventists to examine for themselves social media, and to “take a look at” what he said was a local “homosexual manifesto.” He asked the congregation to then “come back” and tell him, he said, if there wasn’t a “gay agenda” afoot to (apparently) ensnare and groom into homosexuality young, strong Jamaican men.

Curiously though, despite the rhetoric from the pulpit and the apparent consensus, Jamaica’s SDAs, as a group, have not enlisted in the emergent national anti-homosexual movement. Nor have they participated — again as a group — in mass protest rallies or demonstrations, like the aforementioned one in Half-Way Tree. Their reluctance to do neither cannot be attributed solely to usual SDA institutional recoil at any suggestion to make common cause with non-believers. To the contrary, the local church organization has carefully positioned the denomination with other entities (such as organized labor) in support of a “flexi-work week” bill that will allow for flexible work week arrangements between employers and employees, thereby eliminating for SDA wage earners a long-standing threat of loss of income because of unwillingness to work during Sabbath hours.

Rather, I sense that behind the hesitancy to join hands with others in mass protests over “gay rights” is, for core groups of Jamaican Adventists (as also in the United States), the essential belief that the Christian is the heart through which Christ loves, and the voice through which He speaks. There is for us deep dismay at the thought that a loving God would despise, or devalue, one set of His divine human creation. And that He’d expect believers to do so, too? Not at all.

LGBT people have no agenda, other than recognition of their created, living, breathing humanity. Christian theologians and philosophers will simply have to work it out, to go back into the Word (and the times) and dig deeper to see if today’s preachers and so-called “Christian nations” do not have this whole anti-gay thing all wrong.

Maybe there is the glimmer of a helpful process model emerging from developments in North American Seventh-day Adventism (though not in the “world church”). Thinkers, theologians, interdisciplinary scholars and the patriarchy are being challenged from below to do precisely the kind of digging (theological and behavioral) necessary for improved understandings — simultaneously on the question of ordination of women to the “priesthood” as on questions of sexual orientation.

To their credit, the church hierarchy in the United States has responded by devising modalities for deepening biblical research, and for enabling thoughtful and respectful deliberations on both of these touchy issues.2 The organization of a “summit on sexuality” signals, for those of us outside SDA church administration but keenly looking in, readiness to start a necessary and essential journey of understanding, love and healing.

Enormously more encouraging are the positive responses, often accompanied by tearful release, among SDAs around the world (most of whom would describe themselves as “mainstream”) to the powerful, independently produced film, Seventh-Gay Adventists (available on DVD), whose essence reigning SDA hierarchy in Silver Spring, Maryland, has craftily lashed out against.3 Hopefully reactions like theirs will last only for a season, leaving more inclusive church communities and congregations.

Endnotes:

1. A driving force was declared hostility to an administrative decision, one month earlier, by the University of the West Indies, to dismiss medical researcher Professor Brandon Bain from heading an HIV-AIDS research and prevention project, because of testimony Bain gave in a Belize court, supporting retention of the region’s centuries’ old “buggery” laws. The testimony was viewed by the UWI administration and Bain’s colleagues, as well as project partners, as damaging to a key project objective: reducing the incidence of HIV-AIDS infection by de-stigmatizing the kind of sexual behavior generally associated with men having sex with men, MSM.

2. See, e.g., “Study Committee Votes Consensus Statement on ‘Theology of Ordination’, Document to go to 2014 Annual Council, 2015 General Conference Session”; “In ‘God’s Image’: Summit on Sexuality Opens in Cape Town.”

3. See Daneen Akers, “Film About Gay Adventists Faces Legal Challenge from the Church.”

Bernard Headley is an educator and retired professor of criminology. He is the father of four sons and an ordained elder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He serves as a deacon and with his wife, Althea, works closely with the leadership of the Pathfinders at the Northern Caribbean University SDA Church in Mandeville, Jamaica, where he lives.

Bernard Headley with two of his sons, Zachary and Kamal.

Top Image: Former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding is well known for his vocal anti-gay stance. This was a protest at a speech he gave in New York for the Caribbean International Network Lecture Series.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6114