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Beyond Homophobia

Rev. Clifford Matthews, Jr.

The recent presidential campaign was the ugliest I have experienced in my lifetime. From the very start, it was clear that issues of hate would dominate this campaign. I was clear and remain so, that Mr. Trump is unfit to be president and am committed to making sure, he is a one term president. After the election, I was prepared to live in a country of renewed hate and bigotry, a county to be honest, even as a Black man, I have never known. Raised in the multicultural context of South Florida, in a home that encouraged my potential, I believed, and still do, in the greatness of this country and brought into the notion that was song on an episode of “Family Affair’ in 1968, when I was still a boy myself, “every little boy can be President”. I understood that to mean that America was a place of opportunity for all people. Now, I am in the land of Trump and it isn’t reality television. I began to prepare for a fight with Trump supporters, whose chants, “Make America Great Again”, are nothing more than the chants of small minded, ignorant folks, determined to turn back the hand of time on the clock of social progress.

However, it has been somewhat ironic, that the last few weeks have been spent wrestling with the hate filled, bigoted, and homophobic rhetoric of Black Gospel recording artists. First, there was Kim Burrell. She delivered a homophobic sermon, which due to the accessibility of smart phones and social media, went viral. In this sermon, Kim Burrell targets men and women who are wrestling with “a homophobic spirit”. She declares in prophetic certainty, that if you play with that in 2017, you will die. Once the video had gone viral, she attempted an apology, but really doubled down on her sermonic declarations. “I didn’t say nothing about LGBT people, I said S-I-N, now if that fits you, then o well”. Her hate filled sermon (By the way, I wonder what biblical text served as the basis for that sermon, perhaps there wasn’t one), sparked a public outcry and generated condemnation from fellow recording artists, which led to the decision by Ellen DeGeneres to dis-invite her to perform on her show. Now, I really must admit, I am not one of Burrell’s fans. I have found her music to be something less than for my taste. Whenever I listened to her perform (I remember her singing at Whitney Houston’s funeral), I wonder why all those “runs”. It was as if vocally she was a fugitive on the run from the Marshalls for some crime committed to which justice demanded her apprehension.

Then there was the legendary gospel recording artist Shirley Caesar. While I am not a fan of Burrell I am one of Caesar. I grew up listening to her. Known for her mix of song and narration, I love her songs which honor motherhood and the commitment that Black women have made to the stability of their families. Songs like, “No Charge”, and “I Remember Momma”. Rev. Caesar believes that Burrell was right to say what she said and that she should have said it four years ago. Rev. Caesar goes on the blame the confusion with regards to homosexuality on President Barak Obama who introduced, “this stuff” years ago.

Burrell’s and Caesar’s comments, if taken as isolated rhetoric from two misguided, lost in the moment, off script, with nothing to say otherwise, Gospel singers/preacher (the line between singer and preacher is often blurred which feeds a level of confusion) that would be wrong. Such a view would miss the fact that in both settings, their comments were greeted with shouts of “Amen”, and claps of affirmation. In fact, I would argue that it was the context that allowed for both comments. So while I reject as wrong, misguided, and unchristian the comments of Burrell and Caesar, I am much more concerned with the persons in the pew. While there is a justified and I believe necessary spotlight on Burrell and Caesar, the real problem is that if we never hear another word from either of them, the pew, steeped in homophobia, will stand to its feet and shout Amen to the next pulpit occupier who goes down that road and sends fellow Christians to hell because of who we are and who we love. So, it seems to me that the real issue that should demand our attention is how do we deal with the inherited legacy of homophobia and create churches of genuine community where diversity in sexual expression is an act of God which is to be welcomed , celebrated, and demanded; where the promise of heaven and the penalty of hell (if you believe in those concepts) is not decided in part or in total based upon sexual orientation, but Christian identity based upon confession of faith validated by the presence of the Spirit.

In attempting to understand how this homophobia has come to be, two areas demand our attention: sex/sexuality and biblical interpretation.

The Black Church has never developed a theology of sex/sexuality. Since the arrival of Black folks into this country, primarily through, chattel slavery, our race has been sexualized and our sexuality has been racialized. Consequently, whenever the issue of sex and sexuality comes before our community, it is accompanied by painful memories of body shaming, and sexual exploitation. Instead, we adopted the sexual theology of White Evangelical Protestantism which we came in contact with during the historical movements known as the First and Second Great Awakening.

Through the First and Second Great Awakening, the message of Christianity became more appealing to Black community-slave and free. The emotionalism that was present in these revival movements in early America history, reminded our ancestors of the religious experience familiar to them through the African religious context. Now the Master’s religion of the head, meets the African religion of the head and heart. Our slave ancestors embraced American Christianity and infused it with a liberative power. The historical record suggests that these revival movements brought within its fire, a level of equality upon the races. It became common place to see Blacks and Whites worship together in revival meetings and to see Blacks elevated from participant to leadership. It would be untruthful to suggest that this was universally accepted by Whites in the North and especially in the South. But it does shed light on the reality of inclusion and a growing sense of equality at least in the spiritual realm. (Kelly Brown Douglas, 144)

While this should be greeted as a good development, it is here that we begin to see a problematic understanding of Black sexuality within our own community. As stated earlier, black bodies have been devalued since our arrival in America around the racializing of sex and sexuality. There was something wrong with the black body which must be dealt with or it would great problems in society. These problems were giving sexual expressions. Images of Black women as Jezebels whose alluring and seductive qualities are too much for White men to handle and too strong for White women to compete; and Buck, the exponentially endowed masculine Black male, whose hyper sexuality and animalistic behavior threatens the sexual purity of White women and must be therefore dealt with by White men. As we sought greater acceptance and inclusion within the broader context of America, we brought into the theological dualism of White Evangelical Protestantism, which picks up on the Neo-Platonic philosophical context of The Apostle Paul, which was embedded into Christian thinking by St. Augustine. This dualism gave theological permission to second the motion that black bodies were bad. Rooted in the call to starve the flesh and feed the spirit, the embrace of Christianity by our ancestors meant that feeling, impulse, desire i.e.; sexual expression was a giving into flesh and apart from the necessary act of procreation, sex and sexuality was to stay under wraps.

To reinforce this notion and to combat the images of hyper sexuality that was laid at the door of the Black community our ancestors adopted a ridged hype-asexuality. Meaning that at all cost, and at any price, nothing would be done which would give the White folks’ view of us as animals and oversexed, any credibility. Therefore, sex and sexuality, became something which we will not discuss publicly, privately and never in mixed company, for it gets in the way of our need to fit into society. Cornel West in his book Race Matters, states that basically, we entered into a pact that we would not talk about sex nor deal with its complex realities in order to be included. Therefore, we as a community, don’t have a problem with homosexuality, we have a problem with sex/and sexuality period. To say that our problem is homosexuality is like a builder attempting to install a roof, when all there is a foundation, but no walls.

So there is a need for a theology of sex/sexuality, one which elevates sex and sexuality as a gift from God which has value beyond the individual and actually empowers community and strengthens its bonds. There is also a need to understand and embrace a historical methodology of biblical interpretation as practiced by our ancestors. I said earlier the homophobia that is found in the Black church is something of a recent phenomenon. It is, I would argue a result of a way of interpreting the bible which demands nothing more than what the bible says. It is a view that the bible needs only to be read, and not interpreted. The God who has given the bible has already interpreted it, all we have to do is to let is say what it says and do what it says to do. It is a fundamentalist/literal interpretation of the bible. While this view is perhaps the default position of the average black church goer, it is one which is not only problematic, but is also recent. Dr. Vincent Wimbush in his essay titled, The Bible and African American: An Outline of an Interpretive History, found within the book Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, suggests that it “signifies a crisis-of thinking, of security”. It is the one which has been the default for many without training and the benefit of a trained pulpit and leadership.

Were this, the interpretative methodology that dominated our Civil Rights leadership, we would still be in Jim Crow. The bible says a lot on various issues. The bible does not at any point condemn slavery, but calls for the slave to obey his master and for the master, to be benevolent to the slave. The bible tells women to be silent in church and that if they have any questions, they are to ask their husbands at home, where the male is the head and the woman and children are in their God ordained submissive position. The bible says that we are to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, yet many of us worship on Sunday which is different from the Jewish Sabbath. The bible says that we are to avoid eating pig, yet what would the typical church picnic be like without ham and BBQ pork. The bible says that if a child is disrespectful to parents, that child is to be stoned to death by the elders of the city. The bible says that women who are menstruating are to be separated from the community and go through a period of ritual cleansing before they could return, and anything they sat upon was to be considered unclean. The bible says that if a woman comes to the marriage bed and her husband says she was not a virgin, and it is proven that she was not, she is to be stoned to death. The bible says a lot, and therefore, it must be interpreted. Those who run to one or two biblical passages to speak with godly confidence that being gay means you go to hell, are not honest interpreters of bible, but rather biased individuals who construct their faith in terms of “us and others” without realizing that at various points that same bible has them on the outside looking in.

Our ancestors were not nearly as bound to a literal interpretation of the bible. Instead, a hermeneutic of appropriation, as Kelly Brown Douglas describes, allowed our ancestors to dismiss biblical interpretations which “did not accord with black people’s own aspirations regarding the treatment of their black bodies”. This led our ancestor in chains and in faith, to see in the stories of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage their hope of emancipation; and to see in Paul’s declaration of slave obedience, nothing more than gibberish. They understood that a literal interpretation of the Bible, too often leaves black bodies literally bound!

If we are to overcome the inherited legacy of homophobia and create churches of genuine community where diversity in sexual expression is an act and gift of God which is to be welcomed , celebrated, and demanded; where the promise of heaven and the penalty of hell (if you believe in those concepts) is not decided in part or in total based upon sexual orientation, but Christian identity based upon confession of faith validated by the presence of the Spirit, there must be a developed theology of sex and sexuality, as well the appropriation of a method of biblical interpretation that has served our community well. This, of course, will be easier for some communities of faith than for others. If we were to envision an African American religious landscape where homophobia did not exist, we would be like someone planning on funding retirement, through winning the lottery-it is possible, but the odds are against it. There are still churches in this country, which teach that Blacks and Whites should not intermarry, and that women are not allowed to be a preacher or leader in the church. Racism and sexism continues in pockets of the Church, but as a whole, appear to be at odds with the spirit of Christianity today. What should be the goal as it relates to homophobia is that it is no longer viewed as the way of God sanctioned by biblical interpretation. Instead, it becomes what it truly is already, a fear of that which is different, which can be overcome, if willing, through engagement. This is the promise of community in the context of local church. It is when we come together, representing diversity in all areas, but common union in our confession of faith that we begin to see others as brothers and sisters in faith, while valuing our diversity. It is here, over time and through Spirit led discernment that we begin to accept the presence of God in the lives of those who we heretofore dismissed and demonized.

This however requires a trained pulpit. It is to be a basic standard of ordination, that persons who desire to lead the church, should be seminary trained, at an accredited institution with a commitment to rigorous academics and dialogue with the world, and while the landscape of theological training is undergoing tremendous change, having spent time, at the graduate level, wrestling with scripture and its intersection with philosophy and history, prepares the preacher today to lead a people out of bondage to non-liberative interpretive methodologies into the promised land of community with all the diversity that God has ordained. Too often, the weekly diet of preaching and teaching has been reduced to prosperity theology and the faux promise of riches as the birthright of the believer in Jesus. Very little time is spent in the rubber hits the road realities that confront most church members today. Instead, members are encouraged to praise and shout about money that is coming, and told while they wait for that, hate those who are different.

Beyond training, it requires courage. There are too many seminary trained preachers who know that the homophobia in their pews cannot be supported by any reasonable hermeneutic, but instead of confronting that, it is left to reside in the atmosphere waiting for someone to come and give voice to it. The need to maintain budgets, buildings, and status keeps many from teaching and preaching that which upsets the previous held positions of the pew, even when it is clear to the preacher/leader, that those positions are not only ignorant, but do very little to build the kingdom. In this regard, many are no different from the moderate White preachers that called on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to take it slow and to recognize that failure to do so could be disruptive. The call of the preacher is not to stand in solidarity with the wishes of the pew, but to lead in the spirit of the One, who came on the scene and challenged the religion of his birth, to understand that God’s grace has gone beyond institutional expectations and traditions. Who boldly proclaimed that God’s love is for everyone. It is in the spirit of Jesus, that we are to take our stand, recognizing that while it will cost, God is able and God will make a way.

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