Lately social media has been awash with pictures of my dear friend Sekati Kemmonye Sekati and his spouses. It would be an understatement to suggest that the pictures elicited a little excitement. Overnight Reverend Sekati became the subject of admiration, amusement, anger and empathetic jubilation.
Nowhere in recent memory has an educated, mid-life preacher boldly poked anti-polygamy proponents in the manner he has done, in the process sparking a raging debate that does not promise to die soon.
For the debate on polygamy is not an easy one. It’s a conundrum that rings with every chime of time, and one that will remain with mankind until the end.
In trying to find some form of defence for Sekati, I shall in this thesis attempt to wrestle with the vexing question of whether there is any Biblical basis for polygamy (specifically polygyny, which is where one man has multiple spouses) and how we came to be a monogamous society. I have no doubt that my argument will provoke further debate on the issue, and deservedly so, earn me a few monikers, some of which I expect not to be too flattering. That more so because I am a professed Christian – a born-again Pentecostal Christian – which I have been for nearly 30 years and have no plan of relinquishing. But I am also a student of Theology, which by its nature will always dunk us into the turbulent mire of hermeneutics and exegesis, hence this off-the-beaten-path argument.
Like thousands of Batswana, I am a product of a long line of polygamists. Being bilateral, I have keen interest in my kin from all the four lines of my family, that is those on my paternal grandfather’s side, on my paternal grandmother’s side and similarly on my maternal grandfather’s side and my maternal grandmother’s side.
Up to the birth of my parents, both sides were polygamous. I am only a second generation non-polygamist in my family after my father, so I can, with some degree of authority, claim to have a grasp of what polygamy is and how it works. With that out of the way, let us begin.
The Gospel as we know, was initially brought to us by missionaries. The missionaries tended to dismiss our African practices as long as they conflicted with theirs or appeared to be not compatible with theirs. I am not saying all our African practices were good, but there were many that the missionaries persuaded our people to abandon, polygamy being one such practice.
There is not a better example of how the missionaries’ imposition of their morals, practices and wholesale belief system caused havoc in our societies, than that of Kgosi Sechele of Bakwena whom I shall use as our case study.
Soon after David Livingstone met and preached to him, the great Bakwena Kgosi accepted the invitation to become a Christian, and thus became the first royal convert in Southern Africa. Conversion has to be declared publicly through baptism. That also marks the completion of one’s conversion. The Kgosi was ready to be baptised, but Livingstone would not baptise him unless he divorced all his four ‘junior’ wives. With much persuasion from Livingstone Sechele eventually divorced his four spouses and remained with only one – the first one he married. Livingstone baptised him. The following year however, one of the wives became pregnant. There was no question who the father was. Livingstone threatened Sechele with excommunication and damnation unless he repented. The Kgosi ‘repented’, pleading with the missionary not to give up on him. There is no record of whether Livingstone gave up on him or not, but we know he went north to Lake Ngami the following year, and eventually to Victoria Falls in 1855, where he died some 18 years later.
Meanwhile Kgosi Sechele went back to polygamy, and married a younger woman. We do not have a clear record of what happened to the wives that he divorced or their children. However, he remained an ardent believer, and is believed to easily surpass any single Western missionary in evangelising Southern Africa. This half-Christian-half-heathen but intelligent and greatly gifted Kgosi loved the terribly restrictive God of the missionaries. So much so that he developed his own style of Christianity – reshaping the religion as an indigenous African religion that could allow certain African practices, such as polygamy. He wanted a religion that would allow his people to access God and to freely participate in His work. He took what the missionaries saw as sin-unforgivable and turned it into something permissible in the worship and service to God.
Sechele’s conversion, we can assume with near certainty, led to numerous theological and moral problems. As I have already shown, the Church, while acknowledging his conversion, could not admit him as one of its own. He was a half-breed. An illegitimate child of God’s Kingdom; knocking at his Heavenly Father’s door, with no one opening for him unless he first repudiated polygamy, and therefore his wives and their children.
He did, under duress. And we cannot even begin to imagine the suffering – both physical and emotional – that was visited on the royal family by that decision. Perhaps here, let us digress a bit: what would have happened to Bakwena royal succession if the senior wife had no children? Surely accepting the next in line from any of the divorced wives would have been affirmation of his polygamous marriages. Secondly, we cannot even for one moment assume that Sechele’s children and the wives he divorced, would gladly accept this new God and happily give up their positions in society. This God had swooped on the royal house and taken away their very worth, their identity, which guaranteed their security and also provided order in their lives and the tribe.
Here were four women, wives, nay queens today, who became nobodies the following day. Overnight they and their children became the butt of jokes of the community; they were scorned and ridiculed.
They now faced a future of great uncertainty and hardship. Confusion reigned supreme as many social relationships between them and their royal uncles, aunts, cousins, half-brothers and sisters suddenly dissolved.
Surely none of the members of these dismissed families would want to follow this ‘cruel’ God of the missionaries. How did the Church of the time view them? As unfortunate victims whose eschatological placement does not matter? How would today’s church view them? As collateral damage? As items to be sacrificed and forever damned for the salvation of the Kgosi? And how does today’s church deal with polygamists who convert to Christianity? Much of Africa remains polygamous and certainly the God of Love wants these polygamists in the Kingdom. Will their situations be like Sechele’s?
The God of the Bible hates divorce. In persuading Sechele to send away his wives the church introduced divorce, and therefore sin.
It is trite to ask why Sechele went back to polygamy. He certainly must have grappled with the same question that many African Christians (men especially) are contending with today, that is if monogamy is indeed a
Kgosi Sechele obviously did not have a huge library from which he could research about the subject of polygamy and monogamy. However, we do. And what we learn now is that monogamy was a Roman practice, which was imposed on other peoples throughout the empire. Prior to Rome’s conquest and rule of Israel, polygamy had been accepted by the Jews as perfectly normal. Being rulers, the Romans teachings and influence on monogamy spread in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel. So much so that there were many proponents of monogamy at the time of Jesus.
Talking about Jesus, many Christians and Bible Scholars have used His statement in Matthew 19:3-9 where The Lord refers to Genesis 2:24 as showing He was against polygamy. I do not subscribe to the argument that he quoted Genesis as being decisive in defining monogamy as the normative for marriage.
The Lord was discussing divorce and likening it to an unnecessary surgical procedure whereby, that which has become one through marriage – an institution established by God – is separated. Ostensibly God knew there would be pain, hurt and endless misery for those divorcing.
Marriage grafts man and woman in pretty much the same way as inosculation does plants. And you cannot separate a gemel (the co-joined part of the plant) from its bound-together mate without harming the whole thing. Genesis 2:24 in my view is a descriptive explanation as opposed to a normative explanation of marriage. People don’t generally leave their father’s house when they marry. They continue to live patrilocally – by way of name and land or other assets. That’s why we have the kgotla system where brothers normally have plots adjacent to their siblings and their fathers. And we use our fathers’ name. And it was like that even in Israel.
Now, as regards the argument that, “the two shall become one flesh”, there is no suggestion that the man cannot have a similar bond with another in addition to the one he already has. Perhaps let’s go back to the little example of inosculation. Here two, sometimes three or more plants can be bound (glued/grafted) together at the root or trunk or branches and become one plant. They may have become so by binding to initially one plant, each finding access to the one trunk and binding to it. Would it be wrong to say the trunk has become one with the individual trees? Certainly not!
There is swelling of scholarly opinion that verse 24 of Genesis was added by an editor working later than the primary author of Genesis 2, ostensibly to address the needs of a later audience. If it was indeed the intention of the ‘second author’ to discuss polygamy in this text, the author would most likely have had Roman influence. The addition does not exist in the original Hebrew text, as the Jews would never tamper with Scripture. It does appear, however, in Scriptures edited in Rome’s territories outside Israel.
Paul, another authority used by opponents of polygamy is quoted as saying “a bishop must be the husband of one wife”. (1Tim 3:2-12) That scripture sounds pretty much like God’s warning to Israel’s kings not to have too many wives (Deuteronomy 17:17) because they would turn the king’s heart away from God. How would they do that? The king would be too busy with kingdom work and whatever time he had left he had to share between his wives and his time with God. Similarly, a Bishop with many wives may not be able to have his effective ‘God-time’ as he also must satisfy their various needs and wants. At no point does Paul explicitly denounce polygamy.
In conclusion, I believe God created man and woman to be together forever. However, that plan of creation was derailed by Adam and Eve’s sinning. Sin created an avenue for practices that God would merely tolerate as they became necessary owing to the fall. For example, God had commanded humans to eat only herbs and fruit, but He TOLERATED their eating meat, even at some point regulating which meat to eat and how they should cook it. God seemed to favour meat sacrifices over herbs and vegetables (Genesis 4:3-5).
In the same way, God tolerated polygamy, which was not his original plan for man. But sin had created, death, war, infertility and so on and so forth - situations for which additional marriages might provide a relief. And God neither condemned nor applauded those who took more than one wife.
He tolerated it and as with other practices that he tolerated, he gave laws to govern such practices. It’s like God was saying, “You know, they had it their way, so I may as well guide them on how to do it without destroying themselves”.
But on the whole, polygamy had some advantages. Take for example a situation where 75% of married men in an army were killed in battle.
That would mean 75% of families would not have a father and a husband. There would be a shortage of men to marry the remaining women in the city. Polygamy allowed for the remaining men to marry the widows as second or third wives and for first timers to later on marry additional wives. This not only ensured the security of the women and their children. It also helped to rebuild the nation. That God’s people accepted polygamy as the norm and did not consider it a sin is without question. All the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - married more than one wife. King David, a man after God’s heart, had eight wives; Moses the servant of God had two wives.
We know that by disregarding God’s instruction for kings not to take too many wives, Solomon’s heart strayed from God.
None of the scriptures quoted by opponents of polygamy explicitly forbids polygamy, let alone mentions it. It was monogamous Rome that introduced monogamy and infused its teaching not only in the scriptures, but in liturgy and other ordinances.
Today our Christianity has a lot of Roman influence – from our Sunday worship to our celebration of Christmas - which follow after pagan Rome’s worship days and celebrations. But that’s a debate for another day. However, the Brits adopted a religion with all these Roman influences and traditions. They in turn imposed these upon us as Africans. So, without adequate and solid substantiation of why opponents of polygamy believe it is immoral and a sin, it should presumptively remain moral.
*Greg Kelebonye is a former editor, a practicing communications expert and a Gospel minister