Justin Welby has declared that acceptance of same-sex marriage could lead to Christians being killed in South Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere.
In his comments, Welby made some valid points. But the conclusions he drew from them seem to me to be severely mistaken.
The archbishop told LBC Radio that he had “stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America”. In the incident in question, in Nigeria, the murderers had allegedly said “If we leave a Christian community here, we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians.”
Welby is right to say that “We have to be aware of… the impact of that on Christians far from here.” As he pointed out, “Everything we say here goes round the world.”
It would be naïve and uncaring not to think of the possibility that same-sex marriage in British churches could be used to incite anti-Christian hatred elsewhere in the world. Welby rightly reminds us that we need to take that into account.
However, when something is used to incite hatred, this does not mean it is necessarily the underlying cause of the hatred. I am sure Welby would acknowledge that anti-Christian prejudice in Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere is due to complex social, historical, economic and political causes. The same can be said of homophobic prejudice.
I dare say that some Nigerians assume that Christians in South Sudan all share the views of Christians in the US. They show as much prejudice as those British people who assume that all British Muslims are comparable to the Taliban. I am sure the majority of people in Nigeria, like the majority of people in Britain, have the sense to realise that this is not the case.
Much of the British reporting of African homophobia has racial undertones. An assumption that all Africans are homophobic (clearly not true) is accompanied by an implication that Africans will naturally behave in a prejudiced, irrational and ill-informed way.
I am not suggesting that Welby shares this attitude. Nor, to be fair, does every British media report. But it is nonetheless a common attitude. At its worse, it combines appeasement of homophobia with underlying racism.
Bigots who attack Christians in South Sudan, Nigeria or Pakistan have no more excuse than the bigots of the English Defence League attacking Muslims in Britain.
This does not mean that we should be callous about things that might provoke them into turning their hatred into violence. We should not be naïve or thoughtless about the effects on Christians in these countries of decisions taken in Europe or North America.
Nor should we allow this to become a convenient excuse for British Christians who oppose same-sex relationships in any case. If Christians in Pakistan were attacked by Islamic fundamentalists shouting that the doctrine of the trinity is blasphemous, I doubt we would see any British church leaders arguing that we should abandon belief in the trinity.
While talking about the implications of our decisions for Christians in Africa, there was one aspect of the issue that Welby sadly did not mention. He did not point out the consequences for gay and bisexual Africans. Many African cultures were accepting of homosexuality prior to the arrival of western armies and missionaries. As Davis Mac-Iyalla, a gay Nigerian Anglican, points out, it was not homosexuality but homophobia that the west brought to Africa.
The many LGBTI Christians in Africa need our support and solidarity. They don’t need the double curse of homophobia justified by racial, colonial assumptions.