Beloftebos began functioning as a wedding venue in 2005 when, according to the write-up on its website, two people made a commitment to each other before God to “go where the other goes” and to “stay where the other stays”.
These words are almost identical to those in Ruth 1:16 where two women take an oath to bind their destinies together, yet the Western Cape business refused to host the ceremony of Megan Watling and Sasha-Lee Heekes because they, too, are two women and the establishment follows Christian principles.
Nothing undermines South Africa’s Constitution more than the selectiveness with which some of us interpret and apply our holy texts. Consider Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The “male and female” motif nullified there is that clung to by heterosexists who reduce this verse to a statement about salvation denuded of social consequences. “There are no favourites in the order of salvation”, they teach.
But distorting or watering down the social implications of such texts is how Christian supporters of slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other prejudices have upheld hermeneutics of “othering” that decontextualise scriptures to their taste. The net effect of this theology is that it ends up being safer to seek love in secular spaces instead of sacred spaces.
Unfortunately for Christianity, this is not a new trend. Except the four gospels and the Epistle to the Ephesians, the New Testament reads like transcripts from the early church’s non-stop bickering about who was in and who was out, how faith was to be practiced in the midst of ancient-world cultural and social norms, the place of women in a male-dominated world, as well as the role and relevance of circumcision. They discuss dietary codes, legal action, incest — the list messy and endless.
But Jesus’ puzzling answers to the questions put to him gave no bullet-point action plans. People living under an oppressive regime would ask him, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” and his answer, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s”, would mean whatever his listener’s biases wanted it to. For if Caesar was also one of God’s creatures, then who’s rendering what to whom? It’s a hall of mirrors — by design: “Jesus is the answer” is true because Jesus has no answers. The crucifixion destroys the idol of certainty masquerading as faith; it breaks the shackles of control passed off as moralism.
“Institutional Christianity is intellectually sheltered”
If colonial propaganda can turn the One who died resisting the marriage of empire and religion into the poster-boy for the heteropatriarchal assumptions underpinning unjust power structures, then no worldview, no metaphysic, no statement of faith (or no faith), no -ism, no teacher — absolutely no big idea — is safe from being hijacked for someone’s financial gain.
Capitalism is currently exploiting the atheist secular liberal worldview just as the Roman Empire turned early Christianity to an accessory to its violence. We need to get smarter about the use of beliefs to prop up injustice. Now, some would argue that Christian heterosexism originated from Christ himself, citing passages where he “defined” marriage. But those words were offered during arguments with pharisees who debated in such bad faith, they’d literally help get him crucified.
The Christianity that begets homophobia is the type once used to legitimise apartheid. Ignoring that the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity was a black eunuch, white supremacist Christianity vilified Jewish, black and gender non-confirming people to justify its abuse of power. It’s impossible to confront its racism apart from confronting its queerphobia because both are sponsored by the same inclination towards self-serving hypocrisy, and there’s no potting soil for hypocrisy to grow in better than religion.
To the homophobe, a same-sex couple that practices love and community service can never be as morally good as a heterosexual couple that destroys social cohesion. If we amplify this arbitrary preference for heterosexual couples (despite their issues) across society, we’ll see a church powerless against the violence post-apartheid South Africa is heir to.
As the conversation on Beloftebos deepens, I know their defenders will say the venue’s beliefs should be tolerated just as gay people’s right to exist is tolerated, but the religious beliefs being cited are no more legitimately religious (or legally protectable) than religious beliefs against left-handed people. I said in You Have To Be Gay To Know God (Kwela Books, 2018) that institutional Christianity is intellectually sheltered and the upshot of this is whatever toxic ideas are taught in there, spread out here.
What happened at the Beloftebos wedding venue in the Western Cape isn’t just a same-sex couple issue; it’s a symptom of the ethical disorientation that colonial Christianity spun South Africa into, and I don’t think we’ll transform or heal the country, or get buy-in on its Constitution until we come to terms with how that Christianity became and remains part of its DNA.
Let us not wait until the next couple that’s turned away is a heterosexual one turned away on the basis of race to do the work. We are all at risk of being othered.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex and is the author of You Have To Be Gay To Know God. Follow him on Twitter.