Ecclesia de Lange’s experience as a lesbian minister who was fired from the Methodist Church after her engagement announcement will make its way to the Constitutional Court where we will test the relationship between church and state.
But many have argued that churches are voluntary membership associations; as such, they do not have to be constitutional at all points. They can have their own rules. Within reason.
But if that’s so, then shouldn’t people have to be 18 years old before they are allowed to attend church sermons or homilies?
Shouldn’t churches that do admit minors adhere to publicly-known broadcasting and pedagogical standards?
I really would like to know: what has the State put in place to regulate the influence that churches and other religious institutions have over children? I am happy to admit ignorance but if any measures do exist, then their effectiveness must be limited because from what I see and hear, children are still present in church audiences where the sermon material is not entirely suitable for people of all ages.
This is something I have written to the Human Rights Commission about (giving its local office many headaches) – churches’ unmitigated influence over vast portions of society, as well as the absence of any aggressive public push to regulate what children are exposed to in churches.
Are children able to consent to having this influence exerted over their impressionable minds? Dare we believe that their sponge-like minds do not absorb everything they see and hear? Some churches have the good sense to send children off to kid’s church when preaching starts. Some preachers ensure their messages are age-sensitive. But I imagine that many don’t; they simply steamroll through the message with little or no thought about the smaller ears in the audience. The number of churches this happens in might not be great, but I imagine it is significant; we cannot rely on complainants to highlight issues before we take action. We must be pro-active and ask for the upfront regulation of the church’s influence on the public, I believe.
If courts cannot force churches to behave constitutionally, then to whatever degree churches refuse to play along with the Bill of Rights, to that degree sermons, homilies and the like should not be broadcast to minors.
True, nobody should have his freedom of speech, religion or conscience curtailed. But neither should minors suffer any form of harm as a result of another person’s spiritual beliefs. Minors are suffering even if the damage is not apparent.
When I heard my first anti-gay sermon, my vocabulary and sexual awareness had not advanced to the point that the term “sodomite” should have made sense, or, for that matter, have meant something significant to me. But that does not mean I should have been exposed to an atmosphere where such vitriol could be stirred up and revelled in on account of people’s sexual preferences and choices; that left an impression. And I believe I was one of the lucky ones.
Nothing but rape and other forms of coercive, abusive and otherwise deceitful (but still blatantly hurtful) sexual choices should provoke even a fraction of that sheer congregational outrage or the self-righteous chorus of Amens. Peer pressure, crowd psychology and the impressionability of young minds form an intoxicating cocktail of influences that in turn shape young minds towards prejudices and attitudes they otherwise may not have picked up and clung to.
Nobody should be in a position to instil the idea in a young mind that to fit in with those who “know best” and hold the power to include and exclude, he has to absorb and perpetuate the same prejudices. But many are in such positions, and worshiped and admired as they are, they and their teachings are beyond question, beyond reproach.
So while I applaud the Constitution for protecting adults’ right to believe whatever they want and sign up for whatever private clubs they want to sign up for, eating and drinking snakes, rats petrol and fire as they wish, I have to ask: who is protecting the children from the adults’ choices? Are kids driven out when “exorcisms” (otherwise known as beat-downs) are conducted? My mother told me about one in Umlazi J section, I think it was, where the exorcist managed to pull out a child’s entrails in a bid to cast out demons. It may be an anecdotal account, but it is still indicative of a disturbing trend. There is a real danger here; I see striking parallels with ritual circumcision but that is a whole other can of, er, worms.
Real or not, the child in this instance died. But do these preachers even say, “Kids, don’t try this at home!” before doing the holy work of God? Or do they rely on the Holy Ghost to clean up after them?
Hellfire And Brimstone Sermons Are Not Suitable For Young And Sensitive Audiences
Does there exist a being with the power to send vast numbers of people to an everlasting hell? Perhaps. Probably. But there is no good reason to introduce the imagery of it to young, fertile imaginations.
The doctrine of hell is mentally violent. It is intended to scare people into obedience, and often it accomplishes that goal. But more so than adults, children’s understanding of personhood is limited. The idea that some people should be cast into hell can undermine the foundation of the understanding of personhood, which, in turn, will undermine children’s ability to grasp the ethos of the Bill of Rights. We do not (or should not) torture criminals. But according to the doctrine of hell, the God of the bible subjects his criminals to everlasting torment. The State images benevolence as non-violence; God, however, vindicates his benevolence by threatening its alternative, and that is supreme, absolute violence. Are children able to cope with this dissonance? I doubt it.
Piousness is not necessarily a constitutional value. Don’t children living in a constitutional democracy have a right to learn more constitutional ideas before being exposed to the idea of hell (or, for that matter, many biblical motifs)? It is traumatising and dehumanising to learn such a potent idea at such a young age, much like being exposed to a no-holds-barred talk about sex when you are just seven years old.
None of this actually has to do with whether these beliefs are true or ethical; the point I am stressing is that there is nothing to be gained from exposing children to these concepts that cannot be gained by other, better-thought through means. The fact that we have not, generally speaking, really discussed alternatives (as members of churches or as citizens of the State or both) is a sign of our collective lethargy when it comes to constitutionalism.
Sexual Orientation And Religious Homophobia
The Constitutional Court will hear the story of Ecclesia de Lange. But maybe it is an opportunity for us to also discuss children and other vulnerable people in the cross-hairs of religious discrimination. There is nothing to be gained from exposing children to sermons teaching that some kinds of boys, girls, men and women are more deserving of hell because the popular prejudice of the day says so. History tells of great religious trauma over the centuries. This is to say nothing about immersing children in normalised sexism passing itself off as orthodoxy. That is what many children are exposed to, is it not?
My formative years were spent under the fiery preaching of a Charismatic-Pentecostal church whose homophobic head pastor infamously raped a slew of high school boys. Whoever wants to go deal with that kind of twisted, toxic, hypocritical, repressive shit has my blessing and the constitutional right to sign up for it.
But for Christ’s sake – and I do mean for Christ’s sake – suffer the children to be kept out of it: not for such is what masquerades as the kingdom of heaven.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment and share.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.