There will always be tin-pot despots in the world. They are often hard to recognize right away in church circles, as most come cloaked in religious finery. Eventually, when these people find their way into top church leadership, they do not take their stand with Jesus in welcoming downtrodden “sinners” by saying, “Neither do [we] condemn you.” Instead, they side with the mob, clutching not stones this time but holy writ—like a club at the ready to avenge God. It is hard to explain the motivations of some of our African Adventist clergy, the latest incarnation being Pastor Thomas Ocran, president of the Southern Ghana Union Conference. His play at leadership relevance is at the expense of the ever-convenient LGBTQ+ boogeyman.
Elder Ocran recently brought unhelpful media attention to the church in his native Ghana and internationally when he appealed to Ghanaian parliamentarians debating the highly charged issue of criminalizing alternative human sexuality. Here is Pastor Ocran’s explanation to the Ghanaian Times of what he says is the church’s “position” on the matter: “The question is will the Adventist Church support a legislation that criminalizes the act? Our answer is yes. Why? All forms of sin must be controlled and restrained by laws. . . . We want the Bill passed into law because all sins left unchecked will plunge the earth into chaos.”
But this depiction seems to contradict a long-standing official church communiqué to members about how to address such church-state concerns. It states in part: “Adventists should not . . . become preoccupied with politics,” but if they “become leaders or exert influence in their wider society, this should be done in a manner consistent with the golden rule.” The ethic being advanced in this carefully parsed recommendation is to do what one would want others to do to them if the tables were turned. So, what would Pastor Ocran recommend to the state if he hypothetically had a gay son who came out of the proverbial closet and told him so?
The Ghanaian public, just as in Nigeria and many other developing countries south of the Sahara, has a strong antipathy towards those who publicly affirm any non-conventional sexuality. Consequently, the bill under consideration that criminalizes alternative sexual expressions has broad support throughout the country. Increasingly, African politicians and religious leaders are taking a page from their Western counterparts. They follow public sentiments, however misguided, instead of shaping them for the good of all members of society. So it is not surprising anymore, or considered a mark of unprincipled leadership, when a pastor joins the masses in chanting “crucify them,” as Elder Ocran’s cheerleading campaign is being perceived.
Lest we gloss over the details of the proposed “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill”—which Danny Bediako of Rightify Ghana characterizes as “a homophobe’s dream law”—consider some of the particulars. As currently crafted, merely identifying as “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, pansexual, non-binary, queer, or any other sexual or gender identity that is contrary to the binary categories of male and female” would incur a five-year prison sentence. Under existing law, Ghanaians who merely classify themselves as gay face a three-year sentence. So the proposed five-year sentence is a stiffer upgrade. The penalty doubles to ten years of incarceration if one is found guilty of advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. The rationale for a harsher penalty for “sympathizers” is the pervasive belief that any sexual orientation outside of heterosexuality is aberrant learned behavior being imported into Ghana by “outsiders.” To run afoul of the advocacy prohibition, one only has to speak positively on behalf of anyone in the defined group. Cross-dressing or any public display of same-sex affection, such as kissing, is considered “gross indecency” and comes with a sentence of six months to a year behind bars.
We have been here before with this kind of grandstanding by African Adventist officials on LGBTQ+ rights. In 2009–2010, a similar measure, dubbed “Kill the Gays Bill,” was introduced in Uganda. That bill was rumored to have been drafted with the help of Pastor Scott Lively of the US-based World Congress of Families, an organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. This same Scott Lively is now linked with organizations and sponsors of the current Ghanaian draft bill. It is often the case that zealot individuals and extremist groups aligned with the Christian right, dedicated to overturning abortion and subverting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, find limited legislative support at home. When they fail to achieve their objectives in the West, they find an easy and in some ways unreflective reception by political and religious leaders in sub-Saharan Africa.
That is how over a decade ago, two prominent Seventh-day Adventist ministers, Pastors Blasius Ruguri and John Kakembo, carried the criminalization torch against LGBTQ+ interests in Uganda. Media scrutiny then focused on the two pastors, who in their capacities as church representatives advocated for passage of the bill that carried the death penalty for being gay. The ensuing backlash from inside and outside the church got the General Conference’s attention. They sprang into damage control, issuing press statements that deftly diffused the church’s entanglement in the scandal. In short order, the two Ugandan church officials at the center of the controversy denied their earlier recorded statements in support of the odious bill.
But that was then, when the General Conference was led by a consensus-building European who was not an ideologue. Elder Jan Paulsen, mindful that the world church is composed of people from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds with pluralistic views on highly-charged and divisive social issues like LGBTQ+ rights, carefully tamped down the excess rhetoric from extremists. His chief goal was keeping the church together and he therefore avoided using inflammatory language or taking sides when addressing those issues. Now, confronted with a similar dilemma, we find our church led by one who is too astute to fall into the same hole that Pastor Ocran finds himself in and who knows when to keep quiet while the Ocrans in far-flung countries advance these controversial positions.
I interject here to confess that as an Adventist from Africa, I get “righteously annoyed” when African church leaders generate the type of unflattering headlines that Elder Ocran has created. Headlines that cast us as social policy outliers because we espouse positions that Western church officers, even if they share similar views, would not state in public. Why then do some of our African brethren abandon all restraint in their public support for legislation aimed at killing or jailing gay people? It takes a special kind of unapologetic arrogance (or is it just foolhardiness?) for a gospel minister to be at peace with the notion of sending someone to prison or execution because their sexual orientation falls outside the church’s mainstream.
I can’t fathom how such extreme positions further the church’s mission of bringing people to a Christian ethic. I am still trying to locate where in our official belief set to find support for such draconian measures. It is one thing to disapprove of someone’s sexual orientation. It is entirely different when a gospel minister leads the call to jail people or kill them because they are gay. And somehow some of our African leaders, seemingly blinded by their desires to ingratiate themselves with their hierarchical superiors, don’t see the difference or notice that they jump unquestioningly into these pits. Nor do I understand why it is so hard for Elder Wilson or others at the GC to state unequivocally that our church’s mission is not about recommending to civil governments which sins merit jail sentences or death.
Elder Wilson has long fanned the anti-gay flames and has resumed those incendiary attacks in recent times. At the recently-concluded 2021 Annual Council hybrid gathering in Washington, he was at it again, conflating adultery and fornication with LGBTQ+ orientation: “Adultery, fornication, and LGBTQIA+ are in direct opposition to God’s law and heavenly plan for human sexuality. We must make a conscious choice, even though unpopular, to speak up for Bible truth and not simply go along with societal trends.” Thomas Ocran attended the Annual Council meeting where the GC president made this pitch. Thus cued, among Pastor Ocran’s first public remarks afterward was to reiterate the church’s support for criminalizing LGBTQ+ orientation or gender identity.
Don’t tell me that Pastor Ocran does not feel empowered by the GC President in their mutual anti-gay antipathy. It’s been nine months since Ocran waded into the Ghanaian parliamentary debate and over a month since he reaffirmed the stance that has raised eyebrows in Ghana and beyond. There have been calls for the GC to delink Ocran’s criminalization support from the church’s position on LGBTQ+ but so far the GC President has resisted such calls. Often, saying nothing when discrimination rears its ugly head does more damage to the long-term credibility of the church than speaking up immediately when such issues come up. And I feel we are at one such moment because, if this bill passes with our blessing, the ocean will not have enough water with which to wash our hands when the brutalization begins.
The sad part is that our church has better angels on this issue, pointing us away from the intolerance of the Wilsons and Ocrans among us. But they are drowned out by those who are controlling our denominational megaphones. An example. In October, while visiting relatives in Ghana, I attended a presentation at Sakumono Estate SDA Church by Pastor Kwabena Donkor, recently retired associate director of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute. It was entitled “The Adventist and Alternative Sexuality.” Dr. Donkor has done extensive work on this subject, and his depth of understanding and reasonable approach were evident from the thoughtful questions and answers that followed after his presentation. Many of the questions from the packed audience reflected a hungering for more information about those who might have been born LGBTQ+. To my great surprise, most of the questions steered away from the prevailing caricature of the Ghanaian gay playboy supposedly recruiting unsuspecting young people into his lair. Instead, there were more substantive inquiries about current knowledge regarding LGBTQ+ people. It was a serious, in-depth, and Christ-centered presentation that gave me hope for the future.
Ultimately it boils down to leadership and the smallness or largeness of the vision they bring to their roles. Remember, some Adventist leaders stood by when Nazism began. Others looked the other way in the infancy of Apartheid. And Rwandese leadership stopped their ears as some called their fellow church members “cockroaches.” After the winter fallow comes spring and the germination of those seeds, which will soon come into full bloom in the evil summer that follows. It always starts small. And it is during beginnings that taking a clear, unambiguous stand against bigotry and all forms of discrimination matters. If we wait until fall, we will reap the harvest we planted when no one was paying attention.
The Christian’s responsibility is not to add to the misery of the vulnerable and despised members of society. Dumping a fresh heap of offal onto them may make us feel morally superior, but it is not the Christian way. Young members of the LGBTQ+ community have one of the highest suicide rates of all age groups, so piling on has real-life deleterious consequences, especially when those leading the charge are religious leaders who knowingly or unwittingly provide ethical cover for those who measure their worth in denigrating others. We can do better. Ours should be the shoulders on which the weary should find empathy. We should never be the ones with ready pitchforks, intent on cleansing society from those we deem undesirable in our midst.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.
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