I sometimes wonder how long I will consider myself an evangelical Christian. I was raised within an African-American Baptist family who did not use this nomenclature at all. As Baptists, we generally believed what any evangelical would believe regarding the centrality of Christ and the cross, biblical authority, the born again experience, and spreading the “good news.” I did not hear of the term evangelical until I encountered white evangelical Christians in college. We shared some of the similar beliefs concerning God, Jesus Christ, and the Christian Scriptures. So I happily embraced the term “evangelical,” especially after my participation in both InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and my alma mater’s large college evangelical ministry. However, I was challenged by the Eurocentric and conservative political imperialism of the group. I felt like I had to give up my sense of blackness in order to be a true “Bible-believing” Christian. Fortunately, I came across an essay which was written by my current pastor and Duke University theologian William C. Turner, Jr. that freed me to embrace evangelical faith as an African-American without imbibing the political and social imagination of my conservative white counterparts. Although I could easily reconcile my racial identity with my faith commitments, my sexuality continued to present an existential dilemma.
During college, I hid my sexual attractions from everyone. Everyone! I sat in conferences with evangelical lecturers denouncing homosexuality and defending the institution of heterosexual marriage. I heard fiery black preachers dismiss gay men as “sissies” and “faggots” who are “running rampant in the church.” I watched countless religious media that featured preachers charging the faithful stand up for “moral clarity” on behalf of a “Christian” nation that was embarking on the possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage. Despite my rigorous consumption of “ex-gay” literature, my research on the debates on homosexuality and Christianity, my constant silent prayers to God to “remove” that which I did not name, and my struggle to abstain from pornography, I remained what I feared.
After college, I attended two prominent seminaries. My first year in seminary compelled me to come out of the closet the following year. I interacted with students from all walks of life—Christian, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, bisexual—all who came to seminary seeking to understand various aspects of the Christian traditions. I was confronted with the “issues” of homosexuality and the Black Church on several occasions, some of which I brought up because I feared that no one was listening or talking at all. I’ve taken various classes on theology, ethics, and biblical studies. I’ve discussed and debated with folks. I moved to Atlanta and confronted myself through my interaction and budding friendship with openly black gay and lesbian people. I freed myself to question everything that I believed about homosexuality theologically, and I, by God’s grace, learned to embrace existence without shame. However, intellectually, I still have issues accepting if the Scriptures and the Churches are “wrong” on same-sex sex or relationships.
Can I be “gay” and “evangelical”? To many ears, that would be a paradox or a blunt contradiction. I’ve heard and read many protestations from conservative Christians, but it’s from the other side where I receive the most challenge as I hold on to evangelical faith. My social media newsfeeds feature posts from black queer scholar-activists who actively critique the Black Church–engaging its theologies–and calling for radical institutional and theological changes on behalf African-American LGBTIQ people, some of which are professing Christians who remain within mainline African-American Christian denominations. Scholars like Darnell L. Moore, a self-identified queer scholar, lecturer, and activist, constantly challenge black queer Christians, if they are to remain within the Black Church, to not only to adopt a critical hermeneutic of suspicion against the Church’s “traditional” theologies (read: heterosexist, homophobic, transphobic, body-denying, dualistic, etc.) but also to do theology “from below”—drawing from their concrete lived experiences in engagement with “life-affirming” scriptural texts and church (and non-Christian) traditions.
Moreover, Moore also proposes that queer Christians adopt a posture of “righteous rage” against “oppressive structures that seek to kill our senses of being-in-the-world.”[i] Like many contemporary theologians, Moore understands the nature of theology as inherently contextual. Moore protests the “universalizing theology” of institutional churches that often “takes the form of imperialized God-talk” which legitimates the status quo of both church and society that subsequently mutes the voices of those marginalized from the theological discussion.[ii] Thus, universalizing theology is “violent theology” in that it denies the existence of queer people and other folks whose narratives do not align with the majority narrative; violent theology produces an “Other” which majority Christians perpetuate; for the sake of the full actualized inclusion of LGBTIQ people in the life of the churches, Moore galvanizes queer Christians to loudly engage in theologizing toward radical change.
Moore and others present a real challenge that forces me out of any sense of “neutrality.” After reading work like his, I constantly ask myself, “Who am I for?” “How can I remain within this institution and believe what my oppressors believe?” “How can I sit back and watch black LGBTIQ people despair and die (literally!) while many silently dismiss or loudly damn our existence?” These questions daily haunt me. I question whether I have deeply imbibed the self-hatred I think I’ve left behind in Atlanta. I don’t know. At times, I’ve unsuccessfully tried to challenge my evangelical conscience, testing the limits I will go to change my mind. Yet I keep buoying back to my central core beliefs. Admittedly, some of the way I once believed about sexuality has changed from the dualistic anthropology that I’ve imbibed in my childhood to a more monistic, integrated understanding of human nature drawing from Scripture, tradition, contemporary disciplines of psychology and philosophy. I respect the right of everyone to live according to their own self-understanding. As far as how Christian Churches can sustain difference within not only theology but actual lives that do not fit the traditional visions of Christian sexual embodiment is the fundamental theological question of the day. African-American churches still have yet to take on this rigorous, crucial task. Many lives are counting on it.
As someone who studies Christian systematic and constructive theologies, I gained a more critical appreciation of the so-called “classics” of Christian tradition. I’m a confessional Trinitarian who subscribes to the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. I’m a Baptist who appreciates formal printed liturgies of Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, and Reformed congregations. I use the Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books in spiritual practices. I’m a lover of Christian dogmatic theology. Although I’m also influenced by Pentecostalism, I wholeheartedly embrace the dialogue between Pentecostal and Eastern Orthodox theologians on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Although I’m a Baptist who affirms the authority of the Scriptures, I respect and enter into dialogue with the interpretive traditions of the Churches. Despite all of my personal appreciation of the Christian theological heritage, I am not at all oblivious to the reality of my lived experience as a member of two marginalized groups—I am both black and gay.
I think that Moore is not concerned with whether or not black LGBTIQ Christians choose to identify as “evangelical” but whether or not the “gospel” which we continue to hold dear is in fact “good news” for both the bodies and souls of black LGBTIQ folk and “all the folk.” It’s a damn good question that I continue to struggle with as I carry on with the hustles and bustles of everyday living. Despite my education, I don’t believe that I’m fully equipped or qualified to engage in serious critical dialogue with black queer leaders like Moore. I deeply commend Moore’s work with black LGBTIQ youth and trust that he works towards the advancement of the beloved community. As of now, I’m not sure whether or not my theology continues the oppression that Moore seeks to obliterate. “How can two walk together unless they agree?” Hopefully, I can contribute to some sense of healing within the body of Christ. As a minister-theologian, I attempt to read the texts of Christian Scripture theologically in order to discern the Word of God for the people of God. I have yet to fully understand and articulate what the Word is for me—for black queer folks like me. Soon, I will—God willing.
Only time will tell.
[i] Darnell L. Moore, “A Letter to Queer Christians.” LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent. [http://lgbtfaithleadersofafricandescent.com/guest-columns/guest-colmnist-donell-l-moore/a-letter-to-queer-christians/]. Retrieved Online: March 19, 2014.