Homosexuality: An Indian Issue in Church and State
Dr Pratap C. Gine, Vice-Principal and Professor of New Testament at Serampore College, explores LGBT history in India and the Church.
Historical Cultural Background of the Issue in India
When and how the issue of homosexuality alerted the socio-cultural setting of India is uncertain. There are some scant references to this issue in the ancient scriptures related not only to its socio-cultural setting but also to religious fervour. It is likely that the practice of homosexuality ran side-by-side with temple prostitution. In Indian cultural history, human sexuality has been projected in different temples and historical sites such as Konarak Temple and Khajuraho. The main projections at these sites are sexual acts between men and women. Where temple prostitution is concerned, it is sometimes projected in female (Devadasi) form and rarely in male form. This, however, does not mean that homosexuals or homosexuality did not exist in ancient Indian culture and tradition.
Yet until recent times people rarely talked about homosexuality, and homosexuals themselves were silent about their place and position in Indian society. It was towards the end of the last millennium that homosexuals in India appeared to become conscious of their human rights. In the 1990s, for instance, a handful of homosexuals from India appeared on the live telecast of an international conference of homosexuals in Sydney, Australia, although it was not clear whether they were officially representing a homosexual community in India.
Awareness of the Church
The Indian church awakened to the issue of homosexuality when a Bench of Delhi High Court comprising Chief Justice A. P. Shah and Justice S. Murlidhar declared in a 105-page judgment on July 2, 2009: “In our view, Indian constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconception of who LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is the antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster dignity of every individual”. With this declaration a 148-year old law that inclined many people in the country to regard same-sex relationships as illegitimate came to an end. Under the old law homosexual acts were punishable by a 10-year prison sentence. However, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code continues to govern non-consensual penile non-vaginal sex and penile non-vaginal sex involving minors.
After the declaration of the Delhi High Court there were scores of responses from citizen forums and religious organizations all over India. Church leaders expressed their views through resolutions in various seminars and workshops, through official statements issued by ecclesiastical heads or chief executives, or through press conferences where representatives of church bodies gave statements. The responses of churches took two forms: re-reading the Scripture and re-interpreting the issue from the churches’ day-to-day life.
The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)
A casual reading of this text might suggest that God does not approve any development by human beings that expresses their talent for constructing infrastructural high-rises! In reality, the story communicates that the human race refused to go to their God-designated lands. They chose to dwell in a city where they would build a tower out of their own labour rather than go to separate God-given lands. We note the contrast between the human plan (“Come let us make bricks”) and the divine intent (“Come let us go down and there confuse their language”). The underlying rationale is as follows:
First, there was uniformity in ancient society, but God disapproved it. Rather, God dictated diversity. It is apparent that God wanted diversity in the creation and demanded the same from the created beings. Hence, God is the God of diversity.
Second, the sovereign God was keen to make the names of the chosen ones great according to the divine plan. We note that in Genesis 12:2 God says to Abraham, “I will make your name great”. But in the Babel narrative humans themselves work to make their own names great. This is an utter defiance of God’s sovereignty. Hence, God strikes out at the human plan to “make a name for ourselves”.
Third, the sovereignty of God that is expressed here is not only over all animate and inanimate created beings but also over other heavenly beings. Yahweh’s action in confusing the language of the people is a punishment against people’s pride, and it guards against any future mass assault on the divine sovereignty. Their plan was to build a tower that would reach heaven – a strategic assault on the divine sovereignty. So God interfered and scattered the humans all over the earth, and the humans stopped building the city and the tower. They lost the strength and strategies to assault divine sovereignty. This act may be compared with the act of expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden lest they have further contact with the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:23-24).
In sum, when humans became proud of their position and power, and wanted to take control over all things, God taught them a lesson. When people did not oblige the command of God to go in different corners of the earth and enjoy the diversity, God forcefully scattered them out of their own situation to the world around them.
From this analysis of the story of the Tower of Babel, it becomes clear that God executes plans not in compliance with human desire but with divine will and intention. When people become rebellious, God finds a divine way of neutralizing the situation.
The Creation Stories (Genesis 1 and 2)
These themes can be seen in the creation stories as well. God created human beings in the image of God. In the first creation narrative, God created them equal and gave them equal rights and privileges (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1-2). There was no warrant for them to be proud of their identity or the special privileges they would enjoy. There was no way open for the man or the woman to demean any of the God-created beings on any ground, including sex. God did not grant special blessing on the human species, or on the male or female, to undermine others.
According to the second creation narrative (Genesis 2:4-25), although man was created earlier than woman, woman came later as his helper. Does this set a prerequisite for a man to have woman as his helper, or vice versa? Does it suggest that a man is helpless without a helper? This narrative shows how humans are interdependent.
Further, according to this story, God created woman when God assessed that it was “not good” for a man to be alone. If man’s loneliness is the problem and helper is the solution, the story suggests that after the creation of woman the man never feel lonely, and that the helper was a desirable role. It is difficult to believe that God limited the concept of helper only to the woman. If loneliness and helper are the issue, and this issue can be handled well outside the man-woman relationship, then the resolving factor deserves special mention.
Certain biblical accounts suggest that people outside the male/female community existed during biblical times and that they played vital roles in relation to the execution of divine plans. They were not born of any human desire or plan. They too were created as the image of God. They were lonely and had little socio-religious recognition. An example is the story of the appearance of three visitors at the tents of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-15). The “visitors” are called “men” in verses 3, 16, 22 and 19:10, but they are called “angels” in Genesis 19:1.
In India there has long been an LGBT community, although often disguised under the male/female dichotomy of conventional society. They were cursed and punished as there was neither any positive projection of their lives nor movement on their part for recognition of their rights and privileges. Today this community is struggling with the concepts of loneliness and helper. They have long been struggling due to their loneliness, and so they worked out their own solution and found their helper. If they find a wholesome solution within the realm of their relationships, without either demeaning other sexual beings or being arrogant about their own sexual orientation, then the LGBT community will have grounds to demand their rightful place within Indian society. Their sexual orientation must be duly respected and recognized. This will fulfill both the equality we see in the creation stories and the diversity that is affirmed in the story of the Tower of Babel.
Jacob’s Wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32)
The story of Jacob’s all-night wrestling with a mysterious being is unique and ambiguous. It is unique in that it projects an unprecedented overnight wrestling between an earthly man and a celestial being.It is ambiguous in that it raises a number of unanswered questions: Who is the “man” who fought with Jacob? Why did this man wrestle with Jacob? Did this man have magical power, as in his touching the socket of Jacob’s hip to make Jacob limp? What was the specific blessing that Jacob received before the man left him? What did the change of name mean for Jacob? Was it part of the blessing? There is no direct answer to these questions.
Amidst this uniqueness and ambiguity the story unfolds the fact that good things come only after a long struggle, as in the struggle between Jacob and the “man”. Struggle might make the warrior lose something, but it is for a good cause. Jacob’s hip was wrenched, and he began to limp because of the wrestle, yet he did not give up. He lost his precious name Jacob (meaning, the one who grasps the heel or the one who deceives), which his parents gave him. The celestial man renamed him Israel, which means to wrestle with humans and God and to win them over. On one hand, the renaming may be considered as a blessing, while on the other it may be seen as a stigma attached to the name and personality of Jacob – a new name with a new identity.
The LGBT community of India had for ages been wrestling against socio-cultural structures and religio-legal dictums. The parameter of their wrestling, however, was limited to the night hours. They hid their identity, and they appeared anonymously. They identified themselves as either male or female, whichever suited them in a particular context. In fear of rejection and in their hidden predicament they did not dare to come out of their cocoon. There was a fear also that any attempt to identify themselves would be codified and punishable under the Indian Penal Code. In the fulness of time, however, they dared to wrestle against all these odds, and they won. What they gained was remarkable: their right to live according to their sexual orientation. Their human right was recognized and venerated. What they lost out of this wrestling was their privacy. They are now thrown open to their families and to the larger society. They now limp. Legal approval did not guarantee them social acceptance, because social acceptance depends upon human attitudes, and among many these have not changed. Thus they seem to have no future and no social acceptance. They continue to limp. Until and unless the prevailing attitude is challenged and ultimately changed, the LGBT community will continue to limp.
Pentecost (Acts 2)
The unspoken predicament of LGBT persons requires an event like Pentecost, when all diversities would be recognized and there would be no grounds for demeaning others. This would happen when one would understand the other with the solemn touch of the Holy Spirit. People of different sexual orientations would come together and experience the downpour of the Holy Spirit, which would remove all stains of various socio-religious stigmas. After the ascension of Jesus to heaven his disciples felt themselves to be sheep without shepherd, but they were relieved and consoled when the Holy Spirit came upon them. So it will happen with LGBT community members when the solemn touch of the Holy Spirit integrates them into normal human society with due recognition and respect. As the forlorn state of mind of the disciples was ignited by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, so it will happen with LGBT people. They will be relieved from all their uncertainties and despair. Although the LGBT community is limping now, their limping will be healed with another downpour of the Holy Spirit, which will demand the church’s active participation and cooperation in their movement.
The terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality” are widely understood and used in various regions and by diverse commentators. Any sexual attraction of one another of the same sex is known as “homosexuality”, and the persons involved in this act are known as “homosexuals”.
If it is a man sexually attracted to another man, he and his partner are known as “gays”, and similarly women having sexual attraction and action with one another are known as “lesbians”.
The USA and Britain, however, prefer the terms “gay men” and “lesbians” to the term “homosexuals”, believing that the latter term carries negative clinical associations and conveys a narrow genital focus in the definition of the person. Currently, “LGBT” is a preferred term, referring as it does to a wider range of phenomena, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons. Another term used is “PDSO”, a person or persons of different sexual orientation.
Homosexuality is understood as sexual desire directed toward members of the same sex. “Homosexual” identifies the constitution of a man or woman, for which he or she cannot be held responsible.
It can be understood from the traditional, emotional, psychiatric, criminal, and personal perspectives. It is believed by many that homosexuals act contrary to the will of God for human sexuality, and therefore are sinful. Some blame them with scriptural authority, citing especially the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Paul’s condemnation of “abusers of themselves with mankind” (Romans 1:26-27). The medieval church prescribed penances and other spiritual penalties, but rarely surrendered homosexuals to civil magistrates.
Instances of Homosexuality in Theological Institutions and Church Life
As would be expected, Indian churches have LGBT members, although it is not possible to know explicitly who is and who is not a member of the LGBT community. No church membership form asks a question about sexual orientation. Several known instances of practicing LGBT persons in theological colleges and in churches illustrate the closeted lifestyle LGBT persons continue to feel obliged to adopt and the negative stance taken by institutional authorities:
- Theological College Students: Two male students in a theological college appeared to be very good friends. Gradually their friendship developed into intimacy, and other students observed that they were withdrawing themselves from others to spend more time with each other. The two students stopped going to the library for evening hours, whereas most students looked forward to evenings in the library for updating their studies. The pair chose to stay in their rooms for “private studies and better understanding”. Initially no one concluded that the relationship had moved beyond good friendship. One evening, however, one member of the pair agitated against the other and publicly accused the other of what was going on between them. Students in nearby rooms witnessed this drama but did not let the authorities know about it. As the two were in their final year, with just a couple of months to go to complete their course, the remaining students let the matter rest but withdrew themselves from associating with the two. However, the two students were very good in their behavior and interpersonal relationships, and they regularly attended the weekly and Sunday worship services. Their humble outlook amazed many, and they graduated peacefully.
- Theological Faculty: A professor from a western country at a theological college was enjoying great respect because of his teaching ability. His accessibility to all was never questioned, and he was seen as ideal for a theological environment. He was a handsome bachelor but appeared to have passed his marriageable age. The professor’s male servant, from an orthodox Indian family, was not less than his master. He was keen that he dressed well and made himself acquainted with others in the theology community as a friend of his master. Their master-servant relationship gradually came under scrutiny when their movements in and outside the campus looked to be something more than that. Certain specific displays of their relationship became highly objectionable, like attending special college functions together where dinner with dignitaries was usual feature. The faculty member would come for dinner and make his servant sit by his side. The matter became wide open to the theological community, including the administrative authority, when the so-called servant became angry for unknown reasons in the hostel and disclosed, without knowing the possible consequence, who he was and what his relationship with the professor was. The college authority did not approve the matter, and both men were asked to leave. They did so without raising a public issue about it.
- Church Presbyter: One of the senior presbyters of the Church of North India (CNI) was a PDSO (Person of Different Sexual Orientation). This was known to his family members even when he was young. As he grew up he excelled in his academic pursuits and in other qualities. After taking up the ordained ministry, he was found to have special relationship with a male friend. As both of them were living in the campus of the church headquarters, it did not take much time for people to know about the relationship. The presbyter was called and counseled with dignity by the senior church officers. He resigned from his post and remained without any assignment for a couple of months. He was later invited to take up another assignment in a different state. People of this state also came to know about his orientation but condoned it, and he served the church until his death.
The Churches’ Response to Homosexuality
The Church of North India has for some time sought to address the issue of homosexuality, but with mixed results. In 2003 the CNI’s 24 bishops opposed the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church USA. There was widespread expectation that the Council of Bishops would address the issue of homosexuality comprehensively, but in the event they did not do so in a clear or effective way.
A 2004 consultation on homosexuality at CNI Bhavan in New Delhi brought together nearly 40 persons, including bishops, physicians, pastors, social activists, women’s leaders, youth leaders and children’s coordinators. The group concluded that homosexuality as an orientation is not sin and one cannot be blamed for it; the orientation does not necessarily entail same-sex acts; and homosexual women and men deserve respect, friendship, compassion and understanding. Among other things, the consultation recommended that scriptures historically related to the sexuality issue should be re-examined with regard to their socio-cultural context; orientation programmes should be initiated for presbyters and lay leaders; and that CNI should develop a clear understanding of the issue through consultations at various levels. There was little follow-up on the 2004 report.
The 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court to overturn the 148-year-old law penalizing same-sex relationships prompted various church bodies to issue statements declaring their position in regard to same-sex relationships. Father Dominic Emanuel of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Delhi said the church did not “approve” of homosexual behaviour. However, he went on to say, “Our stand has always been very clear. The church has no serious objection with decriminalising homosexuality between consenting adults. The church has never considered homosexuals as criminals”.
In response to the High Court’s decision, the then General Secretary of the Church of North India, the Rev. Dr. Enos Pradhan, wrote, in part:
It is heartening to note that the Hon’ble Delhi Court has taken the stand on the principle of “inclusiveness” so that everyone is assured of a life of dignity and non-discrimination. While we welcome this approach of “inclusiveness” there are still large sections of the Indian population, viz. Dalits, Adivashis, Women and religious and linguistic minorities who are forced to become victims of isolation and face discrimination, and thereby they are deprived of equal access to social and economic opportunities. The case of Christian Dalits in India can be cited as a strong case of exclusion and deprivation for last fifty-nine years due to the discriminatory law of Scheduled Caste Order of 1950.
The crucial word for us is “inclusive.” We believe that inclusiveness is central to “the real meaning of Christianity.” The church is not an exclusive club as it exists for others. Therefore the Church must be inclusive because Jesus was inclusive. Jesus loved us unconditionally. He had an unconditional love of all humanity, allowing for no outcast in this community as he built the true religion, a religion of inclusion and wisdom.
In this statement we see a high official of CNI moving toward an affirming stance in relation to homosexuality. It is also significant that he compared the LGBT community to other groups in India that are disadvantaged, such as outcastes, tribals and women.
In December 2009, the National Council of Churches in India, in collaboration with the Presbyterian Church of India, the Student Christian Movement of India and the Senate Centre for Extension for Pastoral Theological Research (SCEPTRE) organized in Kolkata the Theological Roundtable on the Churches’ Response to Human Sexuality. In their “Message of the Indian Christian Communities”, they said, among other things:
We recognize that there are people with different sexual orientations. The very faith affirmation that the whole human community is created in the image of God irrespective of our sexual orientations makes it imperative on us to reject systemic and personal attitudes of homophobia and discrimination against sexual minorities. We consider the Delhi High Court verdict to “decriminalize consensual sexual acts of adults in private” upholding the fundamental constitutional and human rights to privacy and the life of dignity and non-discrimination of all citizens as a positive step.
We believe that the Church as ‘Just and Inclusive Community’ is called to become a community without walls to reach out to people who are stigmatized and demonized, and be a listening community to understand their pains, desires, and hopes.
We envision Church as a sanctuary to the ostracized who thirst for understanding, friendship, love, compassion and solidarity, and to join in their struggles to live out their God given lives. So we appeal to the Christian communities to sojourn with sexual minorities and their families without prejudice and discrimination, to provide them ministries of love, compassionate care, and justice.
The group called on the NCCI and its members to initiate an in-depth study of human sexuality, and it called on theological colleges to integrate issues of human sexuality into theological and ministerial formation. The Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) in Bangalore similarly organized a consultation on the issue in February 2010, and there are reports that the Theological Commission of the CNI will be addressing the issue.
Responses by the State and Others
The State’s response could be heard from the declaration of the Delhi High Court judgement, which has decriminalised consensual same-sex relationships. After this judgement different governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations have taken different steps to activate the Delhi High Court declaration. For example, the Election Commission of our country introduced another category of sex indicator and thus gave transsexuals the right to choose their sex as “others” in the gender option on electoral rolls. The Tamil Nadu government introduced in 2007 on their ration cards, voting cards, passports and admission forms for government schools and colleges an “others” option for the indication of the “sex” of candidates. The Senate of Serampore College (University), the only theological university in India, has also accepted this norm, and introduced it in its registration form.
In this study we have seen that churches in India long ignored the issue of LGBT orientation and practice among its members. As in churches in other parts of the world, there was a tendency to deny the presence of such orientation and then to condemn instances of practice when they came to light. During the first decade of the 2000s, however, there has been significant movement in a more positive and accepting direction, especially in response to the 2009 judicial decision, which set the course of civil society. However, very negative attitudes towards LGBT persons continue to be strong among many people both within the churches and in society as a whole.
Today churches in India face a number of issues in relation to homosexuality:
- Should or should not the church recognize civil rights and social justice for lesbians and gay men irrespective of their affiliation to religious bodies?
Most of the Indian churches agree to respect and recognise these. The Church of North India, in particular, has shown concern for them and has taken concrete steps to recognize their civil rights.
- Should or should not a PDSO be considered for pastoral care and ministerial concern?
There is no reason why they should not be part of pastoral care and ministerial concern. This should not be seen as a good gesture or any kind of obligation, but be accepted as their human as well as ministerial rights.
- Should or should not the church accept practising LGBT persons as full-time members of a church if they fulfill all requirements?
This issue is about whether the church is truly concerned about the sexual orientation of all members or the church is the victim of social taboo. If the church can overcome such taboos (which the church always does), bringing LGBT members into full membership of a church will not be a real problem. Once again we commend the ministerial strategy of the Church of North India in that she has not only accepted LGBT persons as regular church members but also has welcomed their ministry.
- Should or should not the church ordain LGBT members for the full-time ministry of the church?
Sexual orientation cannot be the determining factor for such a vital decision. If a person has fulfilled all ministerial prerequisites and there has not been any serious objection to his/her performance, his/her PDSO identity should not be considered as detrimental to his/her ordination. A PDSO member in no way should be compared with immoral persons judged as such. The Church of North India has never been a closed community. The issue of PDSO was never a stumbling block for the purpose of ordination.
We conclude with a quotation from H. A. Hodges,:
A pure Christianity would have everything to teach to the rest and nothing to learn from them [the heathen]; but a damaged Christianity has to submit to learn from its rivals and even from its persecutors, as an erring Israel had to accept judgement from Nebuchadnezzar and deliverance from Cyrus.
Let the Church of North India be the guide for others in dealing with this issue.
Pratap Chandra Gine has been Vice-Principal and Professor of New Testament at Serampore College University, Kolkata, since 2008. He previously taught at Eastern Theological College, Assam, for 18 years. He is an ordained minister of the Baptist Church. He is also Registrar of the North India Institute of Post Graduate Theological Studies. He holds the M.A. and B.Ed. degrees from the University of Calcutta, the B.D. and M.Th. degrees from Serampore College (University) and the Doctor of Theology degree from Melbourne College of Divinity, University of Melbourne. Among other publications, he is the author of Nomos in Context: Philo, Paul and Bengali Bible. He is married to Dipti Rani Gine, who teaches at at Serampore College.
1 The Hebrew of the word “Babel” is Babylon. The story has a reference to the great tower of the Marduk temple of Babylon., which had six square stages, each atop the other, and the last had a chapel for the god. It is possible that the Genesis story of Babel was inspired by the tower at a period when the great monument was in ruins between two re-buildings. Cf. T. Jacobsen, “Babel”, in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Encyclopedia. Volume 1 (A–D) (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 334.
2 Narratives of overnight fighting between humans and evil beings, however, are not rare.
3 In some English versions this “man” has been translated as “angel” to sharply distinguish him from evil beings.
4 William R. Schoedel prefers “same-sex eros” to homosexuality. William R. Schoedel, “Same-Sex Eros: Paul and the Greco-Roman Tradition” in David L. Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 43-72.
5 It is believed that the concept of homosexual orientation as being separate from one’s perceived gender identity did not take shape until the 19th century.
6 Quoted from C. G. Scorer, Bible and Sex Ethics Today (London: Tyndale Press, 1966) by R. E. O. White, A Guide to Pastoral Care (London: Pickering & Inglis Ltd., 1976), 209.
7 Identities of institutions and individuals are not disclosed in these instances cited in this section.
10 H.A. Hodges, “The Integration of Heathenism and Unbelief into the Life of the Christian Church,” Sobornost (July 1944), 7.