Last week, delegates of the United Methodist General Conference held in St. Louis, MO, voted to strengthen its opposition of same-sex marriage and gay clergy. The 438-384 vote will likely not put these issues to rest for the denomination, and I’m sure we will hear more from the United Methodist Church in the weeks and months to come.
One of the supporters of UMC’s decision was Dr. Jerry Kulah, a seminary dean from Liberia. In his address to delegates, he said:
“Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.”
This reflection is not about what Dr. Kulah said above, it’s about what he said next:
“Please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to ‘grow up.'”
Western Europeans and their descendants in North America and elsewhere have long been accused of cultural imperialism; and this accusation is not unfounded. Cultural imperialism is a bad idea wherever we may find it, which is why we should pay very close attention when an African Christian accuses a progressive coreligionist from the global north of patronizing him: “we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics.” (Can we call that being on the receiving end of some “Northsplaining”?)
It is natural to think of one’s particular demographic group as the “good guys.” Everyone in my group thinks and acts the same way that I do and that makes me feel accepted, safe. The problem with me being absolutely certain that my friends and I are the good guys—“on the right side of history,” “enlightened,” etc.—is that this line of thinking leaves little room for honest self-reflection. (Who needs it? I’m one of the good guys.) Without self-reflection, it is easy to drift—slowly, baby-step-by-baby-step—into the fog of triumphalism and intolerance… even while claiming tolerance as one of your core values.
One of the things that I appreciate most about the Orthodox Church is her insistence that, in order to make the world a better place, the first thing I have to do is work on making myself a better person. I have to accept that I think and act in ways that are harmful to myself and others. I do not only acknowledge toxic behavior in my past; I have to address my current and ongoing capability for such actions. This is why ancient Christian texts, including the New Testament, present the word “repent” as an ongoing action: ie., “Repent and keep on repenting.”
The point of healthy repentance is not beating oneself up, mired in self-hatred. The honest and sober acceptance of my own fallen nature is ground in which I can cultivate humility. In a truly humble heart there is no room to be imperious with anyone or anything.
If we really want to see positive change in the world, this is where we have to start—humility. And as we work on our own inner healing, the rest will follow. In the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov:
“Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”