Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sex. More precisely, I’ve been thinking about sexual ethics within African American Christian contexts. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the idea of “shacking.” Of course, many African American Christians–saved, sanctified, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled, tongue-talking, devil-chasing, foot-stomping, praising, dancing, shouting, married, single, partnered, booed-up, gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, cisgendered or transgendered– are having sex. Surprise! All joking aside, the deal is that many African American Christians within evangelical and Pentecostal contexts, despite the accepted religious proscriptions of sexual holiness and purity, are having sex–and they’re not married. Traditionally, many Christians believe that sexual relations outside the covenant of hetero-normative, monogamous marriage is sinful. Cohabitation, the living situation of (usually) heterosexual couple who are unmarried, is disparagingly called “shacking” or “shacking up” in African American Christian circles. Recently, one prominent African American pastor challenged unmarried couples within his congregation to make a public marital commitment before other parishioners.
Despite the many black conservative-minded Christians who would agree with this “challenge”, other more progressive-leaning black Christians found this to be problematic, to say the least. In fact, many black progressive Christians don’t mind cohabitation as a viable option for sexual relationships. Because of the high divorce rates within the United States, many would argue that cohabitation before marriage or as an alternative to marriage is a more realistic option for couples who, for multiple reasons, do not desire to get married. From a womanist or a black feminist perspective, the institution of marriage as many of us know it is laden with hetero-patriarchal baggage (spousal abuse, rape, molestation, etc.) which has ruined many lives of black women and children. Some would argue that the pastor’s sermon was an exercise in rhetorical shaming utilized by many religious conservative preachers to control the sexual agency of those who do not fit the long-held ideals of Christian religiosity (A classic critique of sexual politics within African American Christian churches, see Kelly Brown Douglas’ Sexuality and the Black Church). Black liberationists, womanists, and LGBTQ ministers and scholar-activists within and outside of the Black Church call for a new sexual paradigm which throws off the vestiges (or “chains”) of Western Christian mores which circumscribed black bodies for centuries.
While much of this so-called “prophetic” challenge from the new wave of black progressive coreligionists deserve a wider hearing among African American evangelical/pentecostal Christians, one question must be posed which has not yet been answered: “How can Christians faithfully serve the Lord who bought them with our whole sexual selves while not transgressing the law to which Christ himself was subject to and thus fulfilled in his life and death?” Much of what I hear from black progressive Christians parallels the rhetoric of those who are non-Christian/secularist/humanist. While not necessarily problematic, I wish that many would actually engage in theological arguments that would challenge traditional theologies on the turf on which many play i.e. the Scriptures. More precisely, if you cannot argue a theological case for something through examination of the Scriptures that many black conservative Christians hold authoritative for faith and practice and that is both Christo-centric and theological anthropological, then much of what you have to say falls on deaf ears.
Granted, African Americans have a sorted relationship with the Bible. As Douglas and others have demonstrated, the Bible has been used in the legitimation of chattel slavery, among other horrors. Because of its interpretation, and in others’ minds itself, liberationists of many stripes appeal to the “authority of __________’s experience” to advancing liberating theologies for marginalized communities. As much as I can attest that experience does factor in constructing theology, it simply cannot be a source for doing theology since experience by definition is not a source; it’s a medium. Experience itself is fleeting, unpredictable, unstable, it cannot simply be contained in a vacuum. No one person’s experience of the Divine and human realities are actually the same. Even with a community like the African American community, one cannot appeal to a collective experience of oppression alone to determine theological outcomes for ecclesiastical practice and politics. It takes communal discernment, testimony, prayer, deliberation, examination of Scriptural texts, discussion, and debate. Even some within progressive circles question the legitimacy of essentializing experience.
Honestly, my question presupposes assumptions which many black Christians do not necessarily believe, which bespeaks to a larger theological complexity: the diversity of the institution of the Black Church itself. We simply cannot agree on a Christian sexual ethic let alone on any other important fundamental theological matter until we acknowledge the plurality of religious experience within Afro-Christianity. Moreover, I certainly do not want to come off as simply charging black progressives for failing to construct a faithful theological alternative to sexual relationships. Black conservative Christian leaders fail to offer a constructive, nuanced, and grace-filled vision of human families beyond hetero-normative paradigms. The reality of the matter is that families matter — they are not ideals in the minds of a few, they exist concretely. As grandparents raise their grandchildren; as a lesbian couple welcomes a baby into their arms through one partner’s pregnancy through in vitro insemination, as a black male couple who marries after 46 years of companionship and raising an adopted son, and a single parent struggling to take care of her or his children are families, so too black Christians must be able to conceive that families exist in diversity.
The Scriptures attest to the diversity of human families: patriarchs who have multiple wives and children, a widow raising a son, a man rearing a ewe lamb as his own daughter, and a band of disciples of an executed Galilean preacher called the “family of God.” My charge for black evangelical and Pentecostal Christians is that a theology of the human family must take into account the glaring reality of family construction attested with the Scriptures themselves. They aren’t any ideals presented to us into what a family ought to be aside from what the Church is commanded to be: a community in which each member loves each other as their own kin.
So, I guess thinking about sex has me thinking about families. Hmmm. Interesting. In any event, I long for understanding what it means to live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. Even what happens between the sheets of our beds matters to God. Honoring our bodies and honoring God are not mutually exclusive. Let’s have the needed conversation on what really matters to God concerning who we are and what we do with our bodies. Are not our bodies (collectively) the temple of the Holy Spirit?