Obama, Marriage and the Mythical and Real Black Church

It’s been a few weeks since Obama “came out of the closet”. I may be late in response but many of the issues are clearly still relevant and important to address. Since Obama made his statement in support of marriage equality, there’s been a lot of somewhat annoying talk about how “THE Black Church” would respond. And, by the way, I am not one of these black folks who will say, “there is no such thing as ‘THE Black Church’!” Because you know what? There is a such thing. Not everyone black is in “The Black Church” and not every church with black people in it is “A Black Church” (So don’t worry white Christians it take more that 5 black people showing up to your church to make it a “Black Church”.) But there is indeed a historical, cultural, religious institution, whose culture and tradition transcends denomination and sometimes faith traditions and whose common connective factor is the ancestry and cultural heritage of the people in the pews.

I am someone who is from and of the Black Church even as I am not always in the Black Church. And as all of the responses and arguments began to come up for and against Obama, I felt the need to reflect on my journey in and out and back in to the Black Church. As one who is a straight identified ally of the LGBT community and one who feels called to prophesy against sanctified contradictions, I’ve had a really unique journey.

In 2006 I was recently out of seminary and thrown into a society that was charged with the politics of God and sexuality. I was told by the person charged with preparing me for ordination, “you must agree with Bush’s stance on Gay marriage” in order to be ordained. “I don’t agree with that.” I didn’t yell or scream or call this person a homophobe. I said, like our denomination, I believe in the separation of church and state. I said no president has the right to tell a church what to believe. In the same way that no church has the right to tell the country what to believe. That’s the point of being American and Baptist? Right? Wrong. “You might as well leave, if you’re going to say that kind of stuff.” And I was going to say that kind of stuff because it was the truth as I saw it and as it had been told to me in my Baptist Polity class. So I left… that room… the church where I was born and raise… and my denomination…

6 years later, I am ordained and spent some time pastoring and preaching freely. And while it felt good to be in a more progressive denomination, I missed the Black Church. And I realized how much I mourned the loss of something that served as my root and foundation. And in very cautious ways I’ve returned to that religious culture, while holding on to the denomination and culture that was able to affirm my call. I’m happier with my feet in both words. Too bad I cannot have both my soul and my call be affirmed in one space. But I believe that space is coming. And God is calling me and those like me be the midwives and help bring that space to life. But for now I need to heal.

All of these things considered, I wanted to share an excerpt from a sermon I wrote about a year ago about Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments), specifically verses 3-7, where God is speaking about worshiping false Gods and taking God’s name in vain. It was my response to the Eddie Long scandal but it is very relevant today. If anything this sermon is my invitation and loving but honest critique of the church of my ancestry and the church of my soul:

When we think about about God telling God’s people through Moses not to worship false gods and not to take the Lord’s name in vain, we often think about specific things, like the golden calf the Israelites worshiped or the fact that some people say “Oh my God” or OMG too much. But I wonder if there is a wider perspective on this commandment God is giving to God’s people. Because sometimes even as we are worshiping Yahweh only and have committed to never saying Oh my God or using God’s name outside or referring to God, there are ways that we can still be guilty breaking these two divine commandments…

And this leads me to think about the controversy surrounding the Bishop Eddie Long. This week, Bishop Long seems to have joined the infamous, ranks of people like Ted Haggard and others who claimed moral authority and got caught doing the exact thing they spoke out against.
In 2004 Eddie Long was one of the main anti-gay marriage organizers within the black community. On some level his movement against gay marriage during the 2004 election season, may have been what caused such a large group of black Christians to vote for George Bush. He preached vehemently about homosexuality as sin, as something to fight against, as something evil. And lo and behold, this week two very young men have charged this same man, with using his position to manipulate them into sexual relationships…

And when you hear stories like that you begin to wonder if people like Eddie long, are preaching the word of God or using the pulpit as place to work out his own confusion and struggle over his own sexual identity. He seemed to be preaching something unresolved as if it were resolved and Gospel. If he did commit these acts it seems to me that Eddie Long and the like, have not reconciled their sexuality with their faith. And in reality not many Christians have. It’s something we all have to wrestle and pray about. There is no shame in that. But it becomes shameful when that lack of reconciliation being prayed to and preached about as if it is God. He is forcing his congregation (and in terms of the 2004 election the country and the world), to hold on to his unresolved struggles. And on some level it is the same sort of idolatry and undue use of God’s name that God warned against so long ago.

But on some level it is not the individual preacher alone who is at fault for this sort of thing. There is very little space in the context of the traditional church for an exploration of identity, inclusive of sexual identity without silence. Whatever Eddie Long’s actions are a reflection of internally; there is a larger external issue that is rearing its ugly head as a result of this controversy. Whether we are talking about sexual abuse of a minor, women in the pulpit or sexual orientation, when it comes to issues related to gender and orientation, specifically in the black church there is silence. And the only way it seems to come out is in the deifying of our struggles, condemnation and judgment. Instead of having honest conversations, and listening for God’s voice, we speak for God and turn what has not been sorted out into divine fact. And it leaves many people with a range of problems and a choice between silence and spiritual homelessness.

I think God may be calling the black church and the church in general to something new. God is calling us to honesty and diversity and truth. God is calling us to remember and honor (but not worship) who we were and what we’ve come from and be open to what’s next. God is challenging us to move with the movement of the Holy Spirit and not block the movement with our fears of the unknown. God is challenging us be daring enough to stop letting the worship of tradition continue to hold us back and abuse us. God is challenging us to seek God’s face only even if it means breaking out traditions and living outside our comfort zones.

Amen…

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Unmuting the the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I saw three “capitalism in honor of Martin Luther King Day” commercials this week. Sears, Kmart and some mattress company really wants us to celebrate the life of the martyred Civil Rights champion by spending money we don’t have on crap we don’t need. And you might say… what’s the problem? We celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection by buying and consuming bunnies filled with high fructose corn syrup. Why should Martin expect better treatment? That’s a good point sarcastic voice in my head.

But I guess like Jesus I am worried that what Martin Luther King actually said and did has gotten lost a glaze of rhetoric. And we all laugh and scoff at the corporations who choose to put commercials out there asking to come shop at their “MLK Day Sale.” But I don’t think KMart and friends are the only ones complicit in what Cornell West calls the “Santaclausification” of Martin Luther King.

And while I am happy to spend this whole post complaining about the people selling me mattresses in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I’m going to leave that behind and pick on some people who are closer to my home: the progressive church.

I’ve been on a little bit of a rampage for the past few months. As much as I love the progressive church and the fact that it welcomed me and my call when we were both homeless, I have some challenges for them… us? And my challenge as it pertains to Martin Luther King Jr. is to not ignore race and racism when it comes to celebrating his legacy.

Now, this seems like a really dumb thing to have to say. But unfortunately it is necessary. Yes Dr. King spoke out against Vietnam and yes he was organizing the poor people’s campaign. Yes he saw the connections between many kinds of oppressions and many types of violence. But the root of his ministry and mission was to the freedom and dignity of people of African decent in the the US. His words very distinctly cut to the core of America’s racial history. In very specific terms he named and spoke out against the legalized physical, social, psychological and spiritual violence that was waged against African Americans every day.

He did speak about the war and about poverty because he saw the connection between various forms of oppressions. But one did not trump the other. But all these years later, majority white progressive churches, tend to lean heavily on his anti-war and anti-poverty angle while muting the struggle against racial oppression. I really am not sure why this has begun to happen. Is it because we are “post-racial”? Is it because Obama is president? Or is it because it is easier to talk against poverty and war than it is to talk about race? Is it the fact that if we spoke about the work that Martin Luther Kind did to end segregation, we’d have to admit that we didn’t really get finish doing that work in our churches?

I think it’s a kind of fear and guilt based denial that makes us want to make Dr. King into a man whose racial commentary didn’t go beyond speaking in vague terms about people of different “skin colors” getting together and singing a spiritual. It’s scary to think that some of what he actually said about racism in American may still be socially if not legally relevant.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.-Some other words you probably have not heard from the “I Have a Dream Speech”.

O-nauguration in the Racial Nation (Pt1): The First Biracial President

obamasmother_2These are the people who raised our current president… Madelyn, Ann and Stan Dunham. Imagine if an Angel of the Lord came down then and told them… “Behold I give you great tidings of comfort and joy. You will bring forth the first Black president of the United States of America”… Crazy right!

The day after the inauguration I went to visit my good friend Michelle and her 15 month old daughter, Gabryel, who is also my goddaughter. Gabryel is the child of a white man of Eastern European heritage and Michelle, a Canadian born, black woman of Trinidadian heritage. As I sat on the floor with Gabryel, she began singing something. I discovered, at the third or forth round that she was chanting, “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” And later I asked her, “Are you going to be the next bi-racial president of the United States?” “Yeah…” she replied in a very nonchalant way.

I sit here now, watching two very light-skinned black women talk about our new president. They are opposed to the notion that Barack Obama would be considered the first bi-racial president. They said that this valued a certain type of “pigmentocray” (valuing lighter skinned African Americans over daker skinned ones). They made the point that most African Americans were of mixed heritage and the historical boundaries of race in the US would have legally pushed Obama into a “black” identity.

While historically this is very true, racial politics have shifted greatly since the days of legal definitions of race. This is by no means an attempt to ignore the legacy of things like the one drop rule, the 3/5 clause, Jim Crow laws and many other laws of the sort. It is more to say that we live in a racial climate where children of parents from two or more racial backgrounds can more openly identify with all of who they are. We live in an era when I, child of 2 black parents and Gabryel, a child of mixed heritage can celebrate all of who we are and Obama together. If a person is raised by one black and one white parent they can have love and respect for both. We no longer live in the era of Imitation of Life. Bi-racial people no longer have to chose between their black or white parent, between oppression and passing.

Again that doesn’t exempt bi-racial people from the oppressive and often (emotionally and physically) violent legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. But this legacy shouldn’t make people born of two black parents stingy. We should share in the joy of this new president. We should share this victory with the bi-racial, the people born to immigrant parents, the kids of color raised by white parents and so on… it’s not just our victory black folk!

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