Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Individual versus collective

In the last post I alluded to an editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 8) by the Rev. Luke Mbefo, an associate professor of theology at Duquesne, and a Nigerian (h/t David Virtue), in response to Bishop Chane's (2/26) op-ed in the Washington Post. What drew my attention to Mbefo's editorial was the broad theme he paints -- Nigerians are oriented toward community, while Westerners are oriented toward the individual. This theme underlies his argument that Western notions of individual liberties, especially as applied to homosexuality, are alien to Nigeria. He writes:
Africans live in two interpenetrating worlds at the same time. For them the individual, although endowed with those rights the Enlightenment considers sacred, is not recognized as the measure of all things. The African world of experience belongs to what writers on religious experience name "the primordial tradition." It is centered in the ubiquitous world of spirit which envelops and intermingles unceasingly with the world of peoples.

The decision of a section of African Anglicans to break with the U.S. Episcopal Church because of the consecration of a gay bishop, and to delete references to the mother church in Canterbury from the constitution, cannot be properly appreciated when separated from the role African traditional religion continues to play in African forms of Christianity.

The present generation of Anglican bishops in Africa are heirs of a two-fold tradition. Before many of them became Christians, they had been formed by the traditional religions of their ancestors.

The veneration of ancestral religious tradition is strongly embedded in them and their acceptance of Christianity is, in many ways, based on Christianity's congruence with that traditional heritage. They are opposed to the ordination of gay people because their reading of the Hebrew-Christian Bible and their traditional African piety have no sympathy with gay practice.

Homosexuality is, in their traditional heritage, seen as taboo and anybody seen to be so inclined was thought of as threatening the divinely ordained order of the community. In this tradition, the individual is free to the extent that he or she is at the service of the common good and not in so far as he or she is the center of sacred rights and privileges.
Mbefo's vision of the African mind is probably more congruent with my vision of the Western mind than he might think. There isn't much of a distinction to make. We in the West (yes, even here in the US) are not simply rugged individualists, defined by our adherence to personal rights and freedoms. Our behaviors are circumscribed, if not by scripture then by tradition, by a set of morals that prevent us from, say, permitting men to sleep with boys, something that is not historically taboo in all cultures. We are loathe to enslave others (though it still effectively happens that we do -- see Saipan), despite our history, and despite the Bible's equivocation. We believe, at the very least, that a family is an important social unit for raising children -- it could be that a variety of familial configurations for raising kids work just as well as one father and one mother, but we would all agree that children need parents.

Then there are prohibitions against killing, stealing, rape and incest. Not all of these are culturally defined, and some are the result of our religious history. In fact, there are many instances (even in the US) where the state is allowed to kill, with or without the approval of the governed. There are cultures where killing is necessary to establish and maintain social standing. Multiple wives are called for by some religious traditions, and are permitted by some states. Not all cultures have viewed homosexuality to be wrong.

Rev. Mbefo is fortunate, given the historically downtrodden status of his faith, to have been brought up in a culture where faith and history are so congruent (though it is ironic that Christianity was brought to Nigeria by those intent on its exploitation -- as Tutu said: "When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land"). What he is arguing is that individualism is Western and that it ought to be avoided in lieu of the communtiy and family-centered approach of the Nigerian Church, attuned as it is to the traditional values of Nigerian Society. Banned by both tradition and the Bible, Mbefo argues that homosexuality is not Nigerian.

However, by invoking "individualism" as the enemy, Mbefo is in effect arguing for an abrogation of personal liberties of all kinds. There are, in fact, a wide variety of "Western" imports that most Nigerians would probably be unwilling to do without (despite cynicism engendered by the election rigging that has soiled past efforts at pure democracy). Voting is one. I know that the Third Term push of Nigerian President Obasanjo is widely unpopular -- even his own party begins to admit that such a push is on the agenda, I don't imagine that Nigerians now wish to get rid of their civil rights.

Individualism allows individuals to have a voice in society. If there is a wrong that needs reform, even if a majority opposes that reform, a healthy society still allows the voice of reform to be heard. In doing so, the whole society -- the community -- accepts, rejects, or ignores that voice, and in doing so is strengthened. It is this lesson that Afghanis have never learned, or had long forgotten, in their indictment and incarceration of Abdul Rahman under Shar'iya for his conversion to Christianity nearly two decades ago. It is that lesson that we in the US have long understood (though we have recently grown foggy on why it is important), which led us to advocate on behalf of Abdul Rahman for his release (as of today, he has been granted asylum in Italy), and which led us, 217 years ago, to embed minority protections throughout our constitution.

Rev. Mbefo's letter is in response Bishop Chane's objection to Akinola's endorsement of the Nigerian gay marriage ban legislation (pdf). But it is important to realize that Chane's objection was not simply to the legislation's ban on gay marriage (in fact, he bends over backwards to avoid a blanket condemnation of that provision), but rather to the fact that the legislation would silence certain voices to the tune of 5 years' imprisonment.

The error in Rev. Mbefo's editorial is not his effort to protect his cultural traditions. In fact, as a civil libertarian, I must at least acquiesce to the Church of Nigeria's decision to prohibit the blessing of gay unions or the elevation of non-celibate gay clergy -- that's their choice and their right.

Rather, his error is to impose the teachings of the church -- even the "teachings" of his nation's cultural history -- on the right of individuals to at least speak their mind. To do so is equivalent to taking away the right to vote, and voting is an "individualism" that the "collective" cannot do without.

1 comment:

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

There are several essays on this blog relating to the question of individual versus collective, including the homosexuality is un-African one, in the collumn to the right:

To my mind (coming from a culture which is also a mix of pre-modern and modern) Gukira's thoughts make sense.