This past Sunday, when celebrity Somizi Mhlongo walked out on a homophobic sermon given at the Grace Bible Church, the reaction was mixed. There were those who felt that he did the right thing, there were those who agreed wholeheartedly with the pastor, and there were those who argued that Somizi should have remained seated because even if he didn't agree with the sermon, he should have respected the beliefs being preached and not walked out.
I am not a religious person. Yet despite my lack of belief, I was always able to respect the beliefs of those who were religious. I would often defend believers when overzealous atheists were deliberately disrespectful. Having witnessed the impact that religion had had on my grandmother's life, I was able to empathise with the most religious among us and recognise that even if I didn't agree with them, their beliefs, all of them, were theirs and at the very least deserved respect.
I am beginning to rethink that position. Now, I am not going to argue that religion as a whole is invalid. Rather, I have come to realise that this idea that all religious beliefs are worthy of respect, including those that perpetuate and encourage the oppression of marginalised people, is one that is one that we seriously need to question.
Firstly, when we are told to respect other's religious beliefs, there is often the implication that those of us who are non-believers should allow the religious to believe what they want with little to no opposition or dissent. Certainly, I believe that people should not face prosecution for being religious and this argument makes sense if it means that religious people use their religion as a moral guide to their own lives and do not impose it on others.
However, the issue here is that religious beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. When a pastor stands up in church and preaches a homophobic sermon, we need to acknowledge that that pastor is in a position of authority and influence, and that when he finishes his sermon, it will remain in the hearts and minds of his congregants. Many of these congregants will then go on to interact with queer individuals. There are those congregants that will not allow the sermon to change how they interact with queer people, typically using the reasoning that only God can judge those that sin.
I am not naïve enough to suggest that if we remove religion altogether then homophobia will cease to exist. However, we cannot ignore the church's complicity in homophobia.
However, there are a great many that will, and do, use homophobic beliefs that are validated and reinforced by such religious teachings as grounds to discriminate against, mistreat, and even physically harm queer people.
Certainly the church is not the only source of homophobic teachings in our society. I am not naïve enough to suggest that if we remove religion altogether then homophobia will cease to exist. However, we cannot ignore the church's complicity in homophobia. It is not good enough to be outraged when hearing of a lesbian who has been murdered in a clear hate crime yet continue to ignore, gloss over, or refuse to question beliefs that teach people to see homosexuality as an abomination in the first place. One cannot pretend that the homophobia preached in churches like Grace Bible Church has no impact on the systemic oppression that queer people face daily.
We also need to consider that we have a Constitution that, while protecting peoples' right to practice their religion, also protects peoples' right to not face discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, among others. While the constitution protects the right to freedom of speech, this does not include hate speech. So at what point do homophobic sermons cross the line from religious freedom to hate speech? This question is particularly important considering that last year we banned a US pastor from entering South Africa on the basis that his extremely homophobic sermons constituted hate speech.
Many Christians may argue that the word of God and that God judges all sins equally. The very idea that two consenting adults involved in a sexual and/or romantic relationship should be considered equal to murder makes little sense. Nonetheless, the Bible preaches that all sins are treated equally, but we live in a society in which people do not. Homosexuality is treated with far more scorn than many other sins. For example, many of the same pastors who refuse to officiate same-sex marriages because they are sinful will happily officiate the second marriages of people who divorced their first spouse for reasons other than adultery.
According to Matthew 19:9, such a union is sinful. Furthermore, one will rarely, if ever, see a straight man who engages in extramarital sex being treated with the same level of scorn and disdain as a gay man, despite fornication being a sin.
Therefore, one cannot divorce the belief that homosexuality is a sin from the fact that we are living in a society in which queer people are marginalised. By perpetuating this belief one becomes complicit in perpetuating that oppression. One does not have to physically harm a queer person to be complicit; simply repeating the belief is giving credibility and justification to those who would use it as a reason to enact violence towards queer people. In fact, the belief itself is violent.
So let us return to the idea that all religious beliefs should be respected. Ones right to believe whatever they want cannot supersede another human's right to dignity, life, and living free from oppression. If one holds a belief that contribute to the oppression of others then why should it be respected by anyone, especially those who are harmed by it?
Therefore, not only do I find it understandable that Somizi walked out, I think that his walkout was morally justifiable. We cannot demand that people respect beliefs that undermine their or anyone else's humanity, religious or otherwise.