Hoes, Loyalty, and God’s Liberty

Comments from a well-known preacher, Rev. Jamal Bryant, set the internet ablaze over the past few days. During the sermon entitled, “I Am My Enemy’s Worst Nightmare,” Rev. Bryant quoted a lyric from a popular Chris Brown song saying, “These hoes ain’t loyal.” The news of the Baltimore pastor’s pop culture reference spread. The response, while varied, leaned on the side of rebuke rather than praise.

I’m not opposed to using pop culture to discuss the gospel. Jesus did it in the form of parables. Being the primary way that he taught, Jesus used every day objects, ideas, and scenarios to convey deeper truths about the kingdom of God. Also, Paul drew from his surroundings in Acts 17: 22-23. When he arrived in Athens, he notices an altar to the “unknown god,” a shrine created by the Athenians, just in case there was a god out there whom they overlooked. The Pauline writer in Titus quotes a poem by Epimenides saying, “ It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’” (Titus 1:12). Using common themes and tropes to convey the mind of God is as old as religion itself.

However, as with everything there is a context. The homiletical assistance that Rev. Bryant received from Chris Brown drew the ire of many hearers, Christian and non-believer alike. Rev. Bryant himself took to the Internet, admonishing people to hear the sermon in its entirety before possessing so negative a critique. He also drew attention to other biblical figures, reminding people that “Gomer wasn’t a masseuse and Mary Magdalene wasn’t a physical therapist.”[1]

video still from http://wordofyeshua.eu/

Video still from http://wordofyeshua.eu/.

I decided to do just that. As the usage of phrase in question bothered me,I wanted to do my due diligence by hearing the whole sermon out. I know what it is to mount the sacred desk and present what I believe to be holy communication from God, to a group of people with demands on my performance that I’ll never be able to fully satisfy. With that said, no one, not myself or Rev. Bryant, is exempt from public critique and examination when public comments run afoul. What follows is a critique from a budding theologian, future communications scholar, and homiletican-in-training.

I listened to all 38 minutes and 27 seconds of the sermon. In a way, Rev. Bryant is correct; in context the “hoes” quote isn’t that bad. But acknowledging that does him or the sermon no favors. In fact, the reason why the song lyric is a minor note in this sermonic delivery is because he communicated and suggested far worse ideas before and after the quote in question. The unfortunate truth is that Rev. Bryant enclosed that infamous lyric in copious amounts of sexism, homophobia, questionable exegesis, and misdirection. Whether or not the “hoes” are loyal is almost rendered inconsequential when the entire sermon is taken in total.

He begins by discussing the tragic kidnapping of over 200 girls in Nigeria at the hands of fundamentalist Islamic group, Boko Haram. Rev. Bryant makes interesting, and frankly, telling rhetorical choices. He speaks of the social media campaign launched to raise awareness of the kidnapping, #bringbackourgirls, and makes more than a passing suggestion that demonic powers diverted concern from the boys that Boko Haram killed not long before the girls’ kidnapping. To Bryant, the Nigerian boys’ slaughter went unnoticed due to a lack of keenness “to pick up the enemy’s pattern.” According to this pattern, “the enemy,” is to remove men from the equation so that the imaginations of women are stunted. Bryant isn’t clear with who exactly “the enemy” is. Given the situation, it is safe to assume that the enemy is the devil, but he also implicates White Supremacy in the harming of men. Since, women’s imaginations are so important, and those imaginations may only reach their full potential in terms of their proximity to a man, he suggests the hashtag #bringbackourfathers and #bringbackoursons.

Bryant then discusses his thoughts on the emasculation of black men in the public sphere. He weaves together common stories about David Chappell walking away from his show and black men wearing dresses, and connects that to Michael Sam kissing his white boyfriend on national television. Somehow, this makes Sam less threatening and distracts from “who he really is.” In Rev. Bryant’s estimation, Michael Sam’s gayness is directly related to his lack of a positive relationship with his father, a common train of thought amongst black people who oppose homosexuality. The enemy’s plan is to render the black male powerless, and the devil does this by making them more like women.

Next, the preacher blames Western influence on the emasculation of the black man. He states that churches are filled with more women because Western civilization has feminized Christianity[2], causing church to cater to the women, given their natural leaning toward being emotional. For Bryant, rationality is a dominant male trait. This feminization also leads to “sissies” in churches, and an increase in lesbians, since there is no proper male around to set the tone. Also, men are totally unable to meet their full potential until they find a wife, citing Proverbs 18:22. Until marriage, masculine success is the result of “grace.”

It’s around this time when the phrase in question pops up. Using Matthew 27, Rev. Bryant lifts up the account of Pontius Pilate’s inquisition of Jesus. Pilate’s wife suffers a bad dream, one that convinces her of Jesus’ innocence. She pleads with him, via a note, to allow Jesus to go free. Pilate ignores her request. Because he ignored the advise of a good woman, Pilate goes down a path that opens the door to Jesus’ crucifixion and Pilate’s eventual firing and exile[3]. Bryant discusses how men must listen and appreciate good women like Pilate’s wife, even though none of the biblical accounts of her give any insight to her character. Instead of “side-chicks,” men need to appreciate good women, because “these hoes ain’t loyal.” Bryant wraps up his sermon with fervent, emotional pleas.

It appears that Rev. Bryant’s goal was to encourage the women of his congregation to dream, that their lives were valuable and necessary. Whether he did that or not is debatable; many in the audience appeared to enjoy the message. Regardless of whether or not Bryant succeeded in elevating the hopes of women, he also enforced damaging ideas about men’s relation to women while slandering gays and lesbians. If Bryant’s assertions are true, then women and men only reach their potential if they are married to each other, with men being important enough to kill, and men acting like women a perceived downgrade. Homosexuality is the result of feminization, which is makes his usage of Michael Sam as an example puzzling. Michael Sam doesn’t present himself in ways that are stereotypical of black gay men. In all cases, the thing that is to be avoided is unchecked femininity. Femininity is only useful to God’s kingdom if it is properly placed underneath a man, and wayward if it operates freely from masculine control or presents in a perceived male body.

If Bryant’s goal was to edify, there were many other scriptural options available to arrive at his desired end. However, the route he chose was riddled with sexist potholes and homophobic gridlock. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions; however, we aren’t exempt from the consequences they create or the destructive cycles they reinforce. Black women still suffer under the patriarchal imagination and the male gaze. Concerning the effort of racial uplift, black men constantly ignore black women’s concerns, and their usefulness is often understood only in relation to men. A brief reading around rape culture, equal pay, and reproductive rights, along with the common black male response demonstrate this.

This same patriarchal imagination and male gaze also filters the understanding of homosexuality, to the point of warping facts into fables and folk tales. Regardless of one’s biblical stance on homosexuality, there are some stark realities that we as black clergy must face if we are to properly tend God’s flock. Black people in general, and the black church in particular, always had and benefited from the lives of the LGBTQ community. With that said, people in this demographic also suffer. Homeless rates for LGBTQ youth are incredibly high, given that they often run away or are kicked out their homes. In 2013, 73% of anti-gay murders were against people of color. However, these realities are never discussed. And they don’t have to be mentioned at the expense of what is going on in places like Chicago, as Rev. Byrant’s dualistic approach suggests. There room for all of these issues, just as there is room for all at Christ’s table.

With all of this said, people familiar with Bryant’s teaching are not surprised by his words. What’s more concerning is that the congregation was visibly moved by the sexist and homophobic rhetoric. Women make up bulk of the congregation. While it is easy to state these folks are only there because they are being hoodwinked by religion, that stance would negate their ability to choose. In the midst of the problematic theology that Bryant espouses, where proper masculinity is lifted up by throwing unchaste women and gays to the wayside, people are finding a balm. One message often creates different effects in different people. The origin of the message is responsible for the positive effects it creates along with the negative ones, especially when those effects only serve to strengthen pain and torment in others’ lives.

Although his constant judgment of other people’s perceived sexual shortcomings make it tempting, personal attacks on Rev. Bryant and his known personal failings will produce no fruit. In fact, it would be countering one ungodly action with another. And the sad reality is that this type of sermon is preached in numerous places, white and black, every Sunday. The effort that deserves the most strategic attention is the creation of Christian worship spaces where this sort of rhetoric isn’t the norm.

This can be accomplished in two ways. First, there is an urgent need for black clergy, men and women alike, to speak out against the viewpoints that Bryant and many others promote. We need bravery from those who are further ahead in ministry, who rank as Bryant’s peers, to voice their disapproval. While the opinion of someone like me is important, I don’t have the ear of preachers like Rev. Bryant. Numerous clergy have communicated their disapproval, but the most visible of them are women. Where are the black male clergy who are rebuking sexism and homophobia, from within and without Bryant’s own denomination? We need them. Second, young seminarians, theologians, and preachers must thoroughly devote themselves to creating Christian worship spaces where rhetoric such as Bryant’s is anathema. An ethnic of true love and embrace of all humanity needs to undergird our ministry activities. At some point, we will be the leaders. What will we lead God’s people into? It is our responsibly, as clergy-in-training to notice the patterns of the enemy. In this, Bryant is correct. However, it is up to us to take full advantage of our seminary training and denounce the enemies of homophobia, misogyny, and sexism. The Spirit of God rails and wars against these other issues that steal, kill, and destroy humanity. Our spirits must do the same. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Thanks be to God, who is always loyal to loving everyone.

[1] Bryant insinuates that Mary Magdalene was involved in a dubious profession, which is common in protestant churches. This is inaccurate. There is no biblical evidence for Mary Magdalene being involved in sex work. For more insight, read this.

[2] This is a shaky proposition. Western Christianity, particularly in the 4th century and beyond, is heavily responsible for the rational approach that many protestant churches use today. For more background, read Kelly Brown Douglass’ “What’s Faith Got To Do With It?”

[3] This is historically inaccurate. Much of the gospel account’s discussion of Pilate is in doubt, given his ruthless and murderous record. In fact, Rome removed because he was too violent, even for their liking.