Sunday, May 22, 2016

Church coalition mulls rainbow inclusion

Happenings, May '16
Pawan Dhall participated in a meeting on gender and sexuality diversity called by the National Council of Churches in India, a forum of Protestant and Orthodox Churches in India

Dr. George Zachariah, Akkai Padmashali and Fr. Philip Kuruvilla
at the launch of Disruptive Faith, Inclusive Communities:
Church and Homophobia. 
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
Bangalore, April 20, 2016: “’I hope you never worship a God who makes you feel that He hates the person you have become. May you never grow up denying every feeling that comes from your heart. May you be able to visit your place of worship without fear that you will be rejected, judged, or have to listen to teachings that call your life wrong. I hope that nobody ever uses the name of their God to let you know that the world's salvation depends on whether you follow a loosely interpreted book or your evil desires’. These lines reflect the pain of the Key Affected People, and their struggle to find fellowship and solidarity within the church.  Constructing people as ‘other’ who refuse to submit their lives to the dominant Christian norms of what it means to be human is the approach of almost all Christian communities. We are gathered here in the true spirit of repentance and conversion to realize our sin of self-righteousness and to dream together the birthing of a Church – an inclusive community of hospitality, fellowship, and solidarity.”

So read the opening of a position statement shared at a two-day national meeting of around 60 church leaders, theologians and queer activists on gender and sexuality diversity at the Ecumenical Resource Centre of the United Theological College (UTC) in Bangalore. The statement prepared by Dr. George Zachariah, a professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics at the UTC, reflected the growing engagement of Christian religious institutions in India with the subject of gender and sexuality and a welcome willingness to revisit their stand on diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

The meeting, held over April 19-20, 2016, was organized by the ESHA Programme of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI). The NCCI has 30 member churches and other associate bodies across India. Fr. Philip Kuruvilla, General Coordinator, ESHA Programme, in his opening presentation said NCCI’s engagement with the issues of people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities dated back to June 2001 when it organized the ‘1st Study Institute on Human Sexuality’ at Ootacamund.

In the years since then NCCI undertook similar other initiatives, including a theological roundtable in Kolkata in 2009 in support of the Delhi High Court’s judgment on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which generated heated debate on homosexuality among the NCCI members) and the creation of the National Ecumenical Forum for Gender and Sexual Diversity in the NCCI’s centenary year in 2014.

A view of the United Theological College
campus. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
Elaborating on the agenda of the meeting at UTC, Fr. Philip Kuruvilla said, “Apart from discussing key aspects of gender and sexuality, the meeting offers an opportunity to interact with queer individuals, listen to their personal stories and introspect on our stand on gender and sexuality diversity. The meeting will also aim at identifying a core group to develop material for a handbook on gender and sexuality for the churches as well as prepare a booklet on integrating gender and sexuality issues into sermon guidelines over the next 18 months.”

Among the highlights of the two-day meeting were panel discussions and question and answer sessions on gender and sexuality concepts. The questions asked by some of the participants also reflected their internal negotiations in understanding and accepting gender and sexuality diversity. For instance, there were questions on whether homosexuality was psychological or physiological, how long same-sex relationships lasted and the reproductive abilities of transgender persons.

Personal stories and discussion on social, legal and medical perspectives around transgender identities and homosexuality were lead by queer activist Akkai Padmashali from Ondede, Bangalore; journalist Romal M. Singh and transgender activist Suma (both from Bangalore); Dr. L. Ramakrishnan, queer activist and Country Director – Programs and Research, SAATHII, Chennai; Gowthaman Ranganathan, an advocate associated with the Alternate Law Forum, Bangalore; and the author of this article on behalf of Varta Trust from Kolkata.

On the first day, Akkai Padmashali was invited to launch Disruptive Faith, Inclusive Communities: Church and Homophobia, a book edited by Dr. George Zachariah and Vincent Rajkumar and jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Delhi and Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, Bangalore.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of a change in perspective on gender and sexuality was the introspective and radical content of three theological papers presented during a pedagogical session. Among these were Rev. Sweety Helen Chukka’s The Untamed Me: Sexuality at the Crossroads that questions the long held belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. A short excerpt from the paper follows (readers may find it worthwhile to also read the accompanying inset, a simplified extract from Wikipedia and Queer Grace – An Encyclopedia for LGBTQ and Christian Life on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah):

“Genesis 19: 1-29

This story of Sodom and Gomorrah is consistently cited to condemn homosexuality. ‘Even the Sodomy laws in the jurisprudence refer back to this text’ (quoting George Zachariah from Church – A Rainbow Community of the Beloved and Equals published in The Bible shares a different reason for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we are continuously taught to believe that it is homosexuality that provoked God’s anger. Everyone has byhearted this story as a defence of their homophobic behaviour. Isaiah 1:10-17 tells us in detail about the sin of Sodom as lack of social justice, Jeremiah 23:14 confirms the evilness of Sodom as not turning from wickedness and in Amos 4, we see the Prophet reconfirming the sin of Sodom as oppressing the poor and the needy. ‘The barbaric sexual act described in the Sodom account is an attempted gang rape’. Rape is an intimate invasion of violence and ‘it is an act of domination in which pleasure is achieved through humiliation and subjugation of the victim (quoting George Zachariah). Ezekiel 16:49 makes it further more clear that the sin of Sodom is pride, greed and inhospitality. Now it is obvious that the sin of Sodom is not so much about Homogenitality but about the hard-heartedness, abuse and inhospitality of the inmates. It is surprising to know that the issue of Lot offering his own daughters to the Sodomites was comfortably overlooked and the male-to-male sex issue is emphasized. Our preconceived notions of sexuality have hindered us to see the truth and read the text at its face value without a deeper knowledge and understanding of it. Genesis 19 in connection with Ezekiel 16 calls us to look beyond the text and nail the exact sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Please click on the image to enlarge it

The conclusion of Fr. Philip Kuruvilla’s opening presentation summed up the purpose of the meeting at UTC rather well: “We have evolved a long way from 2001. Individual Christians, Churches, Christian organisations and theologians are looking at new questions and working out new responses. No one has all the answers but we continue to search our hearts and the Holy Scriptures. We need to believe that the Holy Spirit will guide us on our journey.”

For ESHA’s Statement of Concerns for Persons with Diverse Sexualities issued subsequent to the meeting, click here.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

1 comment:

  1. What a contrast with other religious (?) leaders who preach hatred, and inspire and support discriminatory legislation.