This has been an epic week for high court decisions. The Supreme Court upheld key provisions of Obamacare and it ruled in favor of same-sex marriage making it legal in all states across the nation. As an African American queer lesbian ordained clergy of the United Methodist Church it is the latter decision that plumbs my imagination regarding the days to come for my denomination.
Within moments of learning about the decision, United Methodist LGBTQ and affirming clergy posted pictures not only of themselves officiating same-sex marriages but also of they and their spouses. Social media lit up with their smiling faces showing the sheer joy of love unbridled. With the ruling now etched across the legal landscape of every state in America, their “outing” typified a people willing to defy the unjust rules of the denomination.But I did not feel such a level of joy.
On my Facebook page I posted this comment: “As a queer lesbian I truly celebrate this decision. I promise you I do. However, there is a part of me that wishes the SCOTUS would have withheld this announcement until Monday. It leaves me feeling so very torn. It makes me feel the burden of being Black and queer lesbian. I feel like my mourning has been stepped on and my ability to celebrate denied its fullness.Now you all say whatever the hell you want to say about this post but it is truly how I feel. And I hate that I feel guilty by the mixture of these emotions. Oppression is a motherfucker!! (Straight no chaser)”
Admittedly, whereas I felt I could not celebrate, several of my colleagues expressed the need to have a respite, a moment of celebration so as not to be overwhelmed by the horror of the murder of the 9 members, including the pastor, of Emanuel AME Church. Still, the very need still points to this truth: Oppression really is a motherfucker which we must continuously seek to reveal and eradicate.
There was no more revealing reading for me than those from within the UMC. Reactions to SCOTUS ruling in the UMC included concerns about tensions between state and church law such as this excerpt from a UMC article: “I think it will have bearing, and I think it will put a lot of people in the middle,” said the Rev. Sky McCracken, a district superintendent in western Kentucky. He will be part of the Memphis Conference’s delegation to General Conference. “I think it will be difficult because people will have a hard time deciding between what the law of the land says and what the doctrine of the church is.”
This is why knowing our history as a denomination is so important. This is not the first time delegates and leaders of our church have had a major clash between secular laws and those recorded in our Book of Discipline.
Rev. PENNELL COOMBE, of Philadelphia at the 1860 General Conference of the Methodist Church: “He called attention to the fact that the question before them was not as to the morality of Slaveholding. On that question there was no difference of opinion in the Methodist Church. The question at issue, therefore, was, whether the Discipline should be changed, as it at present exists, so as to forbid the holding as well as the buying and selling of slaves. …Do the majority intend to say that the Church should place herself in a position of defiance to the State, and require our members to do what the laws will not permit to be done? If so, do they expect the State to protect the Church in that position? After the 4th of June next the law of Maryland wilt absolutely prohibit emancipation. It is nearly so now. What will you do with your new rule then?”
The result was that the chapter regarding slavery was only advisory and “the following passage was stricken from the Discipline, in order that the book might be made to conform in all its parts to the new chapter: “Provided, nevertheless, no slaveholder shall be eligible to the office of an Elder or Deacon, when the laws will admit of emancipation and permit the liberated slave to enjoy freedom.”
Thus the denomination bowed itself to state law permitting its clergy to continue slaveholding.
When it comes to honoring the lives of Black people, the United Methodist Church then and now has been shrewd, flatulent, and even despicable. Our Council of Bishops has had nothing to say about the Voting Rights Act being gutted and took nearly a year to issue a pastoral letter regarding racism though two of its Black colleagues had been in the forefront on the matter (Bishop Warner addressed the subject at their meeting in Berlin and Bishop Gregory V. Palmer called for the Council to issue a pastoral letter).
Law of the land, yes. But miles to go within the United Methodist Church. A thought I simply could not bear yesterday.
Yesterday I needed to sit with the sorrow and worshipful celebration of Rev. Pinckney’s funeral. It was not a perfect liturgy – so much more I desired and will not speak of in this blog – but it gave me room to grieve, to weep, to rock back and forth and to raise my hands in praise. It allowed me to feel my wholeness as a Black woman, as a minister of the gospel, as a scholar, as a vocalist, as a mother, as an activist and as a queer lesbian. Death has that way of reminding us of the work of our mortal bodies and not just our temporalities. Homegoing celebrations remind us of the significance of being bodies in communities. The eulogy speaks to the living, encouraging us and is – when done well – an exhortation that prompts us to carry on the good work of our loved ones now gone to glory. I received that from President Obama’s well-crafted and delivered eulogy. I needed to be reminded again of the power of grace.
No truer words were spoken by President Obama than these: “But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.” Having felt the burden of being the brunt of so many “isms” I needed to be reminded of the enormity of God’s gift of grace and to be comforted as I realized that my labor to eradicate all oppression than stands in opposition to God’s grace given to all humanity, that the work that I am doing is not in vain.
Nine people died while they were in church studying about God and God’s amazing works of grace. That was where my heart and attention rested. All of it. All of raw emotions to that encounter alone. Nothing else would do. Let alone a celebration that I must still fight to bring to fruition amidst a community – LGBTQ – that is still too plagued by racists.
So today we may marry. That’s cool. Really it is. And today I will celebrate this phenomenal turn of events. But as a Black woman I simply must temper my celebratory mood with the cautious perspective of one who knows well the ongoing struggle both in the church and the LGBTQ community to end racism.
On Wednesday night, the traditional night of Bible Study in many Black churches across the country, a terrorist entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and sat for an hour among those gathered to study the text so sacred among Blacks in America. During that time, he likely heard prayer, likely heard testimonies of praise, heard scriptures, heard the sounds of human beings reflecting on how Christians ought live out their faith even in the midst of trials and suffering. During that time, he watched the ministry of a pastor who loved God and loved all people, a pastor who believed being a politician was an integral part of responding to the call God placed on his life. The terrorist also watched Black men, women and children, he saw them breathe, saw them nod their heads affirming what was being taught, saw the children likely playing near their parents. But none of this moved this killer to abort his mission of hatred. Dylann Roof aimed his gun and even as worshippers pleaded with him for their lives said, “You rape our women & you’ve taken over our country. You have to go.”
“Our.” With that one word, this terrorist spoke not only his thoughts but the thoughts of those who raised him on this venomous pabulum and the many white supremacists living in America.
I could write a book discussing white supremacy and its longstanding activity across the globe. I’m leaving that for some white scholar who is really concerned with understanding why some white people continue to hate Black people. As we say in the Black church, “That is not my ministry.”
My ministry today and my concern is about the emotional state of Black people across the country. Black people have more religious adherents than any other group of people in the country. According to the last Pew Research study 87% of us claim some religious group and even if we are unaffiliated, most Blacks identify as religiously faithful in our prayers and spiritual practices. When they could have literally been killed for doing so, slaves gathered without the white slave owners’ permission at what is now called the “invisible institution” to worship God. Our fore parents had to sneak away to the southern brush harbors to pray. When we were allowed to worship it was only with authorization. At the white church, we sat in the segregated area called “nigger gallery.” This is where the trustees desired Richard Allen and Absalom Jones go as they were kneeling in prayer at St. George Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Richard Allen is the founder of the AME Church. Absalom Jones founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and was the first African American ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.
I write this because I know Black people are thinking of this religious history as we hear the incendiary language that flowed from this terrorist’s lips. I also write knowing that some are wondering where in America are we safe to walk or to worship. The Black Church has been the fabric of our communities. We may critique it but it is of us and we will not stand by and fold our hands as terrorists seek to destroy us as we gather there to worship.
Unfortunately, I fear that in the weeks to come no lone white man or woman will enter many of our Black Churches without coming under immediate suspicion. I do not like it but it seems a realistic probability.
To fear for your life while worshipping in the church is also part of Black history. This is not the first time a white terrorist has killed Black people as they sat in their churches. There is a reason we sing, “We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” It is because we as Black people have long known that #BlackLivesMatter. When the majority of white people across America accept this, live this, without negative rejoinder then and only then may we be able to live just one day in this country without experiencing brutality against our bodies and spirits. Until then, please don’t ask us to give an account for our allegiance to this country or our desire for justice. That account must be given by a people who do not know the sting of pain and grief at waking up knowing members of your race have been murdered because of their race, while attending church.
This is not the first time well known Black persons have gotten into public spats and it is likely not the last time. That said, the current attention to the heated disagreement between Drs. Michael Dyson and Cornel West is about more than whether two Black scholars ought trade vitriol in the public sphere. It is also about more than their access to power. What troubles me about the current debate is the appeal to Black culture and Black people; the “who’s more concerned” about “our” people. And frankly, I am more troubled that black people allow it, time and time again, by Dyson, by West, by Smiley, by Jackson, by Sharpton and on and on and on. While these scholars and clergy have been vying for who can be known as the “the most important activists since Martin Luther King, Jr.” or the most erudite intellectual ever birth from the bowels of Black America white privilege has been shitting on Black neighborhoods.
Are we so easily swayed? How dare we simplify this matter to a mere critique of West or Dyson when it is easy enough to watch Black persons pay money they don’t have to spend to attend conferences featuring scholars and preachers labeled as “deep.” WTF?!!
We are complicit in supporting this notion of the Black leader, the “go-to” person, the talking head representing Black culture to white America and broadly speaking the national media. Looking to them to “not embarrass us” as opposed to the simple and true narratives and logic of persons like Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Internalized oppression against ongoing systemic racism demands this assimilation, accommodation and “Lord just don’t let that deviant be a Black person” view. The requirement for a respectable embodiment of ALL Black people continues to control not only our support for persons treated unjustly by our legal systems but also how Black people are treated in the academy where as students in predominately white institutions we struggle to be heard and as faculty that struggle becomes the struggle to be respected.
Yet it is our experience in the academy – the education we receive – that changes us and it should. We should encourage education and intellectualism should not be despised or denigrated. Unfortunately, I fear this current debate will fuel anti-intellectualism. In truth the problem really is not the rich vocabulary of a scholar. The bottom line is how people sense they are being respected whether it be President Obama’s sense of how Dr. West treated him and vice versus or whether it be how Black people feel their existential situation of oppression is being attended to while these two scholars wage a war of words and ideologies. People are asking, Why is this even important?
If we derive anything from this discussion I hope it will not be that Black scholars need to isolate their disagreements to private spheres. That is such a small matter. I hope this drives us to thinking about power, authority and how both are attained and maintained. I hope it leads Black persons to ask questions about accountability for persons we – by our support or apathy – see as leaders for this is what they are, Dyson and West. Prophet is a weighty title neither can be said to properly bear.
Added on 17 January 2017
On the day that I write this, the death of Bishop Eddie Long fills the headlines. I have mixed feelings about even mentioning his name. Like all humans, he was a complicated soul. Long pastored one of the largest predominately African American churches in Atlanta, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. In an article found in […]