Attempting to break “hundreds of years of silence,” a new, controversial book argues that pervasive homophobia in the historically black church has reached “crisis” proportion.
“The black church’s teaching that homosexuality is immoral has created a crisis for lesbian and gay Christians in black churches,” the Rev. Horace L. Griffin, an Episcopal priest, writes in the preface of his new book, “Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches.” (The Pilgrim Press, 2006)
“This black-church-sanctioned homophobia produces a lot of twisted black people,” he writes.
Griffin, who is black and gay, grew up in a Missionary Baptist church. Based on his life and church experience, he has witnessed how “black church leaders and congregants have been resistant and even closed in treating gay and heterosexual congregants equally or, in many cases, of simply offering compassion to gay people.”
Actually, maybe I have said it before, just not so succinctly as Horace Griffin does. It looks I’ll extend my recent spell of religiously-oriented reading further than I already have. (Yesterday I picked up Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, which I wanted to read after having been so impressed with The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and will probably read it alongside Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics.) Two different people emailed me yesterday about Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches. It’s been on my Amazon wish list for a while now, so I’d remember to buy it once it came out, because it sounds like one of those things that — given my background and my issues with religion — I just have to read.
Jeffrey A. Johnson, senior pastor at Eastern Star, said the Bible “speaks against homosexuality, and we stand with the Bible.”
“I don’t know of anyone who is openly gay in my church,” Johnson said. “But if someone claims to be openly gay, then we’d pull them aside and . . . try to convince them to God’s way and will.
“I want them to hear God’s word. But they cannot serve in leadership and ministry with that kind of mentality. It’s not just gays, but anyone who is outside of God’s will.”
Despite that, Johnson said all are welcome in his church.
Let me “make it plain” —as I recall hearing some folks shout during a sermon, as a way of encouraging the minister or a variation on “amen”. Basically, a same-sex couple in that church could abide by “God’s will” in every other way, if you mark it off by the “thou shalt nots”, and may be as earnest in their faith as a married heterosexual couple who does the same. But less than. You can obey all of the ten commandments, tithe regularly, serve earnestly and humbly, and believe with all of your heart, and still be found wanting; still be found not good enough.
Because of who you love.
I already laid out in the QKos round-up that, if you follow the logic of Jeffery Johnson, the options for a gay person are either celibacy or a marriage that will very likely turn out to be what I’m calling a “McGreevey marriage” for now.
Why the term “McGreevey marriage”? Well, precisely because of people like Kevin McCullough, who spends the better part of this WorldNetDaily column claiming “liberals” are “embracing” McGreevey’s adultery. There’s a similarity between Jeffrey Johnson and Kevin McCullough that bears pointing out, because it’s essentially what creates the bind that leaves gay people — whether they sit in a governor’s mansion or the pews of a black church — no good options.
I’m not excusing McGreevey’s infidelity or dismissing the pain his family experienced, but it’s possible to imagine a world in which gay men and lesbians don’t have to choose between either entering into marriages that by their nature require deception and/or self-destructive denial, or resigning themselves to the belief that being gay or lesbian means they must accept less and expect less from life. If your choices are either to lie to yourself and those around you or internalizing the idea that you deserve less from life than heterosexuals because you are less than heterosexuals, then you have no choices left.
And yet, according to some churches, these are the only options given you by a “loving” God. Call it what you will, but I call it abusive because it means that the only place you can go to nurture your spirit — if you accept the context of the above, which amounts to a unwritten “social contract” in some black communities and churches — is a place where you must also hear who you are regularly maligned and degraded.
It means that if you’re a lesbian and you’re sitting in Willie Wilson’s church, you’ll have to hear yourself blamed for the problems of other families, simply because of who you love. It means that if you’re sitting Alfred Owen’s church, you’ll have to hear yourself referred to as “faggot” or “sissy” in the course of a sermon, and you’ll have “no choice” but to participate when it culminates in an altar call for “All the straight men that’s proud to be a Christian.” That is, unless you want to break that social contract I mentioned earlier, and suffer the consequences.
It’s not a huge secret that the black family — and by extension the black church — as long served as a kind of refuge from the racism present in society at large; for a long time, the only refuge. The power of the church — along with a deeply ingrained literalist approach to scripture, along the lines of “God said, I believe it, that settles it” — in both the community and the family creates circumstances under which individuals are required to toe the line of what is accepted moral behavior by the majority, or at least appear to do so, if they want to keep their place within that refuge. Step out of line and you may find yourself “cast out from among your people”; set outside the walls of the fortified city to take your chances without the protection available within.
Want to stay safely within the walls of the refuge? Then Dwan Prince is an example. Step out of line and you could end up like him, “left for dead” with no one looking out for your interests and no one to protect you. Maybe not even your own family, if it means they’ll have to join you outside the walls of that refuge, where who knows what might happen. So, maybe you bear what you have to bear, and hear what you have to hear, rather than risk facing the rest of the world without a community to turn to when there’s trouble.
So, you can either learn to lie, learn to live with it, leave (as I chose to), or stay and fight even if few leaders are on your side because — as Griffin points out — they got offered the same bargain and have already made their choices.
Griffin says the black church often “rewards” its gay and lesbian ministers and members for staying in the closet.
“Everyone within black churches realizes that there is reward and acceptance for those presenting themselves as heterosexual, while [out] gays and lesbians encounter ridicule and condemnation,” Griffin writes. “Even in churches where it is ‘known’ that the pastor is gay, black church Christians are content to remain in the church if the pastor is willing to present himself as heterosexual with a wife and children.”
The publisher’s description of Griffin’s book includes this summary.
As a counterpoint to these negative teachings, Griffin, an openly gay African Amercan Christin pastoral theologian and seminary professor, offers new approaches to understanding scripture and homosexuality through pastoral theology and black liberation theology.
He provides a historical overview and critical analysis of the black church and its current engagement with lesbian and gay Christians, and shares ways in which black churches can learn to reach out and confront all types of oppression – not just race – in order to do the work of the black community.
I don’t expect it will lead me to re-engage with, let alone re-enter, the faith I was raised in. But I expect I’ll find it an interesting read. I might even see if I can get my hands on a review copy.