As I read Reverend Lamar’s opinion piece (“Sex, Not Same-Sex Marriage, Should Be Topic of Debate”), my heart sank. For, while reading about the hypocrisy of the black church in America from the distance of my office in South Africa, I was reminded painfully of just how tragic are the ties that seem to bind us as black people around the world – particularly those of us who seek solace within the church. Blacks number among the most enthusiastic Christians on the planet, with Africa fast-becoming the seat of global evangelism. Yet, sadly, black churches and communities on the continent have grappled with sex and sexuality as poorly as their U.S. counterparts, with devastating consequences.
The parallels are as strong as they are disheartening. Homosexuality remains the focus of ire within the bulk of African churches and communities while frank, faith-based discussions on heterosexual conduct are largely ignored. Yet, on the continent as in the U.S., it is sex between men and women that yields a far greater impact on black life.
In Africa, heterosexual couplings are the main drivers of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. And the sole factor behind stubbornly and persistently high rates of unplanned pregnancy among young women. In these countries, the majority of which are wracked by widespread poverty, the burdens of sexually-transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancies place additional strain on communities that can ill afford them.
South Africa, the continent’s “Rainbow Nation,” brings into sharp and embarrassing focus not only the contrast in sexual trends between the races, but how such trends impact the different ethnic groups and the nation as a whole. A mirror image of the U.S. in many ways, South Africa is a country of great ethnic and racial diversity, yet one in which blacks are generally clustered at the bottom of society, economically as well by other criteria of life quality. Global recession notwithstanding, whites here continue to enjoy one of the highest standards of living on the planet, with Asians and mixed-race people tending to occupy various strands along the economic spectrum. And, in spite of pockets of religious diversity, a majority of South Africans refer to themselves as “Christians.” Just like the ‘good ‘ole U.S. of A. Not for nothing is South Africa often referred to as ‘the U.S. of Africa.’
But, sadly, the parallels don’t end there. Just as in the U.S., sexual mores and sexually-induced trauma within black communities cannot be excluded from among the factors helping to keep them in economic, financial and even spiritual bondage. Black children in South Africa are far more likely than their white or Indian counterparts to grow up in homes with absent fathers, to be raised by single moms or grandparents. Rape looms as one of the nation’s most intractable problems, saddling the country with one of the highest rates in the world. And the same harmful stereotypes which dog black men in the U.S. dominate the national consciousness over here: sexually ill-disciplined cretins who wreak social havoc by their promiscuity and lack of self-control.
One need look no further than the nation’s polygamous head of state, President Jacob Zuma; with four wives and a number of highly-publicized sex scandals over the years, Zuma’s sexual antics have helped fuel skepticism of black rule among racial minorities in South Africa, which remains racially polarized. Many critics, particularly among whites, have openly questioned how a mainly-black voting populace could put such a man in office, especially in a nation struggling to curb the tide of HIV/AIDS. After all, Zuma’s voracious sexual appetite and philandering didn’t exactly take the nation by surprise; these were well-known long before he ascended to office.
And so, with a largely apathetic community in tow, Black churches have been mainly--and deafeningly--silent. This is disturbing for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Zuma enjoys the status of “honorary pastor” among a number of congregations in this country. His ties to the church then--whether or not sincere--are very public. One would think that black Christian leadership would have something to say about Zuma’s sexual conduct--as well as his continuing bid to add even more wives and concubines to his already considerable harem. Presidents help set the tone for a nation, and leave an indelible mark on young minds still forming opinions of what is morally and socially acceptable within society. You would think that leaders within the black church, with one eye on the shaky moral foundations of today’s youth, and the other on the crumbling edifice of healthy black relationships, would grab the bull by the proverbial horns.
The issue is not necessarily about passing judgment. It’s about the black church, within South Africa and as well as on the larger African continent. behaving very cowardly when it comes to sex and sexuality. It’s about the partial abdication of their role as moral stewards within black communities. While feeding the faithful a regular diet of “prosperity gospel,” they ignore how woefully malnourished we are in the deeper recesses of our being, where we express our deepest intimacy in, as Reverend Lamar put it, “God’s good gift of sex.” Among broad swathes of black society here in Africa--just like in the U.S.--we are abusing that gift. It is destroying us, denigrating and devaluing both body and soul. And, as a result, black life is being cheapened.
The black church--both in Africa as well as in U.S.--needs to step up to the plate. Brokenness is rife among us, and the abuse of our sexuality is both a cause and a reflection of our fracture. Can we talk?
Thomas Mambande is a Philadelphia-born social entrepreneur and corporate consultant who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.