Q&A with Adriaan van Klinken on his new book with Ezra Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa

Adriaan van Klinken and Ezra Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa (African Arguments series). London: Hurst & Co / New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

How has this book come about?

A few years ago, I spoke at the launch of the book Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria, by Ebenezer Obadare. In my contribution to the panel discussion, I specifically focused on the way in which Pentecostal Christianity is shaping the politics of sexuality in contemporary Nigeria, and in Africa more generally. I mentioned how Pentecostalism is often seen as a driving factor behind homo- or queer-phobia, but also presents a potential for an alternative politics of sexuality – one that affirms human dignity and diversity. During the reception afterwards, I was approached by the editor of the African Arguments series. Referring to my comments on religion and sexuality in Africa, she asked me to consider putting together a book proposal on this topic for the series. Although I did respond by saying that I had too many writing projects already, later that night I couldn’t catch sleep, as the outline of a book was emerging in my head. The idea of writing for the African Arguments series was appealing because the series publishes affordable books, written in an accessible style, and aiming at a non-specialist audience.

Together with my long-standing colleague and collaborator, Ezra Chitando from the University of Zimbabwe, I developed a proposal for a book that could change the conversation about sexuality in Africa. Ezra and I have previously edited two book volumes about the ways in which popular forms of religion fuel the politics against homosexuality and LGBT rights on the African continent. But in this book, we wanted to offer a different account. 

What is the key argument that your book develops?

Religion is often seen as a conservative force in contemporary Africa. In particular, Christian beliefs and actors are usually depicted as driving the opposition to homosexuality and LGBT rights in African societies. The primary aim of this book is to nuance this picture, by drawing attention to discourses emerging in Africa itself that engage with religion, specifically Christianity, in progressive and innovative ways—in support of sexual diversity and the quest for justice for LGBT people.

The book shows that African Christian traditions harbour strong potential for countering conservative anti-LGBT dynamics. Moreover, it argues that this potential has already begun to be realised, by various thinkers, activists and movements across the continent. Thereto we present ten case studies, documenting how leading African writers are reimagining Christian thought; how several Christian-inspired groups are transforming religious practice; and how African creative artists creatively appropriate Christian beliefs and symbols. In short, the book explores Christianity as a major resource for a liberating imagination and politics of sexuality and social justice in Africa today. Of course, this does not deny the reality that Christianity is also deeply invested in the politicisation of homosexuality and LGBT rights. However, in this book we seek to foreground African agency and progressive religious thought, in order to counterbalance secular approaches to LGBT rights in Africa, and to decolonise queer theory, theology and politics.

What insight does the book provide into the relationship between religion and public life?

Religion is prominently present in African societies and public spheres, and in recent years religious discourse has made sexuality – in particular, same-sex relationships, gender-queer identities, and LGBT rights – a major public concern. Although this dynamic is usually discussed with reference to conservative politics opposing sexual diversity, various African Christian actors have also actively contributed to progressive mobilisations, while African queer actors have creatively engaged with religion as part of their activism and visibility campaigns. Thus, religion and sexuality in African public life is much more complex and multi-faceted than often is suggested.

For instance, our book opens with a chapter about the legendary Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It examines how Tutu has effectively built on his decades-long struggle against apartheid in South Africa to subsequently make sexual diversity the focus of his faith-based social activism for human dignity and rights. Other chapters focus on the Ghanaian feminist theologian Mercy Oduyoye, and the Cameroonian environmental theologian Jean-Blaise Kenmogne, demonstrating how these thinkers have taken intersectionality seriously, leading them into a concern with the rights of sexual and gender minorities.

Part II of the book presents case studies of organisations, such as the World Council of Churches’ HIV and AIDS programme, which has built on the faith-based engagement with the HIV epidemic to radically include sexual and gender minorities that hitherto tended to be overlooked in ecumenical programmes. Part III focuses on African cultural production and creative forms of activism – such as poetry, novels, and film –, analysing how these various texts engage creatively with religious symbols and language in order to imagine progressive African futures. 

Thus, the book offers a diverse account of the multiple ways in which religion contributes to social transformation and progressive politics in contemporary Africa.

Give us one quote from the book that you believe will make us go and read it?

“This book is based on three central premises: one, sexuality has become a key site of struggle where African identity is imagined, negotiated, contested and transformed. Secondly, Christianity is a critical discursive field in which this struggle over sexuality in Africa takes place. Following from that is a third premise, that Christianity—as a tradition of faith and thought, a practice of lived religion, a site of institutional power, and a major factor in public culture—can also (and in fact, already does) contribute to the creative re-imagination of sexuality in contemporary Africa. The latter proposition might be the most contested one.”