Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Centuries ago, Augustine of Hippo and Anselm of Canterbury argued that Christian theology is a matter of what later Christian thinkers would succinctly put as “faith seeking understanding.”  Formally, Christian theology is critical reflection on the content and form of Christian belief as attested by the witness of Christian Scriptures, confessed in the ecumenical creeds and confessions of the Christian churches, and as lived in the lives of the faithful.  Christian theology is a form of sapiential knowledge, or knowledge characterized by wisdom.  Theology, is not merely abstract pontification (albeit Christian theologians necessarily deal with some forms of abstraction), but also practical or applied knowledge.  Christian doctrine, as one contemporary theologian puts it, deals with the very “stuff of life.”

While formal academic theology, at least in the United States, does frequently take the form of irrelevant abstraction, many African Americans trained within seminaries know all too well that doing theology in the crucible of black life in the United States is a matter of life and death.  As descendants of enslaved Africans brought to these United States, African Americans struggle to defend their faith in a living and loving God and to struggle for their freedom within a country that continues to advance its hegemonic project of white (heteropatriarchal) supremacy and institutional racism.  While traditional Christian systematic theology (written by white heterosexual males) continues to drive the conversations of much the religious academy, much to the chagrin of African American seminarians. The content of these textbooks rarely reflect the teachings, traditions, practices, and testimonies of African American Christians.  Miraculously, African American preachers and seminarians found saving, liberating grace in the work of black and womanist theologians such as James H. Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Gayraud S. Wilmore, Major Jones, Pauli Murray, Katie G. Cannon, Delores S. Williams, Emilie Townes, Jamie Phelps, Clarice Martin, Cain H. Felder, Renita Weems, Diana L. Hayes, and many others.  These scholar-practitioners-activists bequeathed to the African American churches a living tradition of critical reflection which de-centers the priorities of white Christian theologians and foregrounds the lived experiences of African Americans in the United States as a critical hermeneutical lens to interpret Christian faith.

Doing theology in the crucible of black life is a matter of critical and prophetic importance for the liberation of all black people in particular and the entire creation.  As an African American trained to critically engage the entire Christian theological tradition, it is my duty to name and challenge the dominant Christian theological imagination within the United States that harbors the lie of white supremacy and racism.  America’s original sin of racism continues to have a foothold in the imaginations of both white and black people, especially white and black Christians.  The task of black Christian theologians and leaders is to call this country to account of its sin(s) and to repent and recompense. Doing this critical theological work also entails the constructive task of envisioning what the future can and shall be. I make this critical distinction in tenses in order to emphasize that white supremacy and racism doesn’t have to be (can be) and that dismantling the systems which continue to subjugate and legitimate the deaths of so many black live (the recent victims of Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, SC; Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd; Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and so many more!) is part of the work of the community of faith as it aligns itself with God’s liberation project.

Doing theology in the crucible of black life also entails a matter of hope, joy, and pleasure as Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper reminds us.  The work of doing theology as African American people of faith will involve the entire pathos of African American life. Although we face pain and suffering, our lives are not defined by them. The mattering of our black lives is not dependent upon white supremacists’ repentance but it is, as womanist ethicist Eboni Marshall Turman remind us, is an a priori matter.[i]  Our lives, our black lives, are gifts from God.  We are human created in the image of the Divine. We are called by the liberating Jesus to follow him in the path of life. We are baptized in the Spirit of freedom to serve God and the world on Christ’s behalf to proclaim hope. To have joy unspeakable in the midst of racist system which does not value our lives is revolutionary.  It is a miracle. It is grace.

As African American Christian thinkers and church leaders, we must continue to develop our theological faculties to reimagine a Christian vision of the world that no longer harbors the lie of white supremacy or of any form of subjugation of any people.  When we fully engage the world, drawing from the entire range of Christian and non-Christian sources, our cultural traditions, and other intellectual traditions, we might more faithfully serve the liberating and resurrected God, striving for the freedom of all God’s children, until Kingdom comes.

[i] Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

 “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.                 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

   Acts 8: 30-31 NIV

Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.  God is the primary agent revealed in the biblical narrative… Scripture discloses the word of God, a word that calls into existence things that do not exist, judges our presuppositions and projects, and pours out grace beyond our imagining.[1]

…I cannot understand how people who have studied Biblical languages, interpretation, methods of canonical process, etc. could be Biblical literalists. We either have to take everything literally (i.e., support of slavery, silence of women in worship, celibacy for clergy) or we must be secure enough in our relationship with God to allow ourselves to be critical of the text. Essentially everything written, though it may work in principle, it is not culturally appropriate for this time.

-Bishop Yvette Flunder, Presiding Bishop, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, Senior Pastor, City of Refuge United Church of Christ, Oakland, CA

 

I.  “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the Book for me…”

I was taught from a young age to read the Bible as a daily Christian practice and to trust it as God’s holy Word. When I was seven, my late maternal grandfather, who was my first pastor, baptized and presented me to the congregation with a copy of the New King James Version of the Bible.  I don’t remember his exact words but I recall the sincerity of his admonition to practice daily Bible reading as a nascent Christian. Both my grandfather and my mother taught me that, in some mysterious way, reading the Bible would bring me closer to God and God closer to me.  To read the words of the Scriptures was to read, and, perhaps, “hear” the voice of God.  This lesson was reinforced through Sunday school and Vacation Bible school attendance.  As a child, I sang ditties like “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” and “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the Book for me….” I also pledged allegiance to the Bible.   My mother bought me Bible-themed coloring books. Moreover, my brothers and I were encouraged to memorize the names of the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon (we knew nothing of the Catholic Bible). Sadly, I lost my first Bible in the shuffle of life. I didn’t read the Bible as much before I was a teenager.  I remember as a young boy that I refused to read the Book of Revelation because it allegedly foretold the total destruction of the world. Upon hearing this, I cried, “I don’t want to die!” Despite my grandmother’s advice to start with the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, I found other books more interesting to read, like those of Greco-Roman and Norse mythologies.  Reading the Greco-Roman and Norse creation myths actually gave me an appreciation of the Genesis narrative. They also made me question the “uniqueness” of the Bible.   In addition, science lessons on the origins of life also kept the questions of the Bible’s veracity to the forefront of my mind.  At this point I wasn’t sure how the biblical Creation story was to be interpreted.   Even my grandfather, who was a committed Baptist minister and biblical preacher, did not believe in a historical Adam and Eve, but interpreted them as symbols which represent all of humankind. Despite my unanswered questions and neglect of daily devotional reading, I trusted the Bible to “speak to me.”  It wasn’t until I began developing same-sex attractions that I started my journey of serious critical engagement with the biblical text.

 

II. Condemnation

One weekend morning when I was eleven years old, I watched a sermon by televangelist John Hagee. He preached on the subject of homosexuality—and I was terrified!  I was terrified because it recalled to my memory an earlier childhood experience:  when I was living with my family in New Jersey at the age of six, my mother befriended a woman who also had two young sons. One of them was my age and the other was two years younger.   One night the family came to visit us. The older boy (who I’ll call Tommy) and I went to go play in the bedroom.  We entered the closet to play “house.” Tommy assumed the role of “Mommy” and I assumed the role of “Daddy.” In this closet I was learning for the first time what mommies and daddies actually “do” behind closed doors.  We started kissing and then when Tommy reached down into my pants to touch my penis, I immediately reacted and ran out of the closet into the living room.  I didn’t tell one soul what happened and I suppressed the memory. Now fast forward to more than five years later: on that weekend morning I turned on the television. Within a few moments of watching his sermon, Hagee condemned homosexuality as sin. Immediately I recalled to my pubescent mind that night with Tommy in the closet.  I felt so dirty and shameful that I immediately raced into the bathroom, stripped off my clothes and took a cold shower.  I wanted to wash the sin away.  After the shower, I got down on my knees and I asked God for forgiveness. Interestingly enough, I felt better.  Again, I suppressed the memory of that closet experience, thinking that it will never happen again. Homosexuality was condemned in the Book and I didn’t want to displease God. As time marched on, my attractions to males emerged as a youth enrolled in middle and high school.  This time, I couldn’t suppress my emerging feelings, appreciation, and eroticization of male bodies—muscular male bodies.  After gym period I couldn’t wait to get out of the locker rooms for fear that I was caught staring down my fellow classmates’ bodies.  I also couldn’t wait to get home to turn on the Internet and explore the galleries of nude male physique models, bodybuilders, and, eventually, gay porn.  I didn’t want to read the Bible since I knew what I was feeling and doing was sinful.  I didn’t tell anyone about my desires. I kept them to myself.  And I became depressed.

 

III. “Praying the Gay Away”

I tried to self-medicate or find some type of spiritual counsel in reading evangelical books catered to address men and young men’s spiritual and sexual development. From Stephen Arterburn to T. D. Jakes, I tried to get my hands on something that addressed my particular situation. On occasion, I would open up the Bible, struggling to read and hear a word from God.  I started to attend church more regularly than I did. One Sunday I decided to attend church with my second cousin.   Her executive pastor preached; in his sermon he condemned homosexuality in the most virulent and insidious way.  Hearing his words with my fifteen year-old ears made my heart sink.  I felt ashamed again and I kept my feelings to myself. Later in college, I gained more access to material that specifically addressed homosexuality in the Bible and what same-sex attracted (SSA) persons of faith “could do about it.”   I was first exposed to “ex-gay” material and reparative therapy organizations that posited that my feelings were somehow connected to my psychological and familial development (i.e. youngest child of a single mother, feminine temperament, complicated relationship with father, my exposure to explicit sexual images, and my “house” experience with Tommy).  Conservative religionists and psychotherapists contended that homosexuality was not only a sin but also a psychological disorder (a wounding of the “masculine soul”) that could be remedied through prayer and therapy.

Moreover, I encountered conservative virulent Christian condemnations of LGBT-affirming Christians.  Conservative “ex-gay” Christian proponents like Joe Dallas and the Reverend D. L. Foster engaged in rhetorical violence against folks like the Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) and Bishop Yvette Flunder, former gospel singer and openly lesbian United Church of Christ pastor and founder of a fellowship of LGBT-affirming African-American churches.  Despite my rejection of this rhetoric denouncing LGBT-affirming Christians, I still read the Bible in a conservative way.  Granted, I remained deeply critical of those texts which subordinated women and legitimated slavery. At this point, I considered myself an evangelical who affirms women in pastoral leadership and equality in marriage and society.   I also learned much from gay-affirming psychologists and sexuality researchers. I denounced the pseudo-Freudian psychology behind reparative therapy. Furthermore, I rejected the demonization of homosexuality by fundamentalist and Pentecostal/charismatic preachers of all races.    Still, I remained quite conservative in my interpretation of same-sex acts, considering them a form of fornication (porneia).   However, my interpretations, my prayers, and my fellowship with straight Christians didn’t change my sexual orientation.  I labeled myself heterosexual although I knew that was a lie.  I still trusted the Bible, even though I still struggled to reckon with the implications of traditional biblical interpretations.    I continued to view gay porn in college.  I struggled in silence and felt alone.  And I remained depressed.

 

IV. Word of God or “Texts of Terror?”

My critical engagement with the Bible intensified when I began seminary in 2009.  Studying at Duke Divinity School was both a blessing and a curse.  On one hand, it was a blessing because my biblical studies professors were committed to the Christian faith and were unafraid to engage the biblical texts critically.  They guided all of us students through the history of biblical interpretation, especially through the highly influential historical-critical method. They also assigned us to practice lectio divina, the ancient practice of “prayed reading” of the Scriptures and journal our meditations. One of my professors was influenced by the postliberal school of biblical interpretation which featured Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Brevard Childs as the pioneers.  This school of thought engaged the Bible with both historical-critical eyes and a “second naiveté,” to use philosopher Paul Ricoeur phrase. In other words, a postliberal could rightly acknowledge and appreciate the historical, literary, social, cultural, and theological diversity within the biblical texts, acknowledge the tensions which lie therein, and yet affirm the texts as Scripture for the church and engage them with the “rule of faith.”

On the other hand, my seminary experience was a curse. My struggle with the biblical text intensified when I along with many fellow students brought up questions of same-sex blessings and LGBT inclusion to the forefront.  My engagement with ideological critics of the Bible (feminist, womanist, postcolonial, queer, etc.) forced me to reckon with the fact that the biblical texts were written under patriarchal conditions and feature elements that have legitimated the historical and social oppression of women, blacks, the poor, indigenous peoples, the disabled, and LGBTQ folks.  The testimonies of many lives, including my own, daily challenge me to adopt a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”  The so-called “texts of terror” (Phyllis Trible) found in the Scriptures have caused many to question the Bible’s revelatory value.  “How can God be so petty, heartless, cruel, mad, jealous, vengeful, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and bloodthirsty?” many ask when reading the Old Testament literature.  “How can I ever trust this Book?” I ask daily.

For many marginalized people, both believing and otherwise, to read the Bible critically means to question not only the authorized ecclesial interpretations of the biblical text, but the very authority of the text themselves.  Many folks no longer trust their ecclesial communities to guide them into understanding the meaning of the Scriptures.  Given that too many of these communities foster cultures of anti-intellectualism, bigotry, hatred, and dehumanization force many folks to exit the churches and engage the Bible, if they so choose, on their own terms. So how does anyone read the Bible faithfully when the Church which has shaped and is shaped by it is no longer deemed a trustworthy guide? How do I as an African-American gay man continue to read the Bible as God’s holy Word?  How can I still trust the Bible? These questions require extensive treatment. However, I will make some attempt to share my convictions in the following.

 

V. Rightly Dividing the Word

As a disciple, an interpreter, and as a preacher, I read the biblical texts with a critical hermeneutic of trust.  I read the human texts of Scripture believing that the living God, whose Word is beyond human words, still speaks in and through the canonical pages.  As systematic theologian Daniel Migliore writes,

Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible. Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and thus into new relationship with others and with the entire creation.  To speak of the authority of the Bible rightly is to speak of its power by God’s Spirit to help create and nourish this new life in relationship with God and with others.[2]

When I critically and devotionally engage the texts of Christian Scripture, I anticipate encountering the living God.  Given its diversity in genre, language, authorship, composition, editing, theology, and history, I do not believe that every word in the Scriptures is literally the words of God.  In fact, I do not believe that many informed conservative evangelicals, or any so-called traditional Christian for that matter, believes this to be the case. We as Christians anticipate hearing from the living Word that comes to us through the testimony of the Scriptures, namely the Word of God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.[3]  This Word, again, speaks in and through the Scriptures to us.  Following the twentieth-century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, the Scripture is the Word of God only in a derivative sense, attesting to the preeminent, eternal Word of God.  To risk circular reasoning, I trust the Bible because I put my trust in the God of the Bible.

In addition, I strive to read the Scriptures with both the rule of faith and the rule of love.  The rule of faith or regula fidei is the interpretative principle of the Church us to understand the central message of Scripture. This principle is found in rudimentary form in the Scriptures themselves, the witness of the church fathers, and in the creeds and confessions of the Church. Moreover, Saint Augustine proposed that Christians read the Scriptures with the rule of love as an interpretive principle to foster the love for God and neighbor. For Augustine, both love for God and neighbor are inextricably linked.  I believe the tragedy of the churches today regarding many controversial issues is the fact that these interpretive principles have been rent asunder into binary camps of “conservative” or traditionalist” (rule of faith?) and “liberal” or “progressive” (rule of love?). Conservative Christians truly believe that reading the Bible faithfully means that certain matters of faith and practice are simply non-negotiable like matters of sin—in this case sins of a sexual kind.  For many liberal and progressive Christians, to continue to uncritically adhere to these sexual prohibitions which were rendered in cultural times and under certain conditions (namely ancient Near Eastern, cultic, patriarchal, agrarian, pre-scientific) considerably different than our own without considering the current knowledge(s) about human nature (i.e. sexual orientation and gender identity development), and the value and virtues attested in the lives of same-sex couples is to reject the rule of love when reading the Bible. Thus, conservatives fail to love God and neighbor.

Furthermore, because the Bible contains challenging, even repellent texts, and has been used to do significant harm to many people (including myself!), I strive to interpret the Bible with great care.  The texts of Scripture contain very human words.  God did not undermine the human faculties of the biblical authors and redactors.  Their words incite great joy and great fear. They can both comfort and alarm.  They repel us and they attract us.  For wounded souls and bodies, they can heal or do more damage, all depending on the skill of the human interpreters.  To discern the divine Word within very human words requires patience, exegetical skill, and careful attention to how the texts mean and function within the canon. What do the texts of Scripture do? How did the first readers hear or read them?  I must always consider the fact we modern readers do not experience/read the biblical texts the same way as the early Christians readers did. Then again, it is quite difficult to discern this unless we engage the witness of the saints. In another way, modern Christians should consult the history of biblical interpretation concerning texts.    So I read the Bible with and from within the Church—that very fallible, human institution that I still believe God has not given up on despite its many sins, synchronically and diachronically—across time and space.

Finally, I read the Bible prayerfully.  I bring all my doubts, my fears, my struggles, my anger, my confusion, and frustrations with me when reading the Bible.  My identities as an American, a Westerner, an African-American, and a gay cisgender man do not somehow leave me when I open the Good Book.  The voices of crying, lamenting, and sorrowful people ring in my ear and in my soul when reading the Bible.  Therefore, in a priestly way, I read the Bible on behalf of those who struggle to discern if the God of the Bible loves us all—even me.  Being attentive to the presence of this living God is the primary posture of prayer.  Yet prayer is not a one-way act.  It’s a communicative act; a dialogue between two parties.  As I draw near to God by wrestling with the biblical text, God draws near to me.  God’s Word is confirmed through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit (John Calvin). I trust that the triune God who relentlessly seeks the liberation and salvation of humanity and the entire creation will guide me as an interpreter of the Scriptures into greater understanding of God’s saving will.  I also trust that the Spirit provides the Church, as a community of interpreters, for me to share the burden of wrestling blessings from the Scriptures and test them according to the rule of faith and the rule of love.

 

VI. “Is there a Word from the LORD?” By way of Conclusion

Admittedly, my interpretations concerning homosexuality have significantly changed. Although I remain very traditional and evangelical in my “major” doctrinal commitments (Trinitarian, Christocentric, charismatic, etc.), I do believe that God does in fact bless those who are in committed same-sex unions and marriages. (How I came to this position, I will have to save for another essay).  Furthermore, I’ve overcome the shame and self-hatred that I’ve experienced since childhood. I no longer view my existence as a problem to be solved.  I will always wonder why the Scriptures say what they say about same-sexual acts, despite the paltry number of passages that mention them (seven). Daily I question their implications for my life and the life of others.  However, a part of me finds the “traditional” Christian sexual ethic convincing, namely the emphasis on covenant faithfulness and exclusive monogamy as a model for Christian marriages.   Nevertheless, ideological critics have provided their convincing reasons for me to re-examine or outright reject those “clobber texts” as the vestiges of a hetero-patriarchal system slowly but surely fading away.  Much ink has been spilled and maybe wasted on denouncing and defending the legitimacy of homosexuality.  Still, many people hurt and want to hear a life-giving, liberating word from God. They want to know whether or not God really loves all of us as we are and not for what we are not. Lamentably, many churches fail to speak and practice this word that will set many folks free to live abundant lives in Christ.

The biblical writers knew nothing of the modern concept of sexual orientation or the difference between gender and sex as social constructions. Perhaps, they would have cared about advances in modern sciences which illuminates the complexities of humankind. Of course, this betrays my bias for contemporary understandings of gender and human sexuality development which bears on my reading of the biblical texts.  I’m ready to concede that earliest Christians may likely view us modern Christians who affirm homoerotic desires and relationships as betraying the Lord who delivered them from “inordinate passions.” Yet, they might also be wrong.  As we are shaped by our social histories and contexts, we interpret the Bible as best we know how, trusting the Spirit to guide.  Some of us will seek biblically-based affirmation for our non-heterosexual sexual identities and relationships. Some of us will not and, therefore, seek affirmation elsewhere.  Others will view the traditional Christian doctrines and ethics as wisdom and rely upon the Spirit and the support from the community of faith to obey the Word of God. Others will reject the traditional doctrines as antiquated, oppressive dogmas and reconstruct Christian theology in light of their lived experiences as queer people of faith.   Then there are others whose relationship with Christianity and the Church is too complicated to be placed in rigid boxes. I see myself as a part of this group.

The Church often fails at loving folks, especially loving those with whom it disagrees or fails to understand.  So we all need to hear a word from the God who is love.  We need a community of love who will guide us into reading the Bible in order for us to seek wisdom, pursue justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8).  The Church as a community of biblical interpreters constantly needs to repent and be transformed by the reconciling and liberating love of God.   The nature of this God’s love is inexhaustible, and its mystery woven into the very life of Jesus of Nazareth.  Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the center of all the Scriptures. Ultimately, it is in him that I put my trust to guide me and God’s people by his Spirit into the truth.  My theological position may be wrong, but I pray that at the heart of my convictions, whatever my theology and practice may be, lies the truth that “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

 

 

[1] The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture: Thesis 1,” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (eds.) The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 1.

[2] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 50.

[3] Richard S. Briggs, “The Bible before us: Evangelical possibilities for taking Scripture seriously,” in Tom Greggs, (ed.) New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology: Engaging with God, Scripture, and the World (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), 16.

During this season of Advent, I’ve applied to six Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs in theology.  I have three more applications to submit by the end of the middle of the first full week of the New Year.  I’m filled with both excitement and dread.  Of course, any person applying to doctoral programs may simultaneously experience these emotions. Questions concerning acceptance, funding, and selecting which offer constantly fill my mind.  However, my dread does not come from fear of rejection, lack of funding, or attending the “wrong” program.  My dread comes from the prospect of engaging extensive study of some of the most complex theological issues our time.  Specifically, I’m talking about theological inquiry into the meaning of human sexualities, race, and, gender.  And to refract these issues through the lens of Christology and soteriology seems quite foreboding despite the necessity of such theological engagement.

Certainly, I am not the first person (or the last one for that matter) to engage these subjects.  Liberationist theologians, namely feminist, womanist, black (male), Latino/a-American, Native, Asian-American, and LGBTIQ theologians, among others have challenged traditional Christian theologies and practices concerning the status of people who are not white, Western, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual men in the life of the Church and the world.  Currently, liberationist theologians have moved beyond defending the legitimacy of their theological agendas in the theological academy and Church. Instead, they now protest the legitimacy of the authority of the predominantly male-shaped traditions of Scripture and Christian traditions (i.e., Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy).    I guess my dread lies in the fact that I very much see myself as a traditionalist.  I’m an evangelical Protestant, raised and shaped in the Afro-Baptist tradition.  Yet I am a black gay man.   How can I defend the faith or tradition which condemns my blackness and sexuality as sinful and evil?   How can I accept the authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God given the abuses and misuses of the Holy Writ to defame, dehumanize, and spiritually harm many marginalized people? How can I defend any semblance of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ when said theory is used to legitimate Western retributive justice principles which disproportionately affect African-American and Latino/a people living in the United States when enacted?   And what of my eschatology and its relation to social justice?  How can I balance my heavenly-mindedness with my concern of being of earthly-good?

As I write out these questions, I see that theodicy seeps through them. The problem of evil rightly challenges any triumphalist theologies, whether conservative or liberal.   Classically understood, theodicy is the defense or justification of the all-beneficent God in the face of enduring evil.   The systemic evils which pervades this world, specifically global poverty, militarism, colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other ills haven’t been adequately reckoned with in Christian theology.   Personally, I cannot do what I intend to do in my doctoral studies without addressing systems of oppression which affect women, non-whites, and queer folk.   My evangelical commitments do not blind me to the fact that evangelical Christianity, whether manifested in the Black Church or white Protestant churches, painfully contributes to the spiritual, social, and political marginalization of many people.   Indeed, theodicy plays a role in my dread.

I remember having a conversation with my pastor and former professor regarding his read of philosopher William R. Jones’ book,  Is God a White Racist?.  Pastor Turner said in response to Jones’ scathing critique of the early black theologians’ handling of theodicy in their theology, he replied, “Black Christians’ response to theodicy is [the] black preaching [tradition].  But we must always live with the question of theodicy before us.”  Considering the times we live in, especially when African-American women and men are unjustly killed, when black trans women are murdered without justice, when LGBTIQ youth commit suicide because of perceived and actual rejection from their families and communities, I certainly do not want to contribute to the oppression of anyone as I embark on seeking my own theological account of race, gender, and human sexuality in all of their manifestations.  My evangelical beliefs and my commitment to full human flourishing (still on the fence to what this really means!) seem to be at war with each other.   Dread sucks.

Interestingly, it might be beneficial for me to actually meditate on these things in light of the season.  Advent is a season of joy, judgment, and hope.   The coming of the Son of God into the world is certainly a time of great joy for many, but it is nonetheless a time of reflection upon the judgment which will come to a world filled with sin and evil done to the “least of these.”  There is much in this world that needs change–revolutionary change! Truly, we who are able must seek the good of others and protest the injustices that plague this world–even those done in the name of the Lord!  Nevertheless, Advent is a season of hope.  Hope doesn’t come in ostentatious, gaudy, consumerist displays of pomp and circumstance.  Hope comes in humble form–in the form of a child born to a young girl and her betrothed husband, both members of an oppressed minority group living under Empire.  Years later, hope will be tried, condemned, and executed under the authority of this same Empire.  It’s a strange way for God to come into the world in order to overcome it’s sinful ways, yet through the eyes of faith, I believe God in Jesus Christ does just that!  I may be dreadful of the task that I’m embarking on, but I am hopeful that the Lord Christ will lead me to do theological work that participates in God’s work to bring God’s kingdom into the world.

Come to think of it, dread might just be a reminder of my own contingency and my need for salvation. I am contingent. I am human. I have partial knowledge.  I am also a sinner.  Dread might be humility that needs to remember the saving grace of God.  Dread just might be what I need around for the length of my prospective academic career to keep my feet to the ground and my knees bended.  But I cannot let dread consume my life.  If I do so, I take my sight off of the coming of God into the world and I abdicate my vocation to teach, preach, and practice the faith.  The good news is that when I do find myself on the “wrong” side, God is just, forgiving, and merciful.  Therein lies my hope. Thanks be to God!

Daily I struggle to make sense of my sexuality in light of Christian faith. Concomitantly, I struggle with my beliefs not only about the blessing of same-sex relationships in the Church but also to find a community of Christians who welcome folks like me to wrestle theologically and follow Jesus Christ together as members of Christ’s body.  Unfortunately, very few Christian churches offer spaces for theological and moral discernment regarding complex life matters. More pointedly, conservative churches, at least in my experience, have a zero-to-low tolerance for ambiguity.  Of course, many conservative and evangelical Protestant churches would welcome a person with same-sex orientation to come and fellowship with them.  However, with their belief in the biblical prohibition against same-sex relationships, they would most likely admonish me to “mortify the works of the flesh,” read my Bible, pray, and submit to “sound biblical teaching” from a pastor.   The problem with this is that I don’t merely struggle to maintain a chaste lifestyle (which is a matter of choice), but rather I struggle to theologically understand my sexuality (which is not a matter of choice but part of my psycho-sexual, relational, social, and spiritual development).  In more forceful way, it’s not about what I do (or not) with my body with whom but it’s about fundamentally about who I am as a human being.

As an Afro-Baptist, I lament the fact that many black Baptist churches do not offer spaces for theological and moral discussion and debate regarding human sexuality and gender.  Never in my experience of being a black Baptist have I heard any substantive discussion on human sexuality (besides homophobic remarks within sermons and Bible studies!) initiated or facilitated by a pastor.   Given the many resources on human sexuality development offered by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others, many black Baptist ministers simply will not speak on the subject beyond what might be uttered from pulpits.  Many black Baptist (male) pastors wield theologically authoritarian power over their congregations.  Many seem to deny that sexual orientation of any sort is not ‘chosen’ but a complex psycho-sexual development manifested across a human being’s lifespan.   This theologically raises questions regarding the relationship between Creation and Sin: “Are sexual orientations (lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, asexual) simply a part of our makeup as human beings created in the image of God or is there one sexual orientation viz., heterosexuality is God-ordained and all others sinful aberrations?”   Obviously, many conservative Christians would choose the latter while many LGBT Christians and their straight “allies” affirm the former.  Yet these are not questions regularly debated in many African-American churches.  For “Bible-believing” black Christians, all homosexual acts (whatever they may be) are sinful in the eyes of God.  Therefore, it’s not up for thoughtful and painful discussion and/or debate.    Dissenting voices and others are simply silenced.  There’s a deep disconnect between what is theologically and ethically assumed as right belief and what is actually the lived experiences of the faithful.  One need not be reminded of the fact that most straight folks within the black churches are having sex even when the many of them are not married.

This continual failure of the Afro-Baptist churches, and the Black Church in general, to call for theological, ethical, and pastoral transformation on behalf of not only LGBTQ people, but all the people of God makes me question their collective standing as a moral authority.  More questions develop as I have engaged contemporary theologies of liberation such as black, womanist, and queer theologies.  These theologies expose how racism, sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia (in addition, biphobia and transphobia) factor in the interpretations of biblical texts used to dehumanize black women and black LGBT/same-gender-loving people.  They also counter the longstanding hegemony of the Euro-Protestant principle of sola scriptura which views the Bible as the final authority of faith and practice.  Admittedly, it’s a principle to which I continue to dearly hold as a Christian.   Sadly, although we have many preachers within our pulpits, but few leaders and pastor-theologians who can rightly and wisely discern the complexity of human experience.  Where are the pastors who will develop the courage to be honest with themselves and their congregations? Where are the leaders who are willing to embrace tension, ambiguity, and rely on God’s amazing grace and openly admit their ignorance before God’s people?  Where are the church mothers who will take a stand with God’s children who are wounded by the preaching, teaching, and moralizing of pulpiteers?  Where are the straight men who will rebuke their brothers for using homophobic slurs and gestures against their gay brothers and sisters?  Where are the African-American churches who will engage in deep theological conservation and listen to the testimonies of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning siblings regardless of their theological positions?

As we continue to move forward in the second decade of the 21st century, I’m persuaded that we need to cultivate courageous and grace-filled theological communities of faith.  I’m not particularly arguing for black churches to adopt academically-driven liberationist stances uncritically, but I’m longing for black churches who will accept the partiality and contextual nature of theological knowledge.  I’m longing for truly Spirit-filled and Christ-centered churches who will minister to the entirety of human persons and confront the injustices done not only to LGBTQ people but also to all people struggling to follow Christ and understand their sexuality.  Theology is a human construction; it is not a final word on any subject but a longstanding conservation which the church must have in light of the Gospel.   Reading the Scriptures theologically is a communal practice that requires all voices to be heard.  What we proclaim and what do “unto the least of these” reflects ultimately our vision of who God is.  Who is the God that we serve if we as a community continue to disregard weightier matters that directly affect the lives of God’s children?  Wrestling together is difficult work to do, but it’s necessary work.  The Gospel demands it. Lives depend on it.  To borrow womanist ethicist Emilie M. Townes’ simple yet stunning invitation: “will you join me?”

Today, it seems like more people are fed up with the Church. Specifically, many American Christians are questioning its necessity or its utility.  “Why must we attend church?” or “Why does church matter?” are some of the usual questions asked. More pressingly, many Christians often find that the Church in its diverse denominational manifestations betrays the simple evangelical message of Jesus by advancing abstract, arcane dogmas, its preoccupation with its institutional stability (e.g. tithes/offerings, building campaigns, minister’s salaries, etc.) rather than focusing on its ministry to hurting people both within and outside of its walls, its conservative (read: reactionary) posture against social justice issues (LGBTIQ, racial, and gender discrimination, immigration, economic justice, and so forth), and its diverse liturgical formations (whether “high” or “low”) which are completely out of touch with 21st century lived experiences, to name a few.  The aforementioned reasons are enough for many folks to warrant their exodus from the Church.  Of those who remain, it’s a constant battle to understand what their place in the Church means. 

Many Christians are fed up with the Church today.  Many folks are leaving the churches of their youth. They are fed up with the hypocrisy, the gossiping, the lack of love shared among the “faithful.”  Despite being named as a “hospital of sin-sick souls” (at least in my black church tradition), many folks are leaving because they find too many graves being dug within the sanctuaries.  What is supposed to be a community bonded by the Spirit of love, the Church in the experience of many people is a place of deep hurt, pain, hatred, and sorrow.  Many struggle to find a sense of community within their churches. It’s because many within the churches are unaccepting of them because of their sexual identity/orientation, gender identity/expression, (dis)ability, socio-economic status, racial or ethnic identity, or some other identity marker; in some cases it’s all of the above!  For many people, Jesus was “inclusive” of those on the margins of the society: the poor and the social outcast (prostitute, leper, infirmed, lame, tax collector).  Jesus loved folks radically, meaning that at the root of his ministry of liberation and reconciliation was God’s inexhaustible love for God’s people Israel, the nations, and the entire creation.  Granted, this love was not always received by all (given that God’s love may come in the form of judgment against unrighteous, corrupt and/or hypocritical political and religious authorities), but this love was deeply palpable for those outside the gates of Jerusalem.  So, “where is the love?”  For many Christians and non-Christians, this love left the Church a long time ago.

Given the exodus of many from churches in North America, where does this leave the Christians who “believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?” For once it should give Christians deep pause when we listen (or if we dare to listen) to the stories of those among us who feel forced to leave institutional Christianity due its longstanding unjust theologies and practices against women, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, the disabled, children, LGBTIQ people, and so forth. Despite the fact that Christianity, in its various Pentecostal/charismatic forms, is growing rapidly around the world, many North American Christians are saying “so long” to the mainstream religion for more accepting and inclusive spaces, religious and otherwise. 

 While I think the notion of inclusion is not beyond critique, the concept points to a greater truth which Christian theology at its best cogently articulates but, being sinful creatures, we Christians frequently get so wrong namely, that in Christ Jesus God has reconciled the world to Godself (2 Cor. 5:19).  The Church exists not for itself but because Christ the Reconciler founded it and called those within the Body to participate in his ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Cor. 5:11-21).  What would it mean for Christians to embrace whom God has embraced? For many folks on the verge of leaving or who already have left the Church, it’s really quite simple. To love people is to accept them as they are, in all of their particularity.  This proves difficult for many of us in the Church given that we have been taught (for centuries?) that sin is intolerable in churches. Given the struggle over the recognition of LGBTIQ people as God’s children and the blessing of same-sex unions, the Church is struggling to rightfully distinguish between sin and creaturely particularity (i.e. sexual and gender variance) as God’s creative goodness.  And for us Western Christians deeply influenced by the Augustinian tradition, sin is so pervasive in the human condition that it might obscure our thinking on these matters.  Yet have we used this cherished belief as a cop out to fear of ambiguity? Many Christians and non-Christians believe so. 

If I have learned anything of value, it is that the Church is faithful to its Lord when it doesn’t close its doors to or rejects “the Other,” but embraces the Other as God’s beloved creature.  What the Other reminds us is that Jesus was the Other, the Rejected One. He came to his own and his own did not receive him (Jn 1:11). He was the stone that the builders rejected (Acts 4:11) and he came to gather those who were also rejected to himself. We have been made accepted into the Beloved (Eph 1:6).  Perhaps, some of those who are fed up with the Church presuppose that the Church ought to be a distinct—a holy—community of rejects.  It’s a community of people who gather our once rejected bodies together around a Table to form one distinct Body, exemplifying a truth-bearing and truth-telling community, founded upon love.  This love is practiced through corporate confession, worship, prayer, and justice-seeking for those on the margins, and witness to the world the coming reign of God.  The embodied frustrations with institutionalized religion help break up the ossification of Christian beliefs and practices that become abstract, wooden idols that lack the life of the Spirit.  What would it mean for Christians to remember that the covenant which God made through Jesus was to a bunch of “Others?”  Are folks who are fed up with the Church exposing the false sense of privilege that those who confidently remain in the Church might have? 

 

O Lord,
The whole house is sick.
We have fallen ill.
We love schism and bureaucracy, tolitarianism and despotism.
We love to prey upon the weak, the defenseless, innocent children,
We misuse and abuse the resources of the earth,
We shut out and shut down voices of protest and dissent,
We love hatred, bigotry, wickedness, mediocrity, and the status quo
more than we love patience, pursuing justice, loving mercy, and giving
voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless.

O Lord,
The whole house is sick.
We have fallen ill.
We lust for blood.
We love war and rumors of wars, conflicts, murders, and genocides
more than peacemaking, dialogue, coalition building,
finding common ground, and the peaceable Kingdom.

O Lord,
The whole house is sick.
We have fallen ill.
We do violence
against bodies,
black bodies,
brown bodies,
female bodies,
young bodies,
old bodies,
queer bodies,
disabled bodies,
poor bodies,
and immigrant bodies.
We love to break bodies
rather than mend them.
We are feverishly sick.

O Lord,
Heal this house you called “good.”
Heal this house not made by sinful hands.
Look on this house, this house
made by your word and the breath of your mouth,
and remake us in the image of the One
who told us,
“In my Father’s house, there are many rooms…”
Renew this house by the Spirit
Who raised his pierced, bruised, and crucified Body
from the dead
so that this house that you call Beloved,
this house called Creation,
might be saved, restored, and healed.
Thus, may you fulfill your promise
to make your dwelling among mortals forever.
Amen.

 

In contemporary theologies of liberation, a primary theme within Christological reflection is Jesus’ persistent solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Among liberationists, queer theologians present a “queer” Jesus. Queer is both an adjective and a verb in the sense that 1) queer theologians revise, subvert or “queer” the traditional “heterosexual,” celibate image of Jesus, and 2) the “queer Christ”—both (ontologically) as God incarnate in flesh and (ethically/existentially) as a man on the margins—stands for LGBTIQ people and against heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, erotophobia, and all other ideologies privileging heteronormative, nuclear family structures as sacred. To do so, queer theologians point out that Jesus took stances against the religious authorities of his day. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees and the scribes for their hypocritically selective and rigid interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures to condemn “sinners,” Gentiles, and social outcasts. However, these “devout” groups exonerated themselves from obeying the full letter of Torah by drawing on their complex oral traditions. Similarly, queer theologians criticize conservative Christians for interpretations which condemn LGBTIQ people. For queer theologians, Jesus not only came to liberate “sinners” and the outcasts from their oppression—both religious and political.

Moreover, Jesus Christ is also “queer” in the sense that his love-ethic, especially his public fellowship with women (some of questionable reputation), tax collectors, and Gentiles, transgresses the status quo that privileges one set of God’s children, namely heterosexual, patriarchal, cisgendered, and nuclear families, over all others. In fact, queer theologian Robert Shore-Goss claims that Jesus took an anti-family stance (read: anti-patriarchal family system) by assembling a group of disciples of predominantly know familial relation to him and from all walks of life. Moreover, literature in queer and liberal religious scholarship have contended that the seven so-called “clobber” passages (Gen. 19; Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; Jude 1:7) have a long history of misinterpretation from traditionalist Christians which frequently dismiss insights from history, culture, psychology, science on the reality of queer peoples’ own lived experiences.

Even more, queer theology moves beyond apologetics towards advocacy and resistance against institutional Christianity and the larger culture towards their radical transformation. For some queer theologians, the reading of Scripture and Christian tradition is irredeemably heterosexist (an ideological stance which privileges heterosexuals in church and society), patriarchal (which privileges a few men over all women, children, and other marginalized men), cisgenderist (which privileges non-transgender, non-intersexed, and gender conforming persons over all others). Privileging the male-female gender binary (i.e. Adam and Eve in Genesis) as prescriptive (and, for some, even paradigmatic) for all human sexuality is universalizing and oppressive. Therefore, the entire Christian tradition, principally starting with Christology, requires a massive overhaul in order for the religion to be a source of justice and human flourishing for all persons.

For many LGBTIQ people, not only are traditional condemnatory positions “abstract,” but are deeply harmful for their psycho-spiritual selves and such teachings legitimate the discriminatory challenges to same-sex marriage, joint same-sex adoption, transgender healthcare, employment, housing, and others. Moreover, traditional condemnations of same-sex practice and transgender identified persons as “disordered” often result, according to many studies, in LGBTIQ people being excommunicated from their communities of faith and ostracized from family members. For example, a recent study shows that 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTIQ. The leading cause of their homelessness is family rejection. In the marketplace of religious claims, queer theologians present Jesus Christ and the Body of Christ as “queer” since in his body consists all types of people of diverse genders, bodies, and sexual orientations. For many, to object to this radical claim of the queerness of Christ and the church is to remain complicit in the concrete, oppressive, and destructive factors which lead to the displacement of many LGBTIQ youth from their homes.
Furthermore, some scholars within queer theology argue for various constructive re-presentations of Christianity as an inherently “queer” religion, given the “queer” claim of God becoming flesh. A queer Christianity celebrates the goodness of human body, the diversity of sexualities, gender identities, relationships (monogamy, polyamory, “open,” promiscuous, etc.) and family configurations as the work of dynamic, creative, and beneficent God. Other queer theologians remain wary of systematizing their work, given that systematic theology tends to “universalize” God-talk which leads to shut out divergent voices on the margins. Nevertheless, queer theologians Elizabeth Stuart, Gerard Loughlin, Patrick Cheng, Ivy Helman, and others advocate for rethinking the traditional topics of traditional Christian theology in light of the lived experiences of queer Christians towards their full inclusion within Christianity and Christianity’s full reconciliation of sexuality with spirituality, body with soul.
Queer theology in the United States continues to develop both as an intellectual development in academic institutions and as a grassroots movement in the Christian churches. Even some members of traditional Christian denominations have at least listened to the voices of self-identified LGBTQ and have responded with compassion and subsequent apology. Still, others in these denominations continue to remain either silent or violently opposed to the voices of queer people publicly claiming Christ for themselves.

Queer theology does not reflect the theological convictions of all persons whose sexualities or gender identities do not conform to the heterosexual norm. There are, indeed, such persons who hold traditional understandings of sexual ethics, biblical authority, and/or theological anthropology, yet struggle to maintain a sense of dignity, sanity, and wholeness as they continue to remain in fellowship with their traditional churches. Fortunately, some folks from this group have started to publicly voice their convictions and their struggles. Despite its usage, the word queer may not fully capture the complexity of lived experiences of those deemed as such, especially among those who affirm traditional ethics and who are non-heterosexual and non-cisgendered. The conciliation of all Christians, both queer and otherwise, might is the theme shared between members of Christian churches across the theological spectrum, namely the aforementioned one—that Christ stands in solidarity with them. As this group, along with queer theologians, continues to grow and articulate their theological perspectives, perhaps Christianity becomes a more queer religion.

 

For further reading:

Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. New York, NY: Seabury Books, 2011.

Hill, Wesley. Washed and Waiting. Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.

Horace L. Griffin, Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2006; reprint: Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010.

Goss, Robert E. and Mona West, Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000.

Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006.

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. Omni-Gender: A Trans-religious Approach, revised and expanded. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2007.

Selmys, Melinda. Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Vistor, 2009.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,223 other followers