Earlier this summer Desmond Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and primate for the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, pronounced his belief that God is not homophobic, and he himself would not want to reside in a heaven characterized by homophobia. He would rather go to “the other place.” Conservative evangelical outlets in the West are understandably disappointed by this pronouncement, coming as it does from a man so instrumental in abolishing apartheid in South Africa. Archbishop Tutu is viewed internationally as a paragon of social justice tempered by forgiveness and peacefulness, and his voice carries significant weight.
South Africa is well-known to be a sanctuary of sorts for the homosexual movement in Africa. The South African constitution safeguards gay rights, and same-sex marriage was officially legalized in the country in 2005. Perhaps we should not be as surprised then to see South Africa’s second-most-famous son (after only Nelson Mandela) arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality. On the other hand, his decrying of homophobia might be perceived to be all the more significant when seen against the backdrop of the socially conservative trend of Christianity in the Global South. As Henry Orombi, primate of the Anglican Church in Uganda, said of the West in an interview with Philip Jenkins for his book The Next Christendom, “There is a tradition on human sexuality that was passed to us by the apostles. . . . Why do they turn their back on the faith their grandparents brought to us?” Demond Tutu speaks a counter-perspective into this complicated cultural situation.
To properly understand his statement, we must remember that when social liberals employ the homophobe word group, they often have in mind personal revulsion to gay sex, not necessarily reasoned disapproval on the basis of the dictates of Scripture. Nevertheless we see homophobia in some churches as they tacitly justify the mockery and mistreatment of homosexuals. Westboro Baptist Church grabs headlines with its “God Hates Fags!” placards. But many more repeat hopelessly shameful clichés such as “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.” So when many hear Christians faithfully defend traditional marriage on the basis of Scripture, they think of this kind of homophobia, along with images of Matthew Shepard being dragged for miles behind a pickup truck in Wyoming.
When a man like Desmond Tutu, who spent his life defending the rights of the disenfranchised, views homosexuality from this perspective, we’re not surprised to hear him say that he would not want to worship a homophobic God. Nor is he, in this sense, wrong. For who would want to worship a God who truly “hates fags”? Who would want to worship a God who smiles on those who torture and murder gay youth? What kind of God would mock those who struggle with their sexual identity? Certainly not the God of the Bible, and Archbishop Tutu is absolutely right in disowning such a false god.
At the same time, the law of God clearly condemns the unrepentant who practice homosexuality (1 Tim. 1:10). Each of us must lay aside sin and worship God alone through Christ. This is simple, albeit personally costly, gospel truth. This is not homophobia. But we cannot rely on the culture to make the distinction. To the extent that Tutu conflates God’s law with homophobia, he is absolutely wrong.
We must not be guilty of the same mistake. We must not mistake revulsion toward homosexual activity with the biblical warnings against it as if our own sin is any less revolting. We have no biblical mandate to despise or devalue gays. We must find a way to stand firm on the biblical boundaries for human sexuality while simultaneously demonstrating solidarity with homosexuals in their struggles. We must commit to finding solutions to the medical and psychological problems that beset the homosexual community. We must find ways of engaging in discussions on homosexual marriage that assert the biblical standard without belittling relationships that mean so much to gays. Essentially, we must show such radical, self-denying love to the homosexual community in the hope that the slander of homophobia might disappear from our cultural vocabulary altogether.