and Talking about Our Sexuality
Since the advent of HIV/AIDS the church has showed some reluctance to get involved in the debate about the epidemic and the fight against it. HIV/AIDS has been considered as God’s punishment for the immoral corruption of humankind, a judgmental attitude which one hopes is no longer prevalent. Events such as our workshops are both heart-warming and highly appreciated, especially when we consider the spiralling rate of the epidemic in the southern African region.
The opportunity to participate and contribute to the debate on the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a privilege and responsibility. As someone involved in the training of church leaders, I have in fact little choice. Unless there is a collective endeavour to combat HIV/AIDS, we face the prospect of the annihilation of the human race.
the conspiracy of silence
We often find that when we talk about sex in public, we are faced with comments like, “Don’t talk about sex, we are Christians” or “Don’t talk about sex, we are Africans.” If we are serious about fighting the epidemic, we need to tackle this conspiracy of silence firmly and resolutely. At the moment, instead of acquiring skills in talking about sex, we resort to the easy way out like distributing condoms to children and adults alike without proper education in matters of sexuality. It is also true that when HIV/AIDS struck we panicked, and in the desperate process of trying to find a remedy we ended up sending messages we did not mean. Though every strategy can be recommended, flooding people with condoms, especially in South Africa, has not had much success because the number of people infected is going up, not down.
The church, as a body that claims to be the conscience of humanity and the custodian of moral values, needs to lead in the campaign to break the conspiracy of silence. But because of the history of silence on sexual matters, except to condemn, the church finds it difficult to open up.
Foster1 notes that when people turn to the church for direction in sexual matters, they are usually met with stony silence or a counsel of repression. He concludes that silence is no counsel and repression is bad counsel. And because we have categorized HIV/AIDS as punishment for sinful living, the church has further marginalized the “clientele” it is supposed to serve. In most African countries the issue of silence is compounded by both our cultural socialization and spiritual or theological perceptions. It is important, therefore, to focus on these two factors and see how they contribute to the silence on sexual matters.
The ambivalence of culture
To ensure that young girls kept their virginity, some clans among the amaZulu made virginity tests. In the modern-day culture of human rights such exercises are discouraged, but it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the significance of their background.
Another important cultural institution that helped in the teaching of sexual behaviour to young people was initiation schools.2 At separate schools young women and men were taught how to prepare for adult life, how to relate to people of the opposite sex and, in some tribes, how to have sex by simulation. Penetration was firmly forbidden until marriage.
When missionaries came to preach the gospel in Africa, they did away with many cultural institutions, most of which were good and helped to maintain the moral fibre of society. The problem was that missionaries did not come up with an effective replacement.3 Nothing was provided to fill the lacuna created in the process of Christianizing Africa.
But the flipside of the coin is that culture has fostered the conspiracy of silence. Generally, in most African cultures talking about sex in public is considered culturally taboo. If you do so, you are bound to be called names. Even those who try seriously to address sexual matters are shouted down. And it is worse if you are a church minister: ministers are expected to talk about heaven and God, and if they have to talk about sex it is in hushed tones behind closed doors. They are afraid that if the congregation or their superiors find them talking openly about sex they will be disciplined or suspended. Consequently, church ministers end up being simply agents of culture rather than ambassadors of the truth. The conspiracy of silence continues.
The challenge to break the silence about human sexuality needs to be faced if we are to succeed in talking about HIV/AIDS. Perhaps the best place to break that silence is in the home. Parents must feel free to talk openly about sex to their children and allow them to ask questions.4 Most parents have abdicated their responsibility to give sex education to their children, in the hope that schoolteachers and the mass media will fill the void. Nothing on earth can substitute for parental guidance. Before our children hear about sex anywhere else, they need to hear about it at home first.
But I suspect that the reason parents are ashamed to talk about sex to their children is because marital partners themselves are ashamed to talk about sex to one another. In marriage, many people are afraid to talk about their sexual problems openly because they do not want to hurt the other partner. Some secretly resolve to be involved extra-maritally. If nothing helps, they may end up divorcing their partners. Often, after the divorce, people talk about the real reason why they separated from their partner. We need to look sex in the eye and stop regarding it as an idol of some kind.5
and/or theological constraints
The concentration of theology on past debates and disputes makes the African theological student unable to address present problems facing the African church and the continent as a whole. In the back of our minds we still think, as the African church, that the solution to the HIV/AIDS debacle will come from the West. There is a general lack of capacity to address problems as we experience them today on the African continent.7 Perhaps the starting point would be to begin to prescribe to our students works by African authors. If there are none, it challenges us to begin to produce them. Our students need to have control over the context in which they live and hope to carry out their mission.
The problem of after-life emphasis
Since HIV/AIDS is currently decimating humanity, it is incumbent upon the church not to shirk its prophetic and pastoral responsibilities. The hope that the church should give is both for the present and the future.
Viewing the human body in a negative way
But it needs to be said that Christianity has not always considered the body as the body. Thielicke9 says that the fundamental contribution of Christianity to anthropology is that it rejects the partition and stratification of a human person and, instead, teaches that a human being is a psychophysical unity, in which the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19, 3:16ff.), and therefore loses that inferiority which attaches to it in the Hellenistic tradition. The fact that the Spirit of God can inhabit the human body as well as have a healing effect (Rom. 8:11) should have tremendous implications for Christian theology.
Perhaps, more than anything else, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the pre-existent Word (John 1:1,14), should help us adequately to comprehend the unity of a human being. In the incarnation of Christ the dualism of the spiritual and the profane, spirit and body, is dealt a serious blow.10 Based on our understanding of the incarnation, Bosch11 believes that we have to turn our backs resolutely on our traditional dualistic thinking. It is, therefore, understandable that the human body is viewed positively in the holy scriptures. In the incarnation of Christ the body-life is affirmed.12
The demonizing of sex
The demonizing of sex has a long history in the Christian church. The tragic separation of sexuality and spirituality can be traced back to some prominent theologians in church history. Augustine, for example, in The City of God13 views human sexuality in a negative way. He calls sex the “shame, which attends all sexual intercourse”, “evil of lust” (even in the marital bond), “sometimes the impulse is an unwanted intruder”. Augustine even suggests that Paul’s warning, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from fornication; that you know how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:3-5), should be interpreted as meaning that a man who desires holiness “would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust of this kind”.
To this day many Christians feel that their sexuality is nature’s strongest competitor for their loyalty to Christ, the reasoning being that a Christian cannot love both God and sex.14 Smedes believes that such people allow their feelings to tell them that sexuality is not a sweet gift of creation, but a bitter fruit of the fall. Such a view ignores the fact that biblical authors affirm human sexuality and see sex and sexual pleasure in marriage as God’s gift to be enjoyed.15
In our fight against HIV/AIDS it is critical to view human sexuality positively and thus allow the light of scripture to shine upon the area of sex. Perhaps it will be helpful to avoid traditional clichés like “sex is wrong”, “sex is sinful”, and “sex is bad”. Both abstinence16 and faithfulness are positive messages for the human race. Thielicke17 points out that the “sexual nature of man and woman does not allow human beings merely to follow impulse in blind, animal fashion, if the urge is to be satisfied”. It is not as if human beings cannot control themselves sexually. It is for this reason, among others, that we need a theologically sensitive anthropology. The message of abstinence and faithfulness needs to be destigmatized. It is a message that needs to be understood against the background of a desire to build human character.
It is, therefore, imperative to demystify human sexuality. We need to lift the lid off it – the blanket of mystery on sex and related issues needs to be removed once and for all. The cultural and spiritual barriers prohibiting any discussion on sexuality must be destroyed. Discussing sex, which is very much part of us, will go a long way in helping us grapple with the scourge of HIV/AIDS in a meaningful way. Those who are infected and affected will hopefully find it easier to talk about their status and feelings more openly.
Vernacularizing our message
Reaffirming sexual equality
This has its origin in culture. In the many African cultures a man is not said to be committing adultery when he is extra-maritally involved. Such behaviour is described in glorified terms like isoka, monna ke selepe. Such an attitude gives men the freedom to move around and in the process hurt people; if these men are HIV-positive, they spread the disease with cultural and spiritual licence.
The oppression of women in the area of sex has a long history. The story of the woman who was said to have been caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11) should make us wonder why she was brought alone to Jesus and not with the man she was caught with, according to the law of Moses (Lev. 20:10). The oppression of women is also seen in marriage. More specifically, oppression is seen in sex, where a woman is considered as an object with no sexual feelings of her own. Married women must be able to feel free to express themselves sexually.
1 Richard J. Foster,
Money, Sex & Power, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1985, p.120.