When Rights Go Left

OPINION: For years, African-American ministers have been decrying the public shift in opinion over same sex marriage. But it’s partially our fault.

In 1963, Malcolm X famously referred to the assassination of President Kennedy as America’s chickens coming home to roost – a bold statement to a nation still mourning the loss of its president. When pressed to elaborate in an interview, he explained his comments by saying that Kennedy’s murder was the culmination of a long line of similarly violent acts perpetrated by the U.S. government.

Today, the political pundits continue to focus on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to render a series of judgments with direct relevance to the legal institution of marriage. And most of the political left is united under the banner of what they refer to as “marriage equality,” the idea that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and enjoy the same legal benefits conferred on heterosexual marriages.

And while most speculation is focused on either what should or will happen, I’m more concerned with what has already happened, specifically in the intersections of church life and civic duty. The Black church, though generally conservative socially and pro-traditional-marriage, has been unknowingly complicit in the hijacking of civil rights rhetoric by progressive liberal activists advocating for same sex marriage. Black clergy need to own up to the fact that the demand for civil rights from gays and lesbians is another case of chickens coming home to roost.

Diversity in religious Black thought

Rev. Irene Monroe, author, public theologian, and syndicated religion columnist, is a prominent supporter of same-sex marriage. (Photo Credit: IreneMonroe.com)

Now, I realize that referring to “Black clergy” and “the Black church” may give some the impression that Blacks are monolithic and uniform, always on the same page. This has never been true.  At the dawn of the 20th century, the two most prominent Black leaders were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, whose approaches differed greatly in tone and substance. In the 1960’s, Dr. King and Malcolm X were polar opposites. Even now, there are worlds of difference between the Christianity of President Obama and that of Ben Carson or Herman Cain. There are a variety of political and ideological flavors in the expression of Black organized religion and its connection to politics.

So it’s logical for certain, more left-leaning factions within the black church to promote open-and-affirming policies with officially sanctioned LGBT ministries. For these folks, civil rights for the LGBT community is the next logical step in their evolution of faith-based activism.

However, most African-Americans who believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ also believe that homosexuality is a sin. We may have a measure of empathy for gays and lesbians because of the ways in which they’ve been ostracized and persecuted over the years, but we still resent the comparison between gays and blacks as people with morally equivalent struggles. Instead, we resonate with articles like Voddie Baucham’s “Gay Is Not the New

Rev. Voddie Baucham, author of Gay is Not The New Black and pastor of preaching at Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. (Photo Credit: Gospelcoalition.org)

Black,” primarily because, except for a few of the most light-skinned among us, Black folks have never had the privilege of choosing whether to come out of the closet.

This latent resentment probably burns the hottest from those believers in the Black community who have labored the longest, who are entrenched most directly in the ongoing battle, and who confront racialized economic disparities through the pursuit of better enforcement of civil rights. Their offense over the mostly-White gay activists borrowing the language and legacy of the Black civil rights struggle was crystallized by Dr. King’s youngest Bernice King in a 2005 march, when she said that her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”

Unfortunately, these are the folks who helped same sex marriage become a foregone conclusion. Why? It’s all the focus on rights. In the Black church, we’ve elevated the pursuit of rights into an art form. We march, sing, and preach for our rights. “I got a right to praise Him,” said Karen Clark-Sheard.  He’s a “Right Now God,” said Dorinda Clark Cole. “Receive it RIGHT NOW,” said Andrae Crouch.

Discipleship breeds activism, not vice versa

In our attempts to necessarily address local injustices, we’ve inadvertently modeled church life as consisting primarily of activism for social change, rather than as a place for spiritual discipleship. Not to say that we shouldn’t do both; outward social change should be a natural flow of spiritual discipleship. But the issue is of primacy – which do we do first, best, most naturally, and more completely? If we’re about a social cause more than we’re about being disciples, we might do all of the same programs, but for different reasons and in different ways.

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church and the founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, is a prominent supporter of marriage being defined as a one man, one woman covenantal relationship. (Photo Credit: TheHopeConnection.org)

So take mass incarceration, for example. It’s one thing if, in the process of learning how to consistently receive God’s grace and love, we recognize our value as being made in God’s image, then transfer that recognition to others (in this case, Black men) who are being disproportionately victimized by drug laws, police harassment and unfair sentencing biases that feed them into the prison industrial complex.

It’s another thing, though, if you show up at church and everyone’s always talking about this problem with Black men in prison and it’s really bad and c’mon people we’ve gotta DO SOMETHING about it because somehow Jesus doesn’t like it (maybe he was Black? not sure).

I’m exaggerating to make a point, but there’s so much Biblical illiteracy nowadays because as ministers we assume that people understand that it’s our faith that provides the emotional, moral and philosophical foundation for our civic engagement. But in a post-Christian society, that assumption is dangerous. After all, the Pharisees were very skilled at doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

Liberated theology

Liberation theology has been wonderful in helping people to contextualize contemporary suffering into the narrative of Biblical suffering, but we need other theological constructs and frameworks to fully engage people with the gospel in a multicultural context. Without balance, our liberation theology ends up becoming what I call “liberated theology” – where we tend to view the gospel only through the lens of the freedom to self-actualize.

And this is a problem, because it blurs the boundaries between our rights as citizens and our rights as believers. As a citizen, I support the idea that gay and lesbian couples should be able to enjoy all of the municipal benefits of marriage as sanctioned by the local state. But that’s different from my belief that as a believer in Christ, I really don’t have any rights, other than to be grateful for God pouring His love on us instead of His wrath.

Thus, my sexuality, like any other facet of my life, is subject to His wisdom and guidance, which is tied to my understanding of His Word. There are a lot of things I could do with my body that I choose not to, and some of them I avoid because I’m constrained by the laws of the land. But others of them I choose to avoid because God’s grace and mercy causes me to trust His principles, even when I don’t personally enjoy them, even when rationalizing my way around those principles is perfectly within my legal rights as a citizen.

If liberated theology is my only guidepost, I’m tempted to have a distorted view of the Scripture, where Exodus 9:1 is reduced to “let my people go,” rather than the full text of the verse, “let my people go, so that they may worship me.” The first part is connected to citizen rights, but the latter half is all about being humble worshipers in God’s kingdom.

So I don’t have a problem with people demonstrating with marriage equality. But I have a feeling that there would be less appropriation of civil rights language if our Black churches weren’t as focused on securing rights for the African-American community.  And I know that part of our calling as Christians is to battle the injustice that we encounter. But I hope we can do it with the humility and freedom that comes from knowing we are fully loved and forgiven.

Mostly, I’d just rather our preachers would spend a little less time engaging 1 Cor. 6:9-10 (which denounces sin) and more time engaging 1 Cor. 8:9 (NIV), which says the following (emphasis mine): “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

About the author, Jelani Greenidge

Jelani Greenidge is an UrbanFaith columnist based in Portland, Oregon. A writer and musician, he blogs at JelaniGreenidge.com.
  1. This isn’t a problem limited to the black church. I go to a white, theologically conservative church. There the same lack of discipleship and emphasis on rights has led to those who are followers of Rush and Beck in the world outside of church. They are not racist in the sense of the KKK. But they can only focus on what meets their needs and lack the ability to do as Christ did and place themselves into another person’s world view. The result is people who increasingly look more like the manager of a Dickensian workhouse and less like a follower of Christ. In the last few years the scripture that Jesus suffered outside the camp and that we have to leave our camp has become more understandable to me.

    • Good point. I wasn’t trying to claim that this problem is exclusive to the Black church, but that it’s certainly endemic there.

  2. good points, jelani. the church *is* biblically illiterate. while it consumes itself with finger pointing at the rest of the world, it has forgotten that judgment begins at the house of the Lord. there is nothing much God can do about the rest of the world until He has dealt with His own turf. and yes, we are to do justice and cry out to Him for it – for the widow, the orphan, the fatherless, the poor – becoming the conduits through which He works. but we have been called to neither advocate nor judge those that are on the other side of the line He has drawn in the sand…

  3. The church lost its credibility in its battle against homosexuality when it began opposing interracial marriages between two heterosexuals as against the will of God.