COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Adriaan Van Klinken

The first week of this lockdown I spent closely following the news with updates about the pandemic across the globe, which became depressing. I also felt sad about having to cancel a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe, where I had a friend’s wedding, a holiday with my husband, a conference and two book launch events lined up – a trip I’d been planning and looking forward to for months. After that first week or so, I decided to only check the news twice a day, and to take a distance from social media, especially WhatsApp where groups were constantly buzzing, and instead to make the most of “working from home”. 

I’m lucky that I’m on research leave at the moment – so I could ignore the many emails that the University sent about student education related matters, while feeling sympathy for my colleagues who suddenly had to experiment with online teaching methods. My planning for research leave has been greatly affected by the current crisis – in addition to cancelling the South Africa trip, I also had to postpone a trip to Kenya in May to launch an AHRC funded research network, not knowing when I can reschedule; I’m also uncertain whether or not I should start preparing for my inaugural lecture that’s planned for June. In recent days I spent quite a lot of time planning the sessions of the African Religions unit for the AAR annual meeting in November, with on the back of my mind the idea that the meeting may soon be cancelled. 

With all the uncertainty, I decided to prioritise a couple ofprojects I can actually easily do from home: preparing the launch of a documentary film, completing a book manuscript, and processing and analysing the data of a research project. Each of these projects might actually be of interest to Shiloh readers! 

The film is called Kenyan, Christian, Queer, and is related to my book with the same title that was published last year. The film features an LGBT church in Kenya and the work they are doing to create an affirming space for LGBT Christians in a mostly conservative society. The actual production of the film is done by Aiwan Obinyan, a British-Nigerian film maker who is a friend of mine. I’ve been giving feedback on drafts, communicating with relevant stakeholders, and preparing educational resources for using the film in classroom settings. Unfortunately the African Studies conference where the film was to be launched has been cancelled, so we’re currently making alternative plans. 

The book I mentioned is titled Reimagining Sexuality and Christianity in Africa, and I’m authoring it with Ezra Chitando, a colleague in Zimbabwe. It’s aimed at a non-specialist audience of students, religious leaders and activists, thus requiring a more accessible writing style than the typical academic monograph. The book seeks to interrogate the dominant narrative of Christian homophobia in Africa, demonstrating how Christianity also serves as a site to imagine alternative possibilities of sexuality in African cultures and societies. Thereto we discuss a number of African thinkers, ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to feminist theologian Mercy Oduoye, but also a range of creative and cultural expressions, such as novels, films and poetry.

Then, with my Leeds colleague Johanna Stiebert I’ve been working for the past year on a British Academy funded project for which we work with a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees based in Nairobi, Kenya. It focuses on the life stories of participants, and how biblical stories can be used to narrate and signify their experiences, struggles and hopes. The group we are working with is truly amazing – in terms of their creativity and resilience – and so is Johanna as a very inspiring colleague and collaborator. Going through the transcripts of interviews and focus group discussions brings back many wonderful memories. The creative bible studies we did, about Daniel in the lion’s den and about Jesus and the “adulterous woman”, resulted in drama plays that have been video recorded. This project is also supposed to result in a book, and the lock down gives us the time to start working on it. 

So, after the initial setback I’m now managing reasonably well. I intersperse my working hours with gardening – hooray for the goldfish that we were able to buy the weekend before the lockdown started, which make the garden pond so much livelier –, with a daily run along the canal, and checking in with friends and family nearby and far away to try and help them cope with the current situation. The reports I get from friends and colleagues in Kenya and other parts of Africa do worry me – the lockdown there has an enormous impact on people’s livelihoods. The whole situation makes me aware, again, of my own privilege and makes me reflect upon what solidarity means in these times. As much as it’s true that the virus does not discriminate, the effects of the pandemic are felt most severe by communities that are already vulnerable and marginalised. (On that note: If anyone reading this is able to offer some support to the above mentioned group of Ugandan refugees, who really struggle economically in the current crisis, please get in touch.)

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Daniel in the Homophobic Lion’s Den

Here’s a post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert about her second research visit to Nairobi, where she participates in a project with Ugandan LGBTQ+refugees. The project has the title “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”and is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust. Its lead investigator is Adriaan van Klinken

The project is focused on stories: life-stories, stories of the Bible, and stories that combine the two. At its heart and centre is a group of refugees, a collective called The Nature Network. Johanna talks about the project and its intersections with Shiloh-relevant themes, such as religion and vulnerability to violence, in an earlier post. Here are some of her reflections on the project’s recent developments. 

Stories and Lives

Stories matter. In my life certainly stories and story telling have played a major part since as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I was the youngest member of a multi-generational household and even before I learned to read stories, stories were told and read to me. I loved folk stories and fairytales but I especially liked stories about me, set in the-time-before-I-could remember. I loved the stories of when I was very small, about the funny or naughty things I did. 

I demanded to hear such stories of my earliest life over and over again. I demanded details and eventually heard multiple versions, with different embellishments (and probably some exaggerations and inventions). Those stories somehow linked me to the protagonists of other stories; they made me feel important, an agent. They linked me to the past, to a bigger, world-connecting meta-story. I like stories to this day.

My academic work focuses on the study of the Bible. It was the stories that first drew me in but also the people I met through studies and teaching – and their stories. Approaches of biblical interpretation have become more honest about how our identities and experiences shape our interpretation and increasingly, life stories and Bible stories have been coming together for me.

Nairobi Stories

Adriaan has been travelling to Kenya, making friends, hearing stories, making stories, and gathering material for his publications for some years. When he and the people who move into and out from The Nature Work developed ideas around life stories and Bible stories, I was eager to get involved. By then, I had also become involved in a number of other projects, all of them relevant to the Shiloh Project, that explore the use of stories and images derived from the Bible to open up discussions about gender-based violence. Because the Bible – while variously interpreted in different settings – is a shared text, it has been an effective medium for connecting me with people whose identities, lives and experiences are very different to mine.

I have only been to Nairobi on two short visits – the second was last month, in January. My impressions of the city are a succession of little snapshots – of bustle and crazy traffic, but also of sweeping parks with leafy trees; of roadsides displaying an array of wares, from potted plants to double beds, playground items to beaded bracelets; of colourful roadside fruit and vegetable markets and little enterprises selling cut flowers or grilled corn on the cob. We drove several times through Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum, which is highly concentrated with busy-ness – washing drying, wood being cut, tiny shops crammed together selling everything from cellphone units to clothes alteration. Sometimes, such as in the large malls, I could completely forget where I was – other times, in Kibera, or seeing grazing warthogs by the roadside, marabous perched on monuments, or monkeys on the walls of residential buildings, you knew you were definitely in Kenya.

But back to life stories. When something sharp happens in our lives, when we are, for instance, accused of something we haven’t done, then the telling of our stories becomes more carefully constructed. We choose our elements with care, so as to recount vividly and persuasively what really  happened. This also happens when we are treated unjustly in other ways – and many of the stories we heard at The Nature Network reported being accused of ‘recruiting’ minors, of being willfully deviant, of choosing depravity to dishonour family and community and religious affiliation. The life stories collected as part of this project were invariably told with vividness and fluency. The refugees were used to telling their stories – they were often telling them for survival, including as part of their efforts to secure resettlement with UNHCR. 

The stories told featured rejection, threat, violence, vulnerability, condemnation from family and community and church representatives. Sometimes there were stories of a painful past and of a present in which the story was turning towards more hope. New families were formed within The Nature Network, families not of blood ties but of ties of love and solidarity and acceptance. New religious networks were established, with prayers that bonded together and with a God who loved unconditionally – a God who created queer and whose image was therefore queer. 

The Story of a Project: Tales of Sexuality and Faith

The first stage of the project consisted of collecting life stories of refugees associated with The Nature Network. The majority of this was conducted by two members of the Network one of whom, Raymond Brian, is its co-founder. During interviewing, contributors were asked about the role and presence of religion in their lives and whether they had a favourite Bible story. Some interesting things emerged here. Many stories – from all over the Bible – were sources of inspiration. Jesus was repeatedly identified as an ally – as someone who embraced those on the fringes of society and who spoke out against condemning others. One interviewee mentioned identifying with David in the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The reason was that the interviewee felt small and up against a Goliath of mighty and imposing challenges in day-to-day life. Like David they had little to work with – a small stone, metaphorically-speaking. But that small stone could be utilized to achieve something bigger and assert their rights and be vindicated. A second story that popped up was Daniel in the Lions’ Den (Daniel 6) – because the interviewee this time identified with the threat all around but simultaneously with a strong sense, too, that like Daniel they had done nothing to justify such threat and hostility. It was this story that seemed like a good one to draw on more.

Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den

Before Adriaan and I arrived in Nairobi, the members of the Nature Network spent time reading the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and discussing it in groups. By the time we joined them the story was quite familiar. Now it was time to relate it to personal experience.

On 12 January we all gathered at the Network’s main venue, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

We shared breakfast and introduced ourselves and each other; we discussed expectations for the day – which ranged from the practical (to receive a refund for travel expenses) to the experiential (to learn, be entertained, and form connections and new friendships) – and rules (to respect one another and listen, and to all participate). 

Next, Chris gave a summary of the earlier meeting – where the text of the Bible was read and discussed in focus groups. A decision was made to read the text again – this time with the specific plan to try and make the story relevant to the present.

In our groups, as soon as we sat down with the biblical text, printed out on paper, to read it aloud together, a mood of seriousness descended. I think this is discernible in the pictures.

When we all got together to pool what had taken place in our groups, the discussion got very lively. We looked together at the characters and at the events of the Daniel story – who and what could these be in the present setting?

In the Daniel story there is a king, King Darius, who is somewhat sympathetic to Daniel but none the less submits to his governors who remind him of the laws. Who is this king today? Who are the governors?

Suggestions came in thick and fast: the king is the government of Uganda, or the President of Uganda. The governors are oppressive elements of African culture and pastors using the Bible to condemn, as well as members of parliament. Daniel is the LGBTQ+ community – being unjustly persecuted. The lions are maybe family members who are sometimes harmful and obstructive but not always, or enemies within the LGBTQ+ communityitself who sometimes deny their sexuality, or who choose to blackmail others when it suits them to do so. The den is identified as Kenya and as prison… Some spoke up to say they found the punishment of the governors’ wives and children wrong, others saw this as collateral damage, or as the punishment of those who didn’t speak up but benefited from their powerful family members’ privileges. 

After some discussion, a play was put together, performed and recorded. This all happened very quickly– from discussion to completion of the recording took no more than 3 hours. The idea of weaving stories together and of transporting an ancient story into the lived present was quickly embraced and vividly imagined and reenacted. There were some fabulous spontaneous ideas and there was much articulate expression both of condemnation encountered and liberation desired.

The King is the President of Uganda. (In this reenactment he has a consort.)

The governors are members of parliament and representatives of churches, as well as a mufti from an Islamic congregation. 

Daniel is a representative of the LGBTQ+ community.

The den is prison.

There are also in this reenactment members of the police force, of the press and supporters of Daniel.

God’s voice can be heard at the beginning and end.

Here is the recording, ‘Daniel in the homophobic lion’s den’. Enjoy.

It was a real joy watching the play at each of its various stages. The strength of feeling and the power of story telling really come across. There is a new immediacy and resonance to the old story of Daniel. I, certainly, will never read this story again in the same way. And when we all watched the completed recording together everyone was very engaged and delighted with the end result.

In time, we – members of the Network, Adriaan and I – hope to publish a book about the project. 

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 14 – Megan Robertson

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Megan Robertson and I have recently completed my PhD at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa. My doctoral research focused specifically on investigating how the lived experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) co-constitute the institutional cultures and politics of the Church. Since 2018 I have had the privilege of working at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, at UWC. The Centre seeks to contextually, theoretically, and methodologically challenge asymmetrical systems of power. It thus allows me a space to research and teach in ways which bridges the false binary between academia and activism and places justice at the centre of the work I do.

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

The picture of me in this blog is taken in front of Church Street Methodist Church, the congregation which I was a member of until my late twenties. For me this is a site of my own identity negotiation and also the space which continues to drive the activism which is integral to my research. The church which I grew up in not only shaped my belief systems but perhaps more significantly provided me with a place to which I felt I belonged. As a teenager and young adult I became more involved in the broader provincial and national structures of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) and thus more aware of how the Church which provided a ‘home’ for me was also deeply patriarchal, heteronormative, racially segregated and hierarchical. I was also quite actively involved in the Church at the time when a minister, Ecclesia de Lange, was excommunicated for declaring her intention to marry her same-sex partner. Therefore, for me, the church and religion became both a place of significant belonging as well as a space for a great deal of injustice. These experiences inspire my research which explores how different people navigate religious belonging and exclusion and indeed transform those spaces in positive ways.

In my research I incorporate activism by exploring how politics of belonging, body politics and politics of the domestic and erotic are evident in the narratives and experiences of queer clergy who occupy positions of power and marginality in the Church. I argue in my work that the MCSA’s internal conversations around the inclusion of women and same-sex marriage are too narrow to do justice to queer experiences of exclusion, discrimination and violence in the Church. For the MCSA and other denominations seeking to become truly inclusive of queer, women (and all other) members, bringing lived experience into conversation with institutional cultures in research sharpens understandings of how the church can indeed be a place of inclusivity instead of rejection. In my work I am also interested in the activism participants themselves are engaged in as they inhabit the norms of the institution. In a complex religious context where gender-sex identities are contested I found that participants engage in activism in relatively covert ways through living their domestic and erotic lives, embodying clerical and Methodist identity and through silence. In illuminating these subtle forms of activism, the political project of my research explores the possibilities that varied ways lived experience can trouble normative powers of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

My fuel for doing research is activism. Before beginning my PhD and working in the Desmond Tutu Centre, I was disillusioned by academia and bought into the idea that dismantling social injustices and researching them were two separate tasks. However, I soon realised that the binary between activism and academia was a false and unhelpful one. It is my anger and frustration that continues to drive me to work towards a just and equitable society and it is in academia where I am able to make productive meaning of that anger and frustration.

Through the writing up of my dissertation, I have continued to be in conversation with some of the clergy who participated in my doctoral research. In these conversations we have begun to explore the ways in which my research findings can feed into the committees and activism work which they would like to pursue. Further, in my post-doctoral research I want to further explore the nature of queer activism in South Africa. My other passion is dance and theatre and I hope to explore the ways in which popular artists and performers in Cape Town interrogate the intersections of religion and sexuality on stage.



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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 9 – Chris Greenough

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Chris Greenough and I’m Senior Lecturer in Religion at Edge Hill University. I research and teach on gender, sexuality and religion. My research to date has mostly focussed on LGBTQ+ religious and spiritual identities, queer theologies and queer biblical studies.

 How does your research or your work connect to activism?

As an academic, I engage and contribute to activism in various ways. When we think of activism we think of protest and the public assembly of like-minded individuals, collaborating to fight against injustices and for change. But, aside from this, we are all activists in our communities: in our classrooms, on social media and in our one-to-one interactions. I am a former secondary school teacher and part of my current role is initial teacher education and I work hard to ensure our future teachers are confident to work with LGBTQ+ issues.

Reflecting on how I am activist in the classroom, I have an article in the special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, edited by Johanna Stiebert. In the article, I explore the notions of risk, experimentation and failure, as well as of tackling specific issues relating to resistance of queer biblical criticism based on religious faith.

There are regular TV and media discussion panels debating questions about how LGBTQ+ lives and Christianity are seemingly incompatible. In conservative religious settings, we see how verses selected from the Bible are used to condemn same sex relationships/marriage, transgender recognition, gay and lesbian parenting or adoption and these form the positional statements of major Christian denominations. In this sense, my work is activism that speaks back to what is, in fact, really toxic theology. My first monograph, Undoing Theology, highlighted the harmful effects of traditionally dominant theology in Christianity on the lives of non-normative individuals. In his review of my book, Adrian Thatcher says, “We need to learn the pain that we cause. This is a bold, truthful book”.

Yet, being bold is not always easy. Activism comes with challenges and obstacles. Sara Ahmed puts this perfectly, “when we speak about what we come up against, we come up against what we speak about” (Living a Feminist Life, 2017: 148). As a queer scholar, I am undisciplined. That means I do not hold much allegiance to any of the traditional disciplines I work across: they each require a critical undoing of the powers and privilege which has produced and shaped them. As someone who writes on queer theologies and biblical studies, I am occasionally confronted with furrowed frowns as a reception to my work. If queer research makes people feel uncomfortable, it highlights the hegemony, gatekeepers and ‘methodsplainers’ at work in our disciplines. It highlights prejudice and discrimination to queer individuals. For me, resisting academic normativity in the pursuit of social justice is activism. I am entirely grateful to my academic scholars and friends at SIIBS and the Shiloh project for their support.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

The next twelve months are going to be busy! I’m delighted and incredibly proud to be working with Katie Edwards on a book for the Routledge Focus Book Series on ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’. Our title aims to explore contemporary reactions and readings to the naming of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse: #JesusToo: Silence, Stigma and Male Sexual Violence. In contemporary culture there is undeniably a culture of stigma associated with male sexual abuse. Despite this stigma, at least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted: . There are also numerous myths around male sexual abuse that need further discussion.

I’m also going to be Guest Editor for a special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies on Queer Theory and the Bible. The term ‘queer theory’ was first coined in 1990, so this seems a fitting edition to celebrate 30 years of queer!

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 8 – Raymond Brian (AKA Mother Nature)

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

I am Ugandan, Transgender refugee who lives now in Kenya. I came to live in Kenya in 2015 and from then on I started working as a social change agent in Kenya. As a social change agent, I was in charge of mobilizing Refugees. In this, I had to link Refugees to the various social services which included getting full documentation; going for HIV Testing at various health services centers including Kenyatta National Referral Hospital; aiding in assessment and interpretation work with UNHCR/HIAS.   But, before that I had worked with grassroots in various ways in Uganda. First, I worked with the National Referral Hospital’s Skin Clinic, under the Most at Risk Populations’ Initiative (MARPI) as a Peer Educator. Secondly, I was a mobilizer for a self-help group called Youth on Rock Foundation; I was the Secretary for another Self-help Organization called Come-Out Post Test Club (COPTEC); and I was also a mobiliser for Icebreakers Uganda (IBU).

These introduced me to the needs of marginalized communities. Also, this experience got me enough skills to work under Dr. Stella Nnyanzi as a Field Work Officer for a project called Law, Gender and Sexuality (LGS) which lasted for two years. Then, from there the Doctor left to join a newer post at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR). I also got an opportunity to join her there. I worked as a Research Assistant then. All in all I worked for four years under Dr. Stella Nnyanzi. Then, I left Uganda and came to stay in Kenya. I co-founded the Nature Network after I realized many of the refugees were seeking support from me. The support ranged from conversation, companionship, forming a social support group which we called Nature-Network which eventually got funding for group activities. Nature-Network is modelled on a Family-Based Therapy Model where we take on the titles of respect in a family unit. So, I had to take the responsibility to become the full-time leader of Nature Network.

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

Right now, I do various activities. These include managing Nature Network; we have a coalition under which all organizations are joined. Nature-Network is part of this coalition. I work there as the Field officer. I got fortunate and now work with a firm specializing in Digital Media Organization called None On Record (NOR). I work as a Personal Assistant to the Executive Director. This has helped me improve on my management and documentation skills. I use these both at the job as well as at the Nature Network.

My activism includes: Ensuring safe space in form of housing support toward Refugees; Nutrition support; mobilizing life support resources; providing a space for continued interaction among Refugees; ensuring there is formal documentation for Refugees to avoid arbitrary arrests; ensuring we have an open arm reception for New Refugees; engaging in networking with other service providers to address targeted needs; and connecting with well-wishers and friends with whom we interact on a number of levels.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

When I read about 16 Days of 2020, it reminded me of the incidences of vulnerability and risks faced by marginalized communities including: LGBTIQ+; People Living with HIV; Refugees; Victims of Torture; Victims of Rape; Victims of Gender Based Violence; and Orphans and Vulnerable Children. Secondly, it reminds me that there are solutions to the problems people face. What I hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020 are the following:

  1. Participate and be able to paint the whole world “Orange.” This way, I shall contribute to the conversation on eradicating rape and gender based violence in our communities.
  2. To network with all those organizations working to eradicate rape and gender based violence.
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Religion and Gender Journal: Call for Manuscripts for Special Issue on Religion, Gender and Violence

Religion and Gender Journal

Call for Manuscripts for Special Issue on Religion, Gender and Violence

The journal Religion and Gender invites article proposals for a special issue on Religion, Gender and Violence. The relationship between religion and violence is highly contested and has come under considerable scrutiny by scholars of religion.  Less understood is the relationship between gender, religion and violence and this special issue aims to contribute to understandings of the ways in which religion intersects with institutional, familial and public gendered violence as explored through current research via an interdisciplinary lens.

With the current roll out of public inquiries into institutional child sexual abuse across Ireland, England and Wales, Scotland, Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it is clear that at a global level, it is religious organizations that have had the most widespread and highest levels of abuse against children with characteristically poor institutional responses to victims and their families. Public inquires have clearly established that religious organizations made strategic decisions to limit reputational damage at the cost of child safety and the implications of this for religious institutions is yet to be fully understood.

Violence against women and children in domestic settings where religion is a significant factor has also been the subject of ongoing and recent research indicating that there are specific issues at play for women and children in experiencing and reporting abuse and how it is managed by faith traditions. In important public debates on the status of gender diversity and difference, for example the marriage equality issue, there have been forceful responses to vulnerable cohorts from religious leaders, in social media and religious publications.

At the same time, there has been an important counter discourse articulated by religious groups around building religious and social capital that contributes to a pluralist understanding of the value of multi-religious societies and gender diversity. These discourses, most often articulated by more liberal religious groups but also increasingly by mainstream faith traditions, utilize the language of social justice and theological interpretation to construct narratives of gender inclusion and equity. This brings faith traditions into conflict within themselves over the framing of gender relations for the new century.

For this special issue, we invite manuscripts that address this convergence from a variety of perspectives on the function and meaning of gender, religion and violence and its counter-discourses.

The editors are particularly interested in receiving manuscripts that showcase empirical research that address, but are not limited to, the following areas and/or questions:

o What role does gendered violence play in mainstream religious groups re maintenance of the faith tradition?
o How are the impacts and experiences of gendered violence managed by religious organisations with regard to pastoral care and processes of remediation?
o Who are the victims of gendered violence in religious organisations?
o In what ways can feminist theory and theology contribute to and expand understandings of religion, gender and violence?
o What role does non-religion and/or secularity play in relation to responding to and managing the disclosure of violence in religious organisations.
o How well do public inquiries address gendered religious violence and what are the impacts on religious organisations with respect to particular case studies?

Submissions should be between 5000 and 8000 words in length (including abstract, footnotes and references). See Brill’s page for further information on submitting an article Affiliation and email address should be supplied in the first submission. In order to guarantee a blind review process, all submissions should be anonymized with the name of and references to the author removed from the text. We are happy to receive inquiries about prospective submissions.

Please send all queries to the special issues editors:

Kathleen McPhillips, University of Newcastle, Australia


Sarah-Jane Page, Aston University, Birmingham, UK



15 January 2020: Abstract Submission

15 August 2020: Full manuscript submission


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Resistant Readings: John MacArthur’s Homophobic Theology

Today’s post comes from Charlie Winn, who is a Pākehā third-year student at the University of Auckland, majoring in Sociology and Theological and Religious Studies. His academic interests include Sara Ahmed’s theorisation of emotion and affect, and the philosophy of Alain Badiou. Charlie is also an active member of the prison abolitionist organisation People Against Prisons Aotearoa. He plans to complete his Sociology Honours degree in 2020.

Charlie wrote this post as part of his coursework for our University of Auckland course, ‘Religious Texts of Terror’. His interrogation of John MacArthur’s sermon showcases the importance of resisting those (mis)interpretations of biblical texts which promote symbolic violence in all its forms.

If you prefer listening to reading, Charlie’s blog post can be heard in podcast form here.

Resistant Readings: John MacArthur’s Homophobic Theology

Charlie Winn

In this post, I will deconstruct and critically discuss the (mis)interpretation of a sacred text that I argue has been used to promote homophobia and intolerance. Specifically, I will be delving into a sermon given by John MacArthur, the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He is also a featured teacher on the ‘Grace to You’ media ministry, an initiative that has allowed him to distribute his books and study guides to the public in more bite-size, accessible formats, such as radio shows, YouTube videos, and podcasts. Grace to You was founded in 1969 and has developed a sizable international audience of committed followers. The sermon of MacArthur’s I will be exploring is called ‘Homosexuality and the Campaign for Immorality’, and was published on the Grace to You website on 23 September 2012. I will interrogate MacArthur’s appropriation of the Bible as a tool to condemn homosexuality, through which he uses his influential platform to incite symbolic and structural violence against a marginalised community. Throughout the 54-minute sermon, MacArthur skims over a great number of biblical passages, however, he pays particular detail to Romans 1:18-32 – often considered the most influential biblical text on same-gender relationships – and the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19.

This episode is divided into three distinct areas of analysis. Firstly, I will examine MacArthur’s literal interpretation of Romans 1:18-32, in which Paul the Apostle wrote of God’s wrath towards all those who disobey them. Next, I will briefly pick apart MacArthur’s assertion that the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19 is a reference to the sinful nature of homosexuality. Finally, in consideration of these two arguments, I will challenge MacArthur’s claim that the Bible is not political by drawing on Professor Joel Baden’s conceptualisation of the Bible as a cultural prop.

The First Resistance: Romans 1

For many years, Romans 1:18-32 has been considered the central biblical text referencing same-gender relationships, with innumerable interpretations arising from it. Paul wrote Romans 1 due to his unease about people privileging themselves and their desires over worshipping God. He discusses the sin of human egotism and immodesty, as well as praising false idols (Punt 2007, 965-67). In MacArthur’s sermon, he adopts a conservative reading of this passage, deeming the Bible to be explicitly condemning homosexuality. Referencing Romans 1:24, MacArthur speaks of God’s abandonment of the nation that is contaminated by selfishness and vanity: “He gives them over to the lusts of their hearts to impurity.” This “impurity” is widely understood as sexual sin, implying that Paul’s Greco-Roman society has become obsessed with sex. Continuing, MacArthur references Romans 1:26-27: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” In a wild stretch of the imagination, MacArthur correlates this “due penalty” with the twentieth-century HIV/AIDS epidemic and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Through a very literal interpretation of this passage, MacArthur states that God’s abandonment of our world has lead to a sexual revolution, followed by a “homosexual revolution” that apparently we are living through right now.

MacArthur’s argument can be countered in three distinct ways. Firstly, I will explore the “nature/natural” debate, detailed in Jeremy Punt’s article on interpretive options for Romans 1. Punt explains that in this passage, Paul’s claims are founded on what is regarded as “according to nature,” with the “unnatural” describing practices that are unconventional or going against what is socially acceptable (2007, 972). Reading this passage in the historical and cultural context of Greco-Roman society, we can understand the term “natural relations” as specifying acts that conformed to the social hierarchy – the correct way of acting. From this, Punt asserts that Paul isn’t problematizing the gender of one’s sexual partner, but is instead arguing that one’s social status and the sexual act involved must be in accordance with the social hierarchy (2007, 973). Therefore, it is redundant to apply contemporary connotations to a word written in the first century, for it most definitely would have held different cultural meanings for the audiences at the time.

Image:Jenny Mealing

The second area in which MacArthur’s argument falls flat is through his inability to recognise the dynamic character of sexuality, ever-changing throughout time. When Romans 1 was written, conceptions of gender, sex and sexuality were vastly different from today’s understandings of them (Punt 2007, 976). Engaging in a queer reading of Paul’s Romans 1, Jeremy Punt recognises that in the Greco-Roman world, sexuality wasn’t defined by homosexual or heterosexual relations, but rather determined by activity and passivity informed by social status. Men asserted their dominance through acts of penetration, whereas those further down the social hierarchy – regardless of their sex – were deemed weak, and thus vulnerable to being penetrated (Punt 2007, 976). As Stephen Moore, in his article “Que(e)rying Paul” articulates, “The reduction of sexual relations to the act of penetration enables sex to become a simple yet effective instrument for expressing hierarchical relations” (1998, 271). In the first century, gender and social status were intimately connected. And so when Paul speaks of the reversal of the gender hierarchy and gendered practices, he’s referring to the loss of social status and the consequences of humiliation that these readers could face (Punt 2007, 977). Jeremy Punt’s analysis of Romans 1 shows us that the contemporary concept of homosexuality simply didn’t exist in Paul’s time, so it is erroneous and inappropriate for MacArthur to directly apply modern notions of homosexuality to this text.

My third criticism of MacArthur’s manipulation of Romans 1 is rather straightforward – decontextualisation. At the beginning of his article, “Romans 1:26-27 and Homosexuality,” Everett Kalin (2003) identifies whom Paul is condemning in this passage, and for what sin they are being condemned. In Romans 1:18-32, God’s wrath is pointed at the Gentiles, who have failed to recognise God’s presence in creation, alternatively fabricating and worshipping their own idols (Kalin 2003, 426). However, this is not the crux of Paul’s lesson, as MacArthur so clearly makes it out to be. Just several verses later, in Romans 2:1, Paul addresses the Jews who disapprove of the Gentiles’ wrongdoing, insisting that they are judging the Other: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Paul’s reprimand of those who judge others by their sins can be applied to everyone (Kalin 2003, 429), especially John MacArthur. This raises the question: If MacArthur chooses to take vv. 26-27 to bolster his message, then surely he must also consider Romans 2:1, or Romans 12-15, whereby Paul urges his audience to welcome one another into their communities of faith despite their many differences (Kalin 2003, 430). Romans 1 doesn’t exist in isolation, it is part of a unified narrative. Thus, MacArthur needs to take Paul’s words in vv. 26-27 and place them in the context of his wider argument, which exposes those who view themselves as God’s special friends as equally capable of sin (Kalin 2003, 431). If John MacArthur were to read Romans with real integrity and vigour, he would gain greater clarity as to the relevance of Paul’s message for the Church today. Paul spoke negatively of those who considered certain Others as inferior, excluding them from their religious groups and encouraged all to live together in unity (Kalin 2003, 432). This is the message MacArthur should take from Romans.

The Second Resistance: The Destruction of Sodom

A considerable part of MacArthur’s sermon is dedicated to shallow analysis of Genesis 19, which he characterizes as a text of terror against homosexuality, one that categorically expresses God’s anger at same-gender sexual relations. In this biblical chapter, Lot takes in two angels who are visitors to Sodom and Gomorrah, warning them that it is not safe for them to stay in the town, and so invites them to his home. Later that night, Lot and the angels awaken to find the men of Sodom surrounding the house, hammering on the door, and demanding, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” In other words, they want to rape Lot’s guests. To cut a long story short, when the men of Sodom continue trying to enter Lot’s home, the angels strike the men down, blinding all of them. Later on in the passage, God sets fire to Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying the cities entirely. Genesis 19 has been utilised in religious discourse to take the form of what Mieke Bal terms an “ideo-story,” taken out of context, “whose structure lends itself to be the receptacle of different ideologies” (1988, 11). The particular ideology surrounding Genesis 19 is homophobia.

John Martin, The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852)

MacArthur states that this story illustrates God’s position on societies that affirm homosexuality. Yet we must pay close attention to MacArthur’s sloppy conflation between same-sex relations and a horrific act of sexual violence – attempted rape. What is occurring is not an action of same-sex love and desire, but rather an act of terror and domination intended to degrade and torture the Other. Derrick Bailey was one of the first to challenge conservative interpretations of this passage, arguing that the sin of Sodom wasn’t a sexual one, but rather a breach of traditional customs of hospitality (1955, 5). Ancient Jewish culture privileged hospitality as a key pillar of social practice, as it granted strangers a special place within the community, treating them as honoured guests (Queer Grace, n.d.). By inviting the guests to his house, Lot followed his obligation of hospitality, yet the men of Sodom actively went against these required customs, attempting to inflict violence upon the strangers. The Hebrew Bible – and even Jesus – condemns Sodom not for unorthodox sexual practice, but its inhospitality (Carden 1999, 90). Therefore we should interpret the evil that dwelled in the city of Sodom as the abuse of strangers and not homosexuality. While MacArthur attempts to manipulate this story to fit his theological agenda, his logic falls flat when we analyse Genesis 19 in the historical and cultural context it was written in. We understand the passage’s meaning for its original audience and recognise the danger of uncritically applying it to contemporary religious discourse.

The Third Resistance: The Political Book

As already established, MacArthur understands the Bible to be the direct word of God, and this can be shown through his use of wording. In the sixth minute of his talk, he says “these very things that God hates and that bring down God’s judgment.” Then in the seventh minute, when addressing the Democratic Party’s affirmation of gay marriage, he continues, “What God condemns they affirm. What God punishes, they exalt.” In branding the Democratic Party the “anti-God party,” it is evident that MacArthur views the Bible as possessing only one single meaning, and that any textual analysis that deviates from this ideal is considered as opposing God’s word. If this standpoint doesn’t seem problematic enough, shortly after, MacArthur states, “Romans 1 is not politics. The Bible is not politics. This is nothing to do with politics. This has to do with speaking the Word of God to the culture in which we live. It has nothing to do with politics.” This is simply not correct. As Martha Nussbaum articulates in the first chapter of her book, The New Religious Intolerance (2012), the history of the Western world has been defined by bloody and violent religious bigotry. The Crusades, European colonisation of indigenous peoples and their lands, and the Holocaust, are just a few obvious examples of the Bible’s application as a text of terror. Even in more recent events, for example the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year and the passing of this year’s abortion “heartbeat” bills in Ohio, we continue to see biblical scripture being utilised as a mechanism of hate and discrimination. The Bible is political.

We can best identify and explore these contradictions in MacArthur’s logic by drawing from Joel Baden’s (2014) conceptualisation of the Bible as a cultural prop. By inscribing the Bible with divine authority, a vessel of God’s word, MacArthur grants an enormous amount of power to scripture. However, by simultaneously denying its inherent political nature, he disavows any attempt to debate or question the content of the Bible. But where there is power, there must also be politics, and Baden affirms that whenever someone cites the Bible, they acquire some of that authority to scaffold their argument. So we should consider MacArthur a political figure then, a powerful man whose theological viewpoints are liable to criticism and objection. The previous two examples of scriptural analysis are fine examples of MacArthur’s use of the Bible as a cultural prop. In employing the bible to force through one ill-considered (homophobic) message, rather than to evoke deep thought on the various potential meanings of these passages, MacArthur uses the Bible as an instrument with which to impose a political ideology that is not rooted in scripture. It is no longer the words on the page that are considered important, but what they have come to represent in our society. Baden states that when this shift occurs, the Bible stops functioning as a text, and becomes nothing more than a symbol.

MacArthur capitalizes on the cultural influence and authority of the Bible, declaring a singular, fundamental truth and meaning while disregarding the numerous contradictions that arise within this text. In his closing prayer, MacArthur remarks, “We are so grateful that You’ve not left us in doubt about these things which are part of life for us.” To function as a prop, the Bible must serve one specific purpose, and to do this, its message must remain clear-cut and unambiguous. However, as we know, in reality, this is not the case. Baden affirms that within the Bible there is so much scriptural conflict and narrative discord, that it is impossible for anyone to claim a single truth from it. So when MacArthur says, “Our responsibility is to tell people about the kingdom of God, and who can be in the kingdom of God, and who is excluded from the kingdom of God”, we should ask: but what makes this interpretation anymore valid than other interpretations and texts that oppose your homophobic argument? When we turn to the Bible in search of answers to our burning questions, we are presented with a variety of voices, clashing beliefs, and divergent opinions. The Bible is fundamentally multi-vocal by nature, and in acknowledging this fact, the notion of “the truth” must be replaced with “many truths” – all of which hold significance for different communities (Baden 2014). MacArthur’s insistence that the Bible is an apolitical text is an attack on the religious pluralism that has existed throughout time and in all places since the Bible was written. If one is to bestow upon the Bible the great weight of divine order and command, then one must also allow their interpretation of it to be dissected, challenged, and actively opposed (Baden 2014). For as long as the Bible is used as a guide to how we should (or should not) live, in turn shaping our material reality, it remains a political document subject to debate.

Final thoughts

We live in a world of what Joel Baden describes as “religious cacophony” – the existence of a plethora of voices, all saying different things, often conflicting with each other (2014). And we view this as a good thing, welcoming diversity of religious values throughout our communities. But this very dynamic can be found within the pages of the Bible too. The inconsistent and contradictory nature of scripture should signal that if we are going to invest such great authority in a text, healthy discussion and debate around its meaning is not optional, but necessary (Baden 2014). The fallacy in John MacArthur’s homophobic argument lies in his inability to accept that the Bible holds numerous truths, each of which is up for analysis and criticism. He should acknowledge that one of the key values we can take from the Bible is the inclusion of differences. Scriptural interpretation involves dialogue, not monologue (Baden 2014). Through the earlier examples of Romans 1 and Genesis 19, I have shown how the absolute adoption of one single, ill-informed interpretation can cause immeasurable harm and discrimination towards the most vulnerable in our society. MacArthur must accept that scriptural analysis evolves throughout history as we acquire more knowledge. By disregarding these progressive advances in theological scholarship, he is only inhibiting the transformational potential of the Bible.


Baden, Joel. “What Use Is the Bible?” Video, 19:52. Posted by The Nantucket Project, March 28, 2014.

Bailey, Derrick Sherwin. Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955.

Bal, Mieke, and Ruth Richardson. Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Carden, Michael. “Compulsory Heterosexuality in Biblical Narratives and their Interpretations: Reading Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah.” Australian Religion Studies Review 12, no. 1 (1999):47-60.

Carden, Michael. “Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah: A Response to Ken Stone.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24, no. 82 (1999): 83-96.

Grace to You. “Homosexuality and the Campaign for Immorality.” Accessed October 23, 2019.

Grace to You. “John MacArthur.” Accessed October 26, 2019.

Kalin, Everett R. “Romans 1: 26-27 and Homosexuality.” Currents in Theology and Mission 30, no. 6 (2003): 423.

Moore, S.D. “Que(e)rying Paul: Preliminary questions.” In Auguries: The Jubilee volume of the Sheffield Department of Biblical Studies, edited by David J.A. Clines & Stephen D. Moore, 250-274. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

Nussbaum, Marta C. The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Pharr, Suzanne. Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. Little Rock, Ark.: Chardon Press, 1989.

Punt, Jeremy. “Romans 1: 18-32 amidst the gay-debate: Interpretative options.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 63, no. 3 (2007): 965-982.

Queer Grace. “Is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah about Homosexuality?” Accessed October 26, 2019.


All Biblical references in my writing are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

All of John MacArthur’s Biblical references are taken from the English Standard Version.

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Celebrating all things queer

Last month I visited Nairobi to embark on a project together with my Leeds colleague Adriaan van Klinken. Adriaan has been conducting research in Kenya over a number of years but it was my first visit. Our project is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust and centres on a collaboration with the Nairobi-based initiative called The Nature Network.

The Nature Network is a community of LGBTQ+ refugees (the majority from Uganda) who have come together in Nairobi for solidarity, mobilization, community and survival. Kenya has been called a haven for LGBTQ+ refugees, but their lives are nevertheless far from easy.

The Nature Network provides support and community, advocacy, resources, advice, and a social justice platform for its members but, like other LGBTQ+ people and other refugees, too, they are a vulnerable community. Homophobia in all its insidious and often violent forms is very much present in Nairobi, as it is in very many other places. Added to that, like refugees elsewhere, community members are struggling in the face of economic uncertainties, poverty and all the vulnerabilities these bring with them. The range of members’ needs is complex and varied. Many suffer from unmet health problems, including mental health issues, and all live with various kinds of uncertainty regarding employment, economic security, and future prospects. Many are awaiting decisions from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and several are due to be resettled, as others have been before them, in the USA, Canada, or Iceland.

Our project is called ‘Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugee Life Story Project’ and it explores how life stories, or autobiographical accounts, in combination with biblical stories, can become both a means and a resource for activism towards social justice for LGBTQ+ refugees and for activist-inspired research. In doing so, we are mindful of and draw on established and important work in other parts of the continent of Africa. I am thinking here, for instance, of the many activities of the Talitha Qumi Center in Ghana and of the Contextual Bible Study projects of the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa.

Johanna at the Nature Network, waiting to conduct an interview

Adriaan and I conducted some interviews on our visit, but the bulk of the data is being collected by members of The Nature Network. The initial interviews have proved moving and inspiring and we are working towards a collaborative publication that will bring these stories and the method itself into wider circulation.

While I was in Nairobi, there were two other queer highlights for me: one was attending the loud, proud, and lively service with the Cosmopolitan Affirming Community, which again demonstrated creative and empowering deployment of religious motifs and biblical texts; and the other was joining in the vibrant launch of Adriaan’s extraordinary new book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa. What a fine party it was – with dancing, drag, fabulous outfits, a play, presentations, and above all, abundant celebration and joy. I am so glad I could be there.

Raymond Brian of The Nature Network holding Adriaan’s book

Adriaan’s book is being launched again in Leeds: at 4pm on 14 November 2019, at Claire Chapel, Emmanuel Centre, University of Leeds. The event is co-hosted by the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. All supporters are welcome.

Alongside the people and communities I encountered in Nairobi, and alongside Adriaan’s research and publication, there are yet more queer events to celebrate. First, there is the research of Sam Ross, a PhD candidate based at the University of Leeds. Sam is exploring queer readings of Hebrew Bible texts that focus on suffering, pain, and trauma; he features as our Researcher of the Month on the Religion in Public blog. You can read about his research journey here. What he does not mention is that he has had a paper accepted in the peer-reviewed Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. Congratulations! Look out for the special issue on transgender and genderqueer perspectives coming soon.

And another shout-out for a queer celebration goes to Chris Greenough who has just had two books published (yes, he’s an over-achiever). The first, Undoing Theology: Life stories from non-normative Christians (SCM, 2018, reviewed here), has been invaluable as I reflect on and think ahead to the next stage of the project in Kenya. In this book, Chris takes up the call of Marcella Althaus-Reid who, in 2003, published the words, ‘At the bottom line of queer theologies, there are biographies of sexual migrants, testimonies of real lives in rebellions made of love, pleasure and suffering’ (The Queer God, Routledge, 2003, p.8, reviewed here). Chris documents his communications with three sexual migrants, or non-normative Christians: an intersex-identifying Catholic, a former ‘ex-gay’ minister, and a Christian engaging in BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism). The result is a moving testament from those who are sometimes seeking, sometimes demanding, and occasionally finding inclusion and spiritual fulfilment. What remains un-erased in the course of this book are the difficulties and traumas encountered by and inflicted on sexual migrants. The book is a remarkable blend of vivid personal accounts and incisive critical theory.

Chris’s second book is called Queer Theologies: The Basics (Routledge, 2019) and is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to come to grips with queer interpretation and queer theologies. Those who have tried to do so know it to be a rich and varied field with some hard-to-navigate ideas, theories, and terminologies. Chris’s book is accessible and written with clarity and flair. It also contains a helpful glossary and plenty of suggestions for further study and exploration.

There is so much queer to celebrate!


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The Shiloh Project Visits Legabibo

Today, Shiloh Project co-directors Katie and Johanna, returned to Legabibo headquarters in Gaborone to meet with Bradley and Lebo, two members of the committed team at this fabulous organization working towards full human rights and inclusion for LGBTQ+ persons in Botswana.

Since the last time they met up, in December of last year, much has happened. Most excitingly, last month saw Botswana’s High Court unanimously rejecting section 164, the law that imposed up to seven years in prison for same-sex relationships.

Homosexuality is now decriminalized – for the first time since 1965 when the law was brought in by the colonial British government of the protectorate of Bechuanaland.

Bradley and Lebo reported that this legal victory was still hard to take in. They have been fighting so long and so hard and now there is a real prospect that LGBTQ+ persons of Botswana can finally access rights – not just the right to free expression of their orientation but also to legal protection from discrimination in the workplace and health care sector.

Of course this is not the end of the road. Legabibo will be busy for a long time to come. An appeal to the court decision from the Government is in progress and there has been a backlash from a number of quarters, in particular from factions of the media (including social media) and from the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana. This has included threats and incitement to violence against gays and lesbians.

But Bradley also reported that many influential religious communities, notably the Botswana Council of Churches, have been supportive of Legabibo. Support has also come from neighbouring South Africa in the form of the Interfaith Network, which has provided valuable training to LGBTQ+ individuals of faith.

The court case has been a tremendous boost but it also reminds the team at Legabibo how much more is left to do. There is still no legal same-sex marriage in Botswana and same-sex marriage formalized in countries where it is legal is not recognized here. Moreover, the rights of the Trans community, including the right to change gender markers, have a long way to go.

Legabibo is planning a range of campaigns aimed at consciousness raising and disseminating information about the impact of the ruling. These include workshops with religious leaders, traditional leaders, educators, health workers, the police, and with miners.

After a wonderful morning at Legabibo and feeling thoroughly impressed by all the work being done, Katie and Johanna joined Legabibo as members. We look forward to many years of collaboration to come. Given their organized, upbeat, collaborative and holistic approach, we have much to learn from Legabibo.



Legabibo stands for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana and is an LGBTQ+ non-governmental membership organization, registered in 2016 after winning a freedom of association case at the Botswana Court of Appeal.

Legabibo promotes the value of botho. Botho is a Setswana term for a concept better known by the isiZulu term ubuntu. Botho and ubuntu refer to humanity and inclusiveness and are associated with the expression ‘I am because we are’.

Legabibo also promotes and practises integrity, transparency and accountability.

For more information and to become members and receive regular updates on their mailing list, see: For press articles on Legabibo, see:  


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