Speaking Truth to Power: An Open Letter to Black Clergy
By Mark A. Jefferson
On The Mark
Historically, the African American preacher has functioned as the moral, theological, and cultural compass for not only African Americans but also for the entire country. The marginalized position that African Americans were confined to provided a needed vantage point to assess the theological, anthropological, and social hypocrisy that has accompanied America’s high aspirations. Being products of the educational opportunities, cultural understandings, and theological views of their times, African American clergy have never completely agreed on any topic. Not all African Americans see any issue the same way.
We, as clergy, stand at the precipice of major decisions that could, for better or worse, place us on the right or wrong side of human history. Same-sex marriage, civil unions, and issues around sexuality must be addressed. The days of selective justice and championing partial humanity are coming to a rapid close. In listening to much of the conversation about homosexuality and the legal rights of queer people to be in relationship, I have noticed a few things that must be addressed. As an ordained minister and a scholar, it is my divine duty to raise critical questions and encourage my sisters and brothers to think about how we live our faith in the public square.
Initially, we, as clergy, must not allow outside forces to dictate the perceived agenda of African American clergy or churches. Have you noticed how mainstream media is having a field day analyzing how African Americans feel about “hot button” issues like sexuality but completely ignore more coherent African American concerns about the prison industrial complex, cuts in educational spending, and tangible assistance for the poor of all races? Clergy are being played in order to split votes, deflect attention from pertinent issues, and to drive wedges in needed relationships. Some of us are so glad to be media darlings that we do not realize the joke is on us.
African American clergy have been featured to talk about their views on same-sex marriage, civil unions, and homosexuality. I’ve noticed most of the voices that have been speaking were men who would identify themselves as heterosexual, most of them are or were married, and whose congregations comprise a majority of women, and I would argue some homosexuals as well. Even though being an African American is a historically disenfranchised position, those who are out as a homosexual and African American are socially, theologically, and culturally disenfranchised exponentially more than those who are heterosexual.
African American women are often the bearers of the heavy burden of racism, classism, and gender oppression. So, African American male clergy occupy a position of power in which they must speak truth to power, themselves. Instead of imagining yourself as the prophet, what if you could be the power that needs a fresh word spoken to? For some, African American male clergy are operating with the same patriarchal concerns that are often attributed to their European American colleagues. Issues of sexuality undermine current structures of power. Some leaders believe a “soft stance” on homosexuality would make them seem weak. Others have firm convictions about the nature, cause, and cure of homosexuality and see that any “agreement” with it is unbiblical.
Though these issues, among others, are important to address, it is important to assess how African American men, through their heterosexual masculinity become defenders of their own privilege. Remember, you are speaking from a place of privilege and must assess how much of your views have patriarchal and hetero-normative underpinnings. If all gay and lesbian people left the church, I would be curious to see how many of these mammoth cathedrals and store front churches would be full now. We cannot profit off of people for whom we will not fight for; they deserve equal civil rights.
How we read and interpret the text is important. The biblical text has been utilized to support the enslavement of Africans, the overall inferiority of women, numerous wars, and the effects of hyper-capitalism. Textual interpretation has changed from Origen, to Augustine, Horace Bushnell, to Dietrich Schleiermacher, to James Cone. The reading of the text is not stagnant. Theology is not stagnant either. If so, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses would be heresy and Protestants would likely be Catholics.
Too many clergy who have been educated in seminaries have taken on theologies that cause us to uncritically reproduce what has been. I came to seminary with conservative theology oozing out of my pores. The more I read, the more I realized that God is the same but humans trying to live out Christianity always changes. God is always concerned with justice, love, and holiness. Sexuality cannot be the only way to assess any of those divine prerogatives.
Self-appointed leadership and inauthentic engagement with the full humanity of people will condemn or confirm the messages we preach. Too many African American clergy sat happily in President Obama’s pocket until the issue of marriage equality. We did not hear a peep about the POTUS extending the Patriot Act with its expansive information mining potential and how his policies murdered numerous people are antithetical to the Nobel Peace Prize he owns. Some of the rage that has been heard in pulpits is not about theology but, I contend, is about how many clergy place God-sized hope in the president only to realize he is a politician with clay feet.
I am not writing because I am better than anyone. I have wrestled with this issue in my prayer life, in the biblical text, through theological writing, in discussions with my queer friends and colleagues. Citizens of this country should be able to marry whomever they choose. Interestingly, for a generation and culture that is seen as noncommittal and flippant, we are legally disenfranchising people who want to make lifelong commitments to one another. How wild is that? I don’t have the answer but I’m willing to trust God, read the biblical text with fidelity, and support the legal rights of all people. I’m not here to debate if this sin or not (because we can do that forever) but from a legal standpoint, those who are citizens and taxpayers should have access to all rights that come with membership.
Lastly, if we must fight, let us fight for the rights of all people. We must think critically. We should notice when culture frames homosexuals as a punchline to a joke, a stock comedic character in a sitcom, or when homosexual relationships are framed as purely as wild sexual encounters. No one’s humanity should be defined in stereotypes, whether heterosexual or otherwise. Standing up for the legal rights of my gay brothers and lesbian sisters does not diminish my heterosexuality. Ultimately, live your faith, don’t legislate it. Christians are not the only faith in this country and we must be citizens of this country. As African American male clergy, we are oppressed but still privileged. Let’s be mindful that we must speak truth to ourselves in order to speak truth to the world.
Truly Yours in the Beautiful Struggle for Life,
Rev. Mark A. JeffersonMark Jefferson is a native of Hampton, Virginia. He played football at Norfolk State University and graduated magna cum laude in 2005. He graduated from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2008 with a Master of Divinity with a certificate in Black Church Studies. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at Emory University in Religion, focusing on homiletics and hip-hop culture. He is an ordained Baptist minister and resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Check his blog out on markajefferson.tumblr.com and follow him on Twitter at @MarkAJefferson
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