Between Hope and Weariness

In many ways, I’m tired. No, exhausted is a better word to describe the lack of energy that I’m currently experiencing. It’s not physical. Rather, the exhaustion that has me in its grip is emotional, spiritual even. It is a weariness of a soul that has been asked to go beyond its limits one time too many.

Many would say that this weariness is of my own doing. After all, my exhaustion is the result of actions that I decided to engage in. I tend to organize my life around big visions that require intense investment. I’m a gay man, a BLACK gay man at that, who is striving to center his scholarship in conversations around race, LGBTQ-phobia, and religion. In every social sphere that I’m attempting to do my work, there is a fiery antagonist that I must strive with. When discussing race, I have to start with why it’s even a necessary discussion in the first place. Then, I have to pivot and weather the storms of homophobia and erasure from my own community. For too many of them, my sexuality is a choice, a personal hobby, or an annoying social tick that serves as a distraction from real issues.

In the religious world, I have to contend with the blatant anti-LGBTQ bias as well as the polite, conscientious bigotry of “well-meaning” people that offer unlearned, uncritical analysis of my life and the lives of others. I’m amazed at how much insight people have into my personal life without even knowing my address! My father must’ve abused me. My mom must be overbearing. I must want to be a girl (which is insulting to me and women, by the way). These soundly disproven folktales of homosexual causation routinely emanate from pulpits and barber shops. They live in the minds of otherwise well-educated people. Their right to have a differing opinion often is a smokescreen to allow dangerous views to create a toxic environment. This faulty analysis is offered on the backdrop of divorces, adultery, out-of-wedlock children, abuse, and a host of other Christian “slip-ups” that appear to be worse than having feelings for someone of the same gender.

This weekend, my exhaustion was exacerbated by one of the many examples of how far we’ve often fallen. Top selling gospel artist James Fortune is having a restoration concert. Several months ago, Fortune was in the news for likely assaulting his wife with a barstool. Several years prior, Fortune assaulted his stepson. As a Christian, I believe in the possibility of restoration for all. However, I also believe that God sides with the victims and works in the world for their justice. While I pray that Fortune receives the restoration he needs, the idea of seeing a known abuser lauded by his community while others are marginalized and crushed is nauseating. Fortune has endangered lives and will still have a lucrative gospel career. Anthony Williams, formerly known as Tonex, saw the gospel community dismiss him upon him acknowledging his sexuality. Anyone who considers those two actions similar misses the point.

I could easily remedy this and get the rest my soul is looking for. I could walk away from church, pick a less volatile research interest (communication tendencies of DC hipsters sounds peaceful), and just stay to myself. However, contrary to the beliefs of bigoted commentators and their selective analyses, I perceive the Spirit of the Living Christ moving and animating me. My evidence for God’s presence in my life is that I feel the urging to stay and fight, to stand, to work as hard as I can with my skills to make a difference. Deep down, a faith resides in me that urges me to hope for a new society where these differences, race and sexuality, are celebrated.

But that hope that has pulled me forward does not often address the wounds, those psychic and even physical marks of struggle that one collects when war is a constant reality. As a result of my hope, I find myself constantly disappointed. Not because we are imperfect; I also suffer from my imperfection and others have to suffer from it, too. Instead, I’m disappointed about our overall lack of sensitivity. We don’t even try. We don’t even seem to care. Why is it so contentious to mention women’s issues when they fill the majority of our pews? Why do many use gospel music to demonstrate glitz and glam, when the object of their artistry was born in a dark, dirty manger and died a criminal’s death? I’m asking these questions rhetorically. I know many of the answers. I consider my asking the questions a way to express my current feelings, a location between hope and weariness.

Even still, from this place of weariness, I see a faint possibility of hope in the future. I admit that I mostly see it with my heart at the moment. Perhaps some rest and distance will reveal more tangible examples in my midst. But as I warily drag myself toward the possibility of my hopes I am constantly bombarded by our failures, our sin, our “missing-the-mark” of what God would have us be. Between hope and weariness is where I am, for now. I don’t think this is an unholy spot, but it is a trying one.

That Time When Jesus Started A Riot

The murder of young Michael Brown has grieved and enraged an entire community. Many of them took to the streets in response. Peaceful prayer vigils and protests were met with armed policemen, tanks, and tear gas. Violence broke out. The response has only gotten worse.

As Christians, we are often urged to denounce such demonstrations. This is due to Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus is presented as meek and mild, friendly and full of compassion. And while this is not inaccurate, a vital Gospel account brings this notion concerning Jesus into question. Near the end of his life, Jesus enters into the sacred Temple in Jerusalem.[1] He proceeds to chase people out, block anyone else from bringing anything else into the temple, and flipped over the moneychangers’[2] tables. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus cites scripture to explain his actions. He declares that the Temple is supposed to be a place of prayer, but instead, it is a “den of robbers.” In John’s gospel, the author places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ career (which is the reason why scholars place Jesus’ ministry activity within a one to three year range). John’s Gospel even depicts, Jesus making a whip.

JesusMadTemple5G

This took place during the Passover, which was a tense time in the ancient city. Roman troops were on high alert, and any hint of an uprising was promptly extinguished. Herod’s palace was attached directly to the Temple, meaning all the vital aspects of the Jewish faith took place under the watchful eye of Roman rule. That, along with thousands of Jews who sojourned there to celebrate the Passover every year, created some volatile situations.

Many scholars debate this account. The discussion is not about whether or not it happened; it is one of the few events that takes place in all four Gospels. This story is problematic because it depicts Jesus as an aggressor. Also debated is exactly why Jesus did this in the first place. Surely he would have known that doing such a thing would have put him and his followers in grave danger. Were Jesus’ actions in the Temple heavenly mandates, political protests, or a little of both? Two scholars, NT Wright and Obery Hendricks serve as a good balance to get the gist of where scholars tend to fall.

NT Wright views Jesus’ assault on the temple as an act of judgment. For him, Jesus interrupting the temple proceedings was an act that demonstrated two things. First, it was an act that proclaimed Jesus’ royalty. Wright notes that it is often missed that it was the kings of the Jews, legitimate or not, that had the chief role in the handling of the temple.[3] In declaring its operations corrupt, Jesus was simultaneously declaring that he had the right to manage the Temple as its kingly manager.

The second thing that Jesus’ act accomplished, was establishing that God was interacting with earth in a new way. For Wright, Jesus served as the nexus of God’s activity while he was on earth, and the literal place where heaven and earth intersected. Prior, this heaven/earth intersection was thought to be in the Most Holy Place found in the Temple. If Jesus is now the center of attention for the meeting of Heaven and Earth, what use is the temple?[4] In Wright’s view, Jesus’ existence renders the temple obsolete.

Obery Hendricks agrees with Wright’s account of Jesus’ temple assault as judgment, but he focuses on the political realities. Hendricks notes “the priests who administered [the temple sacrifices and declarations] had become inextricably intertwined with systematic appropriation of the goods and resources of ‘the least of these.’”[5] That is, the priests were taking advantage of the poor. Jewish scripture required numerous sacrifices and pronouncements for the events in people’s lives, all of which required payment. In times past and during this present time, the temple elites abused their standing. This only became worse when the temple priests became a puppet for the Roman Empire.

For Hendricks, Jesus’ actions in the temple were not a random show of emotion. Noting that the account follows the cursing of the fig tree and the triumphant procession, “Jesus’ protest was well planned.”[6] It also was not merely spiritual. “Jesus was not committing a purely religious act by attacking the money changers and dove sellers…the Jerusalem Temple was not a purely religious institution.”[7] He goes on to explain how the temple was the center of Jerusalem’s economy. It served as a bank. Priests gave out predatory loans with the intention of default so they could forcefully claim people’s property. Jesus was standing up to a system that actively worked to oppress people who had no way to defend themselves.

The question remains: was this a violent act? There’s no evidence of Jesus hitting anyone, but how does one non-violently chase large amounts of people out of the Temple? How do you non-violently brandish a weapon? Also, given the Temple’s size, Jesus’ presumably had help from his disciples. The Temple was a supermarket, a town square, and a bank rolled all into one. Mix that with Roman soldiers and you have to wonder how a person could peacefully shut a place like this down without help and planning. And if you have tables stacked with money being flipped over in the midst of chaos, is it too much of a stretch to believe that the poor people pocketed some of that change? The popular sentiment at the time was that the temple priests cared nothing about the people’s welfare. Looting, contrary to popular belief, is often strategic and a reversal of the status quo. Most scholars believe that it was Jesus’ attack on the temple that led to his eventual arrest and execution. Someone who is politely making a little noise does not often elicit such a response. Nor are they crucified, for that heinous act was reserved for the most dangerous enemies of Roman rule.

If anything, the temple account in the gospels should teach the reader that aggression and direct action is not something that God frowns on. At the very least, Jesus staged a massive demonstration to critique and disrupt the unfair systems harming people that God loves. God is not afraid of anger, and sometimes the only way to create an environment for change is to shut everything down and declare, “enough is enough.” Smiles and hugs do not affect people who hold no regard for others. Many times, messing with someone’s money and flipping their tables is the only option.

Violence and massive disruption should never be a primary option. But one has to ask, what other ways are there for people who have been brutally and systematically deprived of rights for so long? The proper channels and due process do not exist for people in Ferguson, just like they did not exist for Jesus and the people that suffered under the Romans. Destroying property is violent; so is ignoring the injustice inflicted upon those that cannot defend themselves. Asking them to not be violent, without working to produce radical justice for them, is violent. In many ways, the people of Ferguson are “the least of these.” Jesus would be there with them, not in our posh sanctuaries. He would also flip over tables for them.

For whom would our churches and organizations flip over tables for?

Jesus Temple

Copyright Brendan Powell Smith http://thebrickbible.com

People are uncomfortable with this Gospel account for the same reason they are uncomfortable with what is taking place in Ferguson. It is not the violence itself, but who is conducting it. Black bodies are already seen as deviant and prone to violence. The “least of these” are not supposed to attack. Empire only approves of violence when it can be used to further its goals. This is also true for the Church. Violence is endorsed every day when wars are sanctioned and harmful rhetoric is preached. Non-violence is bigger than simply not throwing a punch; it is respect and care for life in all ways. The Church may not go around breaking windows today, but she is far from non-violent. She has not been peaceful for centuries.

Racial tensions, economic disparities, and police brutality have gone on in Ferguson for years. The Jews were suffering economically, being occupied by a foreign force, and enduring the brutality of the Roman troops. In both situations, people who had no other recourse took matters into their own hands. Is rioting unpalatable? Yes. Is it respectable? No. But the loss of innocent life and other forms of violence are far less respectable than broken windows and stolen televisions. Is it worth laying aside peace, even for a second, in the interest of justice and freedom?

Jesus seemed to think so.

[1] Mark 11:15-19, Matthew 21:12-17, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16.

[2] In order to buy temple-approved sacrifices from the temple, you could only use temple-approved money. Money stamped with images Caesar or other deities was not accepted.

[3] Simply Jesus 2011

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Politics of Jesus 2008

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Black Jesus, Boycotts, Blunts

It is a tradition in Black culture to use humor to highlight issues and view situations from different perspectives. Richard Pryor is legendary for this, and comedians such as Paul Mooney and Chris Rock still do it today. While often crass and jarring, the jokes often expose the realities of life for what they are, and offer new ways of embracing timeless truths.

The show Black Jesus follows in the comedic footsteps on this tradition. Created by Boondocks originator Aaron McGruder, the show debuted on Cartoon Network this past Thursday. The show revolves around Jesus and his adventures with the people in his urban community. The version of Jesus, however, is not the stately one that is seen in popular representations. He also is not white. This version of the man from Nazareth is drinking 40s, smoking with his friends, and delivering words of wisdom mixed with flagrant profanity. Some love him; others don’t know what to make of him. Others think he’s a bit annoying and heavy handed with his preaching.

Many people don’t simply find Black Jesus annoying, but downright blasphemous. Many in the Black Church community expressed anger at this portrayal of Jesus, to the point of pushing for a boycott of the show before it aired. This isn’t surprising. Christianity in general, and Black Christian tradition in particular, is known to hold very conservative views. However, it is puzzling, as well as jarring, that Black Christians are protesting one of the few representations of Jesus with a darker hue.

black jesus 40s

Anthony Pollard, moderator of the Boycott Black Jesus Facebook page, addresses the race issue. He writes that the boycott attempt, “has nothing to do with color or ethnicity, the historical Jesus was a Hebrew. This TV show is an insult to the beliefs, traditions, values, and most dearly held truths of the Christian faith. It paints a totally unbiblical, unrealistic caricature of Jesus of Nazareth.” If one conducts a Twitter of Facebook search of the hashtag #blackjesus, you’ll see Pollard’s sentiments are shared by many. The outcry will do very little to halt the show. In fact, the negative buzz probably contributed to the show dominating the rating for in its 11pm timeslot.

It is historical fact that Jesus was not an African American man roaming the streets of California. Black Jesus is intended to be a comedy with a side of public commentary. The usage of history poses a problem, however, for those who want claim a sanitized, whitewashed (literally and figuratively) Jesus. History also reveals that Jesus, the real Jesus of the Bible, more closely resembled a homeboy on the corner in Compton than a Victorian model of morality and speaker of perfect British English.

Black Jesus gives the viewer a gritty savior that fails the tests of respectability and class. Truth is, the actual Jesus of Nazareth would have failed these tests as well. While scholars today still argue about the debatable aspects of his life and teaching, one aspect is almost unanimously agreed upon: Jesus was a poor, marginalized Jew under the shadow of an oppressive Roman occupation. This reality would’ve dictated many of the aspects of Jesus’ life growing up. Poverty tends of have these deterministic effects on those suffering under it. Figuring out ways to survive on paltry means and navigating odd jobs around the neighborhood to make ends meet would’ve been his norm. Seeing strange characters doing unsavory activities, as well as living with people crushed by the vicious systems around him would be commonplace. There’s a good chance that Jesus did some of those same things.

black_jesus_stillStill, reality is hard for people to swallow, given that most Christians view Jesus as a spiritual, all encompassing being instead of a blue-collar worker. That it is so difficult to embrace this truth about Jesus, especially amongst churches that hold Bible study in such high regard, demonstrates the vast disconnect. This controversy won’t push more people away from Church; it reveals how much the Church is already removed from society in terms of influence. Those who are up in arms over this presentation of Jesus need to ask themselves why seeing a normal, human, poor, scruffy, foul-mouthed, and yes, Black Jesus is so jarring to their senses. If that question is answered, they’ll have a clue as to why people don’t hold Church in high regard any longer.

Love it or hate it, the response concerning Black Jesus shows is that people are still excited to talk about the man from Galilee. Even if this version of Jesus has a bit of a potty mouth.

What I learned in Seminary: Introduction

For many, theological centers of learning are an enigma. No one knows what goes on inside those sacred walls, yet they feel compelled to know what takes place inside. If someone feels a distinct “call” or urging to work in pastoral ministry, the idea of learning the Bible in a more detailed way often comes up before long.

The decision to attend seminary[1] is a personal journey. As such, everyone’s story is different. The beginning of my journey toward theological learning is centered in my unique call story. The sensation of feeling “called” to preach, along with the drive to seek training in order to do it, were linked. For some, attending seminary is a lifelong goal that they set aside for the time when the kids are out of the house. For others, it is a second career. Everyone has a unique situation that leads them there.

Those unique call stories do not lessen the impact of some serious factors when attending seminary. Seminary is not for everyone, dare I say, it is not for most. When people ask me, “Should I go to seminary,” I tend to get into a polite, but serious mindset. One thing that many people fail to realize about seminary is this: it is graduate school. A Master of Divinity program, which is the standard degree for ordination in most denominations, takes about three years to complete. And completion is in three years is only if someone attends full time, with a couple of summer classes here and there. The financial commitment is immense. Most seminary graduates graduate with crippling debt[2]. And since the vast majority of seminary graduates seek pastoral positions—which are shrinking in number and pay—the effort is effectively dooming them to a life of poverty.

Perhaps Jesus wouldn’t mind that, but most of us would.

I also strive to inform the asker that attending seminary is an intellectual enterprise. As stated above, I was more certain of my intellectual call before I figured out what church to align with. That is, I pursued the call to learn before I pursued the call to preach. However, that is not the case for most. The majority of seminary students pick up theological education as a requirement for ordination. This in and of itself is not a problem. Unfortunately, it can cause seminary to only be an event to check off on the list, not one to actively engage. In this case, seminary becomes merely a requirement to check off the list. Because the academic life of the mind and the practice of faith are seen as antithetical to so many, there is often no cross pollination of the ideas learned in the classroom into what comes over the pulpit.

There are a number of reasons for this. Theological reflection takes effort, and most don’t like their deeply held assumptions challenged. Also, many denominations still require certain beliefs to be affirmed for ordination. So while the important may be great to discuss in class, students will still toe the line in regards to denominational rules.

After that, I inform the person of the work involved. You’ll have to read a lot. You’ll have to write a lot. Your writing and method of thinking and believing will be critiqued harshly. If you don’t like to write (and don’t want to learn to write better), if you don’t like to read, if you don’t like to engage and interrogate your own ideas, than you probably shouldn’t go to seminary. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say this: unless you are in a denomination that requires seminary education for ordination, or you desire to pursue doctoral level work in religion, then you shouldn’t go to seminary.[3]

There are many other ways to become theologically knowledgeable that don’t involve thousands of dollars and hours. I recommend those to people first. They still require effort and critical thinking, but they aren’t as taxing or expensive as navigating through a seminary program. Even if you don’t officially attend, seminaries are a great resource. Search the profiles of professors that work at various seminaries and see what books or articles they’ve written. Go to your local bookstore (or public library) and peruse the religion section. Search for them on the Internet. As you read, pay attention to the sources that the authors use.

If reading is not your thing, there’s yet another way. Take those same names you found while searching for books, books that you don’t want to read. Type their names in YouTube. You’ll be surprised at how many give talks that are frequently uploaded. Maybe reading 300 pages is daunting to you, but listening to a 20 minute talk should serve just fine. Also, many are converting their books into audiobooks or even on iTunes University. You’ll find some gems if you look for a while.

If that information doesn’t deter one from going to seminary, then I get into the big question. That is, “Where will I go to pursue theological education?” That is a vital question, and must be considered with prayerful research and consideration. I’ll address it in the next post.

[1] I use “seminary” as a blanket term for ease of understanding. There are actually several types of places that one could pursue theological education. They’ll be discussed in a future post.

[2] http://www.christianpost.com/news/seminary-graduates-in-record-debt-study-finds-117676/

[3] There are other degrees that you can obtain at a seminary, such as a Master of Theological Study. I’ll discuss other options in another post.

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.

Death, Life, and Questions: Some Preliminary Thoughts on Jesus’ Death

Why should any person be excited about an innocent person dying? Most people would agree that such a sentiment is barbaric.

Why would anyone be thankful that their transgressions are the literal reason why someone had to be brutally executed? In most situations, we would call that person callous.

But during Holy Week, these sentiments go out of the window. Particularly on Good Friday, we rejoice in the unthinkable, and celebrate unfathomable acts.

For the past few years, Holy Week has been a struggle for me. It’s been a classic case of a theology student reconciling all of the knowledge they’ve gained while engaging in common religious traditions with other people. For so long that participation was untroubled. I parroted the same story that I was given with faith in my heart. You surely know the story yourself. Jesus came and lived a perfect, sinless life. He then died on the cross for our sins. This was the strength and wisdom of God, for humanity had incurred such a monstrous debt that no one else could ever pay it. Jesus’ death and resurrection also demonstrates the love of God, because Jesus paid a debt that we could never repay, and the fact that God chose to do it demonstrates the depth of his affection towards humanity. Oh, how he loves us. This idea of salvation should be self-explanatory…right?

Right?

Isn’t it?

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Or am I just overcomplicating something that doesn’t need to be that deep? I’d argue that I’m not. Understanding more about the Christian concept of God caused me to develop anxieties and questions about our celebrations of Jesus.

Before I say any more let me say that by no means am I in a place 100% assurance with what I’m discussing here. I’m still reading, reflecting, and interrogating my sources and myself. I have some hunches, and I’ve been intrigued by particular stances of folks who’ve thought about this topic far longer than me. Still, I do find myself in the place where I can share my thoughts, the footprints of my journey considering the process of salvation.

I had no reason to tamper with my view of salvation until other realities about the gospel accounts came to light. My initial exposure to the Christ account was via evangelical theology. The assumptions of this distinct theology shaped, and obscured, certain parts of the biblical stories. As such, Jesus’ earthly life didn’t matter much, save for the fact that he was a healer and worker of miracles. What remained an emphasis for me was the sin of humanity mankind (we weren’t gender inclusive). My sin, and the cumulative sins of everyone that ever lived remained in the forefront of my mind. Evangelical theology directed me to consider my own sin and my incalculable inability to pay off my divine indebtedness. The only justice that was spoken of in the churches that I attended was the justice of God that could only be satisfied by Jesus on the cross. Humanity was separated from God because of sin, not because of unjust power dynamics. Whatever problems may exist in the material world, if they are even acknowledged at all, are merely symptoms of a deeper spiritual reality: our need for a savior.

The information I was exposed to in divinity school began to trouble those waters. What came into focus was the reality of Jesus’ life. If Jesus was God in the flesh, then the actions he took while he was on Earth actually are the very actions of God. God was born poor. God intentionally associated Godself with the lowly of society, the marginalized, uneducated masses. When given other options, he routinely ignored social and religious expectations in pursuit of a greater harmony between human beings. He touched the untouchable, disregarding a need for ceremonial cleanliness. And he not only touched them, but the healings and exorcisms demonstrate another theological point: God dwells with the marginalized, takes away their shame, and brings them into community. Jesus did this by applying direct, but non-violent, action.

This caused problems for my evangelical sensibilities. The Jesus of the gospels seems to be miles away from the Jesus presented in the gospels. The former is intentionally, unequivocally committed to the oppressed and marginalized of his day, and draws on his understanding of God and divine authority to legitimize his actions. The later is more of a salvation-offering spirit, more concerned with the invisible realities of sin and holiness codes than anything that is taking place in the physical world. If Jesus is God, than Jesus’ life is what matters. The fact that God chose to ignore holiness ideas that supposedly originated from God’s mind, should give everyone pause. That he spent most of his time preaching to the outcasts and downtrodden of his day and not to the upper classes also demonstrates some staggering truths. God is partial, and readily sides with people who are on the unfair side of a power struggle.

Understanding this made me look at the cross differently. Most Christians know a fair amount about the cross, that it was a means of Roman execution and used to terrify others. What most Christians don’t know is the social and political implications that exist that impact the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. These implications matter, because they tie into the reality of Jesus’ life. But if your theology makes light of his actions, and Jesus’ earthly life is only relevant in that one has to be alive in order to die, then these contextual realities don’t matter much. For me, that was no longer an option. My understanding and commitment to truth did not allow me to pretend certain parts of the gospels didn’t exist or to conveniently place them in the background for my own comfort.

Also, my concern for God’s consistency forced me to at least revisit common salvation theories. If Jesus is against violence, and Jesus is God, then how could God intentionally draft a plan of salvation that included the death of an innocent? If this plan existed since the before the beginning of time, there was no outside force that required this sort of action. What cosmic law exists that God had to surrender to violence, that brutality became God’s only option? Is God honestly that devoid of creativity or intelligence that God ultimately decided to become a brute? Remember, if ideas about the Godhead are true, then God the parent must be just as opposed to violence as Jesus. If the death of Jesus was ordained before the beginning of time, then God is not opposed to the death of innocents. In fact, God is responsible for the creating the unbalanced conditions that caused these awful situations in the first place.

I made some very strong statements here, and I stand by what I’ve said so far, even while in the midst of reading and thinking about the topic. Some thoughts will change. Some will remain the same. But in summary, I’ll say this: I don’t think that God planned to kill Jesus. I think God planned to vindicate life and to condemn the forces that steal, kill and destroy (sin). The cross, representative of evil’s main threat, death, was rendered powerless by the resurrection. Jesus didn’t live to die, as the popular song lyrics declare. Rather, God caused Jesus to live, as the strongest rebuke and shattering of the evil realities that our world harbors to this day.

There’s still so much to unpack with all of this. I plan on addressing some of the questions I have with more blog posts. I’m not necessarily asking for agreement; I certainly don’t agree with many other people. I want to share what inside my head, in the hopes that someone else will feel comfortable sharing what is inside of theirs.

Question away.

On Theology, Action, and Whether or Not You’re A Bigot

The fact of the matter is this: theology leads to action.

Lessons and ideas are presented in church as gospel truth, with the expectation that the hearers work them out in their own personal lives. This can lead to disastrous effects in the lives of those who adhere to the beliefs, as well as to those who aren’t a part of churches at all.  Try as we might, we don’t live in neat, separate bubbles. Our political and theological choices affect people in real life. We are far more connected then we’d like to admit, bonded by the realities of location and legal mandates.

There is no safe discrimination, no harmless separation of theology and societal impact. You’d think that Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated that, but many have failed to acknowledge the religious force behind racism and segregation. This religious force is also present in other political issues of the day. To throw a theological bomb that explodes people’s lives while hiding behind religious freedom is ignorance at best and cowardice at worst. Theological differences aren’t merely a difference of thought. They bring great consequences and harm to those that fall on the wrong side of them. This damage isn’t delayed until an anticipated afterlife where the “incorrect” people are punished, but in the every day lives of people that just want basic human dignity.

It’s astoundingly disingenuous to teach that perspectives and orientations of life are dangerous and then expect people not to make political decisions based on those ideas. Church and State are separated in theory. In practice, they often have too much to do with one another. And to be fair, perhaps it’s silly to believe that religious viewpoints and political affairs could exist in separate spaces. We bring our whole selves to whatever venue we enter, including our beliefs. Still, it’s simply unfair to legally force people into restrictive situations based on a faith that is not shared by all.

Unfortunately, restriction is the aim and goal for far too many. For example, in 2012 Maryland took up a public vote to affirm same-sex marriage. While many churches mobilized with the intent to have the bill turned down, the referendum passed with popular support. DOMA still existed at this point, but even with that limiting federal law there were legal benefits that some Christians, people who claim to love, actively worked to deny others who may or may not share their faith. To many Christians, defending a theological stance at the expense of people’s request for equal treatment in the eyes of the law is fine. Never mind the fact that there are still a multitude of legal implications for people who don’t fit traditional norms in any way, shape or form.

Or what about the idea that a woman’s respect is connected to how much clothing she has on, and how few sexual partners she has? An idea of purity that is paraded as a personal, religious viewpoint plays a huge factor in laws concerning rape and reproductive rights (and no, that doesn’t just mean abortion). Countless stories of sexual abuse take place due to the idea that somehow a woman presented herself in such a way as to invite violence into her life. Yet, the idea of modesty is upheld as a magnet for righteousness and a repellent for violence. (I’m sure the sufferers of violence where the law requires woman to be fully covered would disagree with that idea.)  Of course, no one is blatantly saying that rape or other types of sexual assault are okay. But the line connecting uncritical teachings about women and real world consequences for their well being is much thicker than many would like to admit.

What about the predominantly white evangelical political machine, that works and advocates for policies and ideas that will hurt the least of these that Jesus championed? Who think issues of race no longer exists?

What about the women who have had sex, either by force or by choice, who must deal with the ingrained teaching that they are “damaged goods?”

What about the men and women, boys and girls, who have killed themselves because their sexuality didn’t match their church’s doctrine?

What about the single mothers and single fathers?

There is no such thing as nice bigotry. Being polite may alter rhetoric, but it doesn’t alter the effects that people deal with as a result of religious teaching. If you, as a result of your belief, actively work towards or consent to the marginalization and discrimination of others, you’re a behaving like a bigot.  If you are okay with someone whose life is lived harmlessly different from your own being less protected by law, you cannot claim religious exemption. Be honest about the implications of our beliefs. There are those who have to deal with the repercussions.

If anything, Jesus should be the defining factor. Jesus did not excuse sin, but he also spoke out against societal and governmental influences that conspired to harm others. Whether or not you agree with someone’s choices, find the compassion in Christ (or wherever you may look) to not create oppressive situations for others.