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Adventist perspective sought in United Nations dialogue on sexuality and religious freedom


Adventist leader highlights biblical perspectives while talking about human sexuality.

June 29, 2016

Bettina Krause, communication director, International Religious Liberty Association

Adventist perspective sought in United Nations dialogue on sexuality and religious freedom

Ganoune Diop, director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department for the Seventh-day Adventist World Church, sits on a panel during a conference on sexuality and religious freedom at the United Nations (Photo Credit: United Nations)

Dr. Ganoune Diop, Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association and Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Seventh-day Adventist world church, was a keynote speaker earlier this month at a high-level United Nations conference exploring the relationship between religious freedom, human rights, and sexuality. He was asked to provide a scholarly overview of religious attitudes towards human sexuality, especially from the perspective of Christian traditions. In his presentation, Diop examined different views about human sexuality tested in light of the biblical evidence, and he also emphasized the Christian imperative to treat every human being with dignity and respect.   

The three-day event, entitled “Freedom of Religion or Belief and Sexuality: A Conversation,” was held June 8 to 10 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, and brought together scholars and advocates from various religious traditions and advocacy organizations, along with representatives from the United Nations community. Diop attended at the invitation of the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, who also asked Diop to deliver one of the six major presentations that anchored the conference. 

In his keynote address, Diop sought to explain the biblical teachings and values that inform a Christian response to same-sex relationships. “Christians, first and foremost, locate human sexuality within the context of creation, where everything was declared ‘good,’ even ‘very good,’” Diop told the diverse group of attendees. “But, as the biblical narrative portrays, what the world has become after alienation from God is another story.”

In his presentation to the group, Diop traced the historical evolution of various theological and traditional beliefs about human sexuality within various Christian communions, and the influence of cultural norms in shaping attitudes about appropriate sexual behavior. 

Diop mentioned the seven biblical texts often interpreted as prohibiting same-sex acts, and explained the divergent interpretations given to these texts. He said that the majority of Christians—whether Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant Evangelicals or Pentecostals—see these texts as prohibiting same-sex acts. However, he also reported that a growing number of Christians challenge this reading, giving alternate interpretations that suggest, in their view, that the Bible does not address the issue of homosexuality as it is known today. 

Diop also highlighted the widening chasm between secular society and religious organizations when it comes to issues of sexuality. He pointed to official statements by historic and mainstream Christian churches that endorse monogamous heterosexual marriages, which stand in stark contract to the approach of civil secular society and a growing number of Christians who support homosexual marriage, lifestyle, and practice. Unanimity on this issue has become more and more elusive, he concluded.

Diop, an Adventist theologian and a former professor of theology, biblical languages, and comparative religions also told attendees at the UN conference that “the very foundations of the Christian faith are based on the inalienable freedom of every individual to choose to enter a covenant relationship with God.” This freedom, he said, means that Christians should be wary of trying to legislate their religious beliefs, turning religious values into public policy that discriminates against or punishes those who reject specific religious teachings.

“In this debate, Christian churches and people of various religions or beliefs have to be clear about the real parameters of the debate,” said Diop. “The decision to legalize or criminalize belongs to the judicial courts and legislators.”

In an interview after the event, Diop points to Ellen White’s description of the relationship God seeks with His created beings: "God desires from all His creatures the service of love—service that springs from an appreciation of His character. He takes no pleasure in a forced obedience; and to all He grants freedom of will, that they may render Him voluntary service."[1]

“Recognizing an individual’s freedom of choice in matters of sexuality does not equal endorsement,” says Diop, “and it doesn’t dilute a Christian’s right to speak with moral clarity about God’s ideal for human relationships.” 

He says that Christians have an additional responsibility, based on the central Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in God’s image. This responsibility, he explains, is to recognize the stamp of the divine in every person, and to extend to them the love and respect that Christ modeled in His relationships even with fallen humanity.

“What does that mean for Christians today when it comes to relating to those who have different beliefs about human sexuality?” asks Diop. “It means saying ‘No’ to discrimination or violence in any form. It means demonstrating that people can believe differently, and be different, while sharing the same humanity; it means living in the common public space with respect for the dignity of every person; it means recognizing that each person has been granted the right—and responsibility—of freedom by their Creator.”   

“No person should be denied his or her humanity, however they use their freedom of choice,” adds Diop. “God has given human beings the prerogative to live, or not to live, according to God’s revealed standards.”

“Violence, hate crimes, or self-hatred induced crimes such as the horrific one the world witnessed recently in Orlando are totally repugnant and barbaric,” says Diop.

In his second presentation to the group, Diop reminded the participants that when talking about human sexuality, a broader category has to be taken into consideration. He suggested that the issue of sexuality should be intentionally expanded beyond LGBTIQ vocabulary to include discussion of a range of sexual practices—both legitimate and harmful—and also the difficult situation of individuals born with abnormal or malformed genitalia. He mentioned the issue of female genital mutilations, the abductions of boys and girls for prostitution, the alpha male culture which significantly damages a healthy male self-image perception. He also reminded conference attendees of the horrific historic practice of castration and sexual mutilations of male black slaves by Arab Muslims. 

When asked why the church participates in events such as these, Diop emphasizes the immense value of having an Adventist presence and voice “at the table” within the international community of decision makers; people of influence, who shape societal trends and values. 

“Clearly, homosexuality and sexual identity are polarizing topics in many nations today,” says Diop. “Attitudes toward sexuality are tightly intertwined with culture, tradition, as well as religious beliefs.” He points out that within the countries of the United Nations, there is a broad spectrum of legal responses to same-sex relationships. These range from same-sex marriage and civil protections in the United States, South Africa, and several other countries, to prohibition, discrimination, and outright criminalization in others.

Yet despite the sensitivity and complexity of the topic, Diop believes that Adventists should not sit on the sidelines of the public discourse.

“As Mrs. White points out, ‘kings, governors, and councils’ are to have a knowledge of the truth through our testimony, for ‘this is the only way the testimony of light and truth can reach men of high authority,’” explains Diop.[2]

“The Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department is focused on public engagement for mission,” says Diop. “Its goal is to position the church to a standing of credibility, relevance, and trust in the public realm without compromising the church’s values or teachings as expressed in official church statements. This is the goal that has animated the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty work of the church for more than a century, and this is still at the heart of our work today.”

Other presenters at the UN conference included Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief; Javaid Rehman, Professor of Islamic Law and International Law at Brunel University; and, Vitit Muntarbhorn, chairperson of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and formerly UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic Republic of Korea.  On the third day of the conference, Diop and three of his co-presenters were invited to participate in a public panel discussion. This panel, which was intended for the broader UN community, was moderated by Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

[1] Ellen G White, Patriarchs & Prophets, p 34. 

[2] Paraphrased from Ellen G White, Review and Herald, April 15, 1890.

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