Abrahamic religions and the history of regulating morality

In the previous piece, celebrating the amazing decision by the Court of Appeal, to decriminalize same sex intimacy, we started addressing institutionalised oppression and discrimination.

Often, in our culture, oppression is perpetuated by religious puritans for whom life is either or, without the slightest regard for the actual complexities in which we exist, and the spectrums of identities, and specifically sexual identity.

The earliest religion in Botswana, as old as the first people in area which has become the country, is a form of what is broadly referred to as “African Traditional Religion” (ATR). ATR recognises the vast diversity of traditional practices by African people, which includes various ethnic religions. It is anchored in plurality, recognising that the richness in our diversity stems from this pluralistic makeup. By definition, ATR is essentially the indigenous and autochthonous religions of the African people, which deals with cosmology, ritual practices, symbols, arts, society and so on. It is a way of life which related to culture and society, which affect the worldwide view of the African people.

For a very long time, ATRs were the only known religions in the continent of Africa, including Botswana. In the late 1800s, a wave of disruption of these practices, started filtering into the country, through different missionaries, who introduced various alternative ways of being, rituals thereto associated, and structures for the practices of these new religions. In Botswana, the church became more vast as colonialism spread in the early 1900. Christianity, along with other Abrahamic faiths, in our context, was one of the justifications which European powers used to exploit and colonise Africa. To many European countries, monotheistic Abrahamic religions represented western civilisation, and most-importantly for the present conversation, it was also the main basis for anglo-saxon morality.

These religions were the major force in the partition and eventual colonisation of the African continent. Colonialism was therefore designed in a way that it was, in many contexts, founded in religion, giving puritans a way to impose their religious beliefs on the people of the land they occupied.

Critically, the colonisers did not give freedom of religion to others, especially “non-believers”. The approach by the colonisers, was of course, to convert the tribal leaders, dikgosi, who had the ear of the people, and held the power to cause nationwide movement.

One of the greatest anchoring principles in the Abrahamic faiths is that one shall not serve any other gods besides God. This was a major point of departure for many of the chiefs advisors in the country, who believed in consultations with ancestors and the worship of other beings. Another point of departure became the Englished way of Christianity, which left no space for anything and anyone else.

That meant Batswana would have to, if they were to comply with Christian values, abandon their religious and cultural and traditional identities, to please the God introduced through colonialism. A great majority of Batswana embraced this way of being, which dictated and prescribed everything about the lives to be led by the converts. To this extent, it also dictated the morality of the public, including on matters of identity, sexuality, and expression. I suppose it was difficult or even near impossible to control a people who you do not understand, so a strategy, to remain in power and in control by the colonisers, was to condition people into who they were to aspire to be, “pure Christians”. Many of these religious fundamental moral standards made their ways into the law, through the clergy’s influence over politics and traditional leaders.

Although a great majority of our laws were imported, log, stock and barrel from the colonisers, they remained largely unchanged, because of the import of the moral standards on which the laws were premised. Prior to colonialism, during colonialism and even now, there have been diverse sexual practices, identities and expressions in and amongst our people. We have always understood that sexuality is constructed and recognised through the complex pluralistic articulations across the continent.

However, when the puritan movements of the Abrahamic religions imposed a certain specific and seemingly inalienable way of being, this became what was normed, over everything else known to the continent. The importation of monotheistic religions meant the understanding of the supreme being as He was and is presented. Many argue that there are continuations and convergences of ATR and the Abrahamic faiths. Both have [a] Supreme being[s] and spirits on behalf of the humans; they also have the dark or evil spirits who, in Christianity would be the devil. The main dividing point, however, is that Abrahamic religions view women’s bodies as the place where sin sits, it is seen as morally corrupt, and it is looked at as a distraction from God, and from thoughts of God. ATR on the other hand, worships and reveres women’s bodies for their reproductive nature as well as being sexually iconic.

The control and regulation of Africa sexualities remains a critical anchoring point for patriarchal-capitalism and the Abrahamic religions. To organise the morality of the African people, religion continues to play an essential role, and continues to be used.

Often, there is little regard for the humanness of those who are, as a result of the problematic statutory or normative laws or practices, oppressed, and limited in their full existence. Principles of equality and non-discrimination are furthest from religion than other human rights values, for the reason that power and control cannot persist where hierarchy does not exist. Heirarchecal institutions built for the conditioning of the masses will always feed off of these warped perceptions of human identities, and specifically, diverse sexuality. The question then becomes, how do we unlearn and undo this colonial legacy in the ways we view sexuality?

Editor's Comment
Let the law take its course

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