“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” This thought often attributed to Socrates through his medium to modern day society, the scholarly Plato, is an intriguing one. Socrates is said to have observed this phenomena somewhere around 370 B.C. An attempt to contrast Socrates’ observation of the children of his day with the children of today will likely lead us on a pointless journey around the mountain.
I point to the thought above to draw parallels with other patterns of human behavior that some people in contemporary society come to deem new phenomena or anomalies. Sex and expressions of sexuality have often been referenced as consequences of a decline in the moral order—since the latter days of the earth circa, the enlightenment period, and especially through the twentieth century with the advent of television. Such conclusions of course are ahistorical in their understanding of common human behavior. Long before for-profit films were produced in the seventies and eighties, vulgarizing sexual contact between people of the same gender (particularly men), homosexuality was an unspoken part of the normalcy of society.
The great Pauline scholar and biblical New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, in “New Perspectives on Paul”, curiously observes that in his letters to his young protégés Timothy and Titus, the Apostle Paul does not make a big deal of homosexuality though it was a practice mightily prevalent in the communities in Ephesus and Crete. Wright finds this intriguing: knowing on the one hand the conservative standpoint Paul has morally, and on the other, him dismissing the issue because it was normal in the then ancient Roman society. Wright often tells his reader that Paul focuses rather on the subject of fidelity in relationships above the more religiously acceptable viewpoint that he should scold or offer a ‘reproach’ on what this turn in sexual behavior brings upon people.
Over the past twenty years, there has been a proliferation of arguments on the formerly taboo subjects of sex and sexuality. Modern society has jumped on this subject as though they are new. People of religious persuasions, particularly those of the religion I adhere to (Christianity) have been quick to pounce and denounce homosexuality as abhorrent. Many in Africa have blamed the supposedly free sexual expressions on Eurocentric influences that have crept in to destabilize a culture rooted in ‘traditional family values’.
When we borrow from N.T. Wright’s new perspectives on Pauline theology, we realize how insightful Paul was in observing his society, even though we are apprehensive of how regressive some of his thought is—but fortunately, a contextual reading of his texts often makes us understand his perspective. It is this unwillingness on the part of modern day bible readers to wrestle with the tension that exists in the context of, say, Ephesians 5:16 were Paul says in the heterosexual marriage relationship spouses are to be mutually submissive; but the modern day reader has often jumped the cue and read that as Paul saying women (rather regrettably) should be the parties submitting to men. Such a pejorative reading dismisses the existent nuance found in both the text and its context.
It is the task of progressive thinkers to encourage conservatives who border on extremism to re-evaluate the texts and wrestle with the nuance. With equal measure, proponents of freedom of sexual expressions would do well to also appreciate the contextual complexity. The church on the basis of its founding and established bias is wont to call out much of how we live our lives, but that does not mean it is littered with regress and should be dismissed as bigotry. As human beings, we should always remember that we can never agree on all things. That unfortunately is just the order of things.
The second objection to the freedom of sexual progression is largely born out of religious conservativism and has of course made its home in continental Africa. The false dichotomy here being freedom of sexuality is anti-family values. This isn’t the case, because there has never been such a thing as universal traditional family values on continental Africa. The great leaders of the ages such as Shaka and the Great Egyptian kings are rumored to have wrestled—whether with any measure of discomfort or not, we do not know—with their same gender attraction. That African family has over the years assumed various identities, from the polygamous to the quintessential surviving brother marrying the widow of his blood brother; as such, we see that there isn’t such a thing as universal traditional family values. We are a society that has defined itself as we moved along.
More curiously, the world as a whole has wrestled with these issues since the dawn of the ages. These issues are certainly not new; we will do well to respect the historical tension that exists and not only look at them through the vulgarized eyes of the 21st century.