Reinterpreting ancient texts to end the violence against LGBTIQ+ people

Michelle Boonzaaier is Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) Senior Program Manager.

Over the past weeks and months, the bodies of lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people in South Africa have been mutilated. Our siblings are still being killed for being who they are and for what their bodies represent. I name those that have been found and left for dead so we never forget the suffering they endured for what their bodies represent. 

Let us never forget Bonang Gaelae, 29, whose throat was slashed in Sebokeng on 12 February; Nonhlanhla Kunene, 37, whose body was found half naked in Edendale, Pietermaritzburg on 5 March; Sphamandla Khoza, 34, who was beaten, stabbed and had his throat slit on 29 March in Kwamashu, Durban; Nathaniel ‘Spokgoane’ Mbele, who was stabbed in the chest in Tshirela, Vanderbijlpark on 2 April; Andile ‘Lulu’ Nthuthela, 41, whose mutilated and burned body was found on 10 April in KwaNobuhle, Kariega; and Lonwabo Jack, a young LGBTIQ+ individual who had just celebrated his 22nd birthday on 17 April. His lifeless body was found on a pavement the next day in Nyanga, Cape Town.

When I remember these young people who are named, I am deeply aware that they are not the only ones who have been violated and killed. I have joined with other faith leaders to speak out and call for an end to violence against LGBTIQ+ bodies (#enoughisenough). I also prepared a sermon on Acts 8:26-40, the text that churches across the globe who adhere to the revised common lectionary read together on 2 May 2021.

This passage spoke to me very powerfully and provided a backdrop to these senseless murders. Despite what some might tell you, sexual and gender diversity have always featured in our faith, and this passage illuminates an alternative way of being, of welcoming difference rather than punishing it. 

Acts 8:26-40

My excitement about this text stems from the ways in which the narrator, Luke, uses words to bring across a message of sexual and gender diversity and inclusion in the text and story of a nameless eunuch from Ethiopia and a man called Philip – a follower of Jesus.

In the text, a chariot traveling along a path in a remote part of the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. A man, Philip, walks along the path and overhears a foreign voice reading an ancient text from the book role written by the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53). Philip is invited onto the chariot by the nameless reader. While we never know the man’s name, we do know that he is a powerful and influential man, the Finance Minister of the Queen of Ethiopia. 

The eunuch invites Philip onto the chariot and asks him to explain the text that he has been reading aloud. As the two travel along, Philip explains the following passage to the curious eunuch:

As a sheep led to slaughter,
    and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
He was silent, saying nothing.
    He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
But who now can count his kin
    since he’s been taken from the earth?

The eunuch is curious to know who the prophet Isaiah is talking about. Philip reinterprets the passage, considering his audience of one and tells him about Jesus – the one that the prophet speaks about, the one that has suffered brutality at the hands of men. After listening, the eunuch clearly identifies with this man and his experience of suffering at the hands of his own people. He identifies so strongly that he wants to be a follower of this suffering leader and requests to be baptised in a stream of water close by. Philip obliges. The eunuch rides away, elated, supposedly on his way back home to Ethiopia.

About Philip and the nameless eunuch

For modern reader to understand the text, we have to understand something about who Philip was and also the status of eunuchs in cultural and religious/cultic practices of the Israelite followers of Jesus at the time.

About Philip:

Philip is a Greek-speaking Jew and, in some respects, ahead of his faith community. Philip is already convinced that Christ has come for ALL people, not only a select group of followers, while may still widely debated whether Gentiles were included in his message, let alone eunuchs. 

About the nameless eunuch:

According to culture and religion, eunuchs were figures that lived on the margins, excluded from religious or cultural practices. The fact that this eunuch was wealthy and educated made no difference. 

Eunuchs were usually appointed as court officials. Amongst other things, they were tasked with serving and protecting women in the palace. They were seen as “safe” because they would not be sexually attracted to women that they guarded (the term eunuch is derived from “bed guards”).

In this text, the eunuch’s faith status is not clear. Even though we know from the text that he was devout, we also know that he could not be a converted to become a follower of Jesus because, as a eunuch, he would not have been able to be circumcised, which was necessary for conversion. He would also not have been allowed into the temple but would have had to join the other heathens in the forecourt. 

Opening doors of faith to the “outsider”

When we think about it, the narrator could probably have easily found out this particular eunuch’s name, since he was in service of the Ethiopian queen. It is clear that he wanted to make a point about the Finance Minister’s status as a eunuch that has nothing to do with his name but rather his status as an outsider.

Even though Philip is aware of the Ethiopian’s status as a eunuch, he has no issue with reinterpreting a text for him that, for the followers of Jesus, is central to their faith of origin. He has no problem baptising the eunuch, regardless of his status as either a foreigner or a eunuch. Some of his fellow believers would not have done so. As a matter of fact, some of them would have actively worked to exclude him from the community of faith since he was unable to be circumcised. 

When the two meet, the eunuch is in on his way from Jerusalem down to Gaza. His religious needs have obviously not been satisfied in Jerusalem, the centre of Christianity at the time. He finds himself somewhere on a deserted road – neither here nor there – when he meets up with Philip. In this space – neither here nor there – Philip affirms the nameless eunuch’s status through baptism, something that was only reserved for a specific group until this point.

The eunuch returns to Ethiopia as probably the first baptised follower of Jesus on the African continent – contrary to perceptions that it was only White colonisers that brought the Christian faith to Africa.

Reinterpreting ancient texts to stop the spread of hateful messages

The suffering, brutalising and killing of people like Bonang, Nonhlanhla, Sphamandla, Nathaniel ‘Spokgoane’, Andile ‘Lulu’, Lonwabo and so many others has to end. In the same way that Philip reinterprets ancient texts, as a faith leaders we have to accompany people of faith, not only to greater inclusion, but to stop spreading messages that violence and violation against LGBTIQ+ people is ok. We must start spreading messages that ends the violence. #enoughisenough