By Molly T. Marshall
Baptists claim religious liberty and soul competence among their fragile freedoms, yet some draw the line when these freedoms are claimed in the service of sexual orientation and gender identity. While many wish these issues would just go away, they will not, and younger adults will find churches irrelevant if they do not engage them.
This week I am participating in a human sexuality training workshop in Yangon, Myanmar, sponsored by the Peace Studies Center of Myanmar Institute of Theology, Colors Rainbow and Central Seminary, through the funding of the Arcus Foundation. This conference draws together persons from a variety of perspectives, all working for human rights, especially for those who experience discrimination because of gender identity or sexual orientation. Indeed, discrimination may be too mild a term when criminalization of sexual acts, torture or even the death penalty are involved. I learned that if one expresses LGBT identity in one of the refugee campus, he or she will likely be burned alive — by Christians, some of whom are Baptists.
Colleagues and I will lecture and facilitate discussion of the interface between theological ethics, biblical interpretation, public policy and advocacy for human rights. Representatives from an NGO will also call attention to international treaties and the situation in Myanmar.
Sessions have been earnest, lively and engaging, with persons from disparate contexts sharing perceptive insights. It is important to get such voices at the table, and I marvel at the courage of these local leaders. A young Christian named Joshua brought his friend who had recently attempted suicide because he despaired of his treatment as a gay man so that he might hear a word of hope.
The room is populated with activists, scholars, theological students and community developers. What draws us together is common concern for justice for sexual minorities and repeal of laws criminalizing even the appearance of homosexual identity. Thankfully, in our day, new attention is given to the threatened lives of these persons. Deeply embedded homophobic and transphobic attitudes, often combined with lack of legal protection, exposes LGBT persons to egregious violations of their human rights. Young gay persons in attendance are glad to hear a progressive Christian perspective, yet are wary of how the Bible has been used to condemn them.
Geopolitical bodies have been ahead of the church. The U.N., under the leadership of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, continues to call the global community to justice. He writes:
Some say that sexual orientation and gender identity are sensitive issues. I understand. Like many of my generation, I did not grow up talking about these issues. But I learned to speak out because lives are at stake, and because it is our duty under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the rights of everyone everywhere.
My lecture will call attention to the ways in which religious perspectives and the misuse of sacred texts have been used as weapons against women, and by extension, against LGBT individuals. The perspectival bias in biblical hermeneutics is unquestionably patriarchal, and gender discrimination has been traditionally derived from the Bible — written by men, for men, with little consideration given to the lives of women. Likewise, same-sex behavior receives marginal attention in the Bible; when mentioned, the primary concern is to protect the prerogatives of males, for whom any experience of “effeminization” undermines their status.
It is an interesting time to be in Myanmar. Recently, the parliament passed Protection of Race and Religion Bills, which are quite regressive. Not only do they compromise religious liberty regarding conversion, interfaith marriage and women’s rights, but also have ongoing implications for the LGBT community as these laws embolden oppressive actions.
During a regional parliamentary session in Mandalay in August 2015, the region’s minister of border and security affairs, Dr. Myint Kyu, called on police to arrest gay people. He pledged that “we are constantly taking action to have the gays detained at the police stations, educate them, then hand them back to their parents.” Abuse is a regular practice, and his harsh words give warrant for it.
A conference like this is important work, and I am grateful for those whose support and commitment make it possible. I trust we will continue to develop ways to equip pastoral leaders for knowledgeable and compassionate ministry and community developers and activists for the work of justice. When it is shared work, the church becomes more visible and the gospel witness to freedom empowers the long and labor-intensive trajectory.
When Baptists live up to our principles, we are a force for transformation and an instrument of grace. Religious freedom and human rights surely flourish in tandem, and we must be vigilant in our day.