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It’s a Democracy, Not a Theocracy: How The Black Church Gets it Wrong

Let me put a clear disclaimer before I launch into the deep with this blog post:

The institutional Black Church as we know it, something that is a proper noun, has entered it’s final stages of life.  The metonymical phrase “the Black Church” is rather black churches that have a different socio-economic and political outlook on their American lifestyle and their theology is framed around that.  This is not to say that the theology of black church-goers throughout the last two centuries or so have not been shaped by sociology, economics and politics in the past, it’s just that that trifecta has seen a major shift in the last half-century that indeed, the theology has now caught up with it.

I said all that to say that when Rev. Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant got on CNN and decided to speak about “the Black Church” and its response to President Barack Obama personally affirming same-sex marriages, he unfortunately and egregiously missed that nuance.

Anyone who has read my blog for any period of time knows that Bryant is a favorite whipping post of mine.  I said that whenever I wrote a book in the near future, I would use his personality, his church, Empowerment Temple A.M.E. in Baltimore as a case study because his story and what he has offered up as influence in the black community consistently astounds me.  His latest remarks are no different.

In the short hours after Obama’s interview on ABC was released, my Twitter timeline was all flooded.  Mostly, I’m surrounded  on social networking by progressives and bleeding heart liberals who were happy that Obama took a stand–whether he lost in November or not.  I tip-toed over to some of the more theologically conservative timelines and I saw the exchanges and Leviticus and Old Testament verses being thrown like darts from one side and Jesus quotes from the New Testament being aimed back like an arrow as though this was some cyberspace holy Hunger Games war where one side must prevail at all costs.

I’ve been following Bryant for some time now, and let’s be honest, for anyone that does, his comments shouldn’t come as any shock.  What’s particular about Bryant though is how he approached the subject on two different venues.  On the Tom Joyner Morning Show that has a clear and almost solely black market (and let’s just be honest, those that listen to TJMS are the same demographic that runs to go see the latest gospel play with it’s Sunday School theology) versus talking on CNN to a much broader audience.

Below is the quote that Bryant had from the Tom Joyner Morning Show:

I absolutely, vehemently disagree with the president,” Bryant said. “I agree with his presidency, but with this policy, I do not agree. Marriage is the original institution of the church.”

Asked if he would switch over and vote for Mitt Romney, Bryant said, “I think, given the option I’ve got, which is Mitt Romney, I’ve got no choice.”

“Black people are not going to switch over to the Republican party or put Romney signs on their front lawn. The critical concern is whether they will vote with apathy and not show up at the polls,” Bryant said.

“The reality is, President Obama better be in some black churches real soon clapping his hands, singing Amazing Grace and waving that right hand because the black vote is going to be very critical and apathy may win this election if we don’t get on the ground,” Pastor Bryant warned.

This is where Bryant gets it wrong–on so many levels.

Primarily, this is early May, and not late October.  The economy and job growth is still going to be the number one issue if Department of Labor statistic continue this painfully slow growth.  Only when the economy is doing well will we revert back to the culture wars on which American politics thrive.  Painfully, Bryant makes the mockery of the black church worship experience and caricatures the black preacher all in one statement saying “Obama better be in some black churches real soon clapping his hands, singing Amazing Grace and waving that right hand.”

Really Jamal?

I’ve not joined the chorus over the years of decrying Jamal Bryant and his indiscretions with his marriage and the public divorce that reverberated throughout the black ecclesiastical community because frankly, I didn’t care, but his statement about marriage both on TMJS and on CNN clearly point to his own indiscretion: two kids from previous women, three kids with his ex-wife, who left because of infidelity.

To use the line that gay marriage threatens the foundation of the institution of marriage is complete rigmarole that deserves to be situated with the food that passed through a garbage disposal.  What’s threatening the institution of marriage, if you ask me is people’s inability to communicate and compromise and probably that they got married for the wrong reasons; more people are in love with the idea of marriage, than actually being married to someone for the long haul.

Pastor Rev. Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant

All of my churchy friends know of at least one couple or one friend that got married at about 20 or so, and possibly had a baby or two and by 25 they were divorced.  Why, you may ask.  Often times the older adults, many times coming from the families that were at church four and five times a week, and the sons and daughters of pastors, were pressured into getting married–just to have sex.  The wanting of having sex combined with the guilt of doing prior to marriage made them move up that marriage date way too early.

That instance is what threatens the foundation of marriage, just to name one.

Moreover, what made me at odds with Bryant’s statement both on CNN and on TJMS was that I feel he was catering more toward a national audience that’s conservative, both black and white for the sake of staying on good terms with them.  If you think I’m saying Bryant is a sellout, then yes, you’re reading this correctly.

We all sellout, we all have an asking price, for some it’s low and others it’s high.  I’m not suggesting that Bryant is a sellout in the traditional sense of being a handkerchief head Negro or an Uncle Tom, but Bryant’s statement was one that played into church politics.  Truth be told, I think if Bryant had said nothing about the issue, the vast majority of his congregation in Baltimore would have eventually forgotten about it once it moved from the media cycle (which it kind of already has by the publishing of this post) and they would have been released to think and hopefully vote how they feel.  But, Bryant’s stance gives black church folk, those that subscribe to his theology, the permission to possibly engage in bigoted behaviour.

What always amazes me though is that in many of these larger black churches, you have openly gay men in the tenor section, directing the choir and leading the praise team.  It makes no sense to come out against gay marriages but you say nothing about what’s in your face.  And to my knowledge, Bryant, of all the foolishness I’ve heard come out of his mouth in a pulpit from the the soaring rhetoric and the excellent social critique to the tragic neo-Pentecostal theology and the outright ahistorical lies* he’s told, he’s not known for being a gay basher in the pulpit–that’s just not what he does.

So I ask, then why take this stance?

Bryant, as I said, subscribes to this neo-Pentecostal movement we’ve seen since the rise of Eddie Long, T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar and what some say, was started by the now ostracized Carlton Pearson.  The neo-Pentecostal theology, something that Harvard Divinity School professor Jonathan Walton discussed in his book Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, is something that varies from pastor and preacher and doesn’t have real tangible tenets in the traditional sense of other historical black denominations.

This is why I said the Black Church has gotten it wrong.

Perhaps I fell victim to what I have accused Bryant of by naming my post as such (but for the sake of titles, I didn’t know what else to do), but many of the articles of confederation and constitutions agreed upon in the historical denominations that have been around for more than one century seemed to understand that America was not a theocracy, but a democracy.  That what they chose to believe and even fight for, was because those beliefs were protected under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution in their right to freedom of religion.

The neo-Black Church, if you will, has crafted a theology that aligns itself more with the politics and social economy of the latest gospel album or latest black megachurch pastor or preacher that shows up on black night on TBN.  This neo-Pentecostal movement allows us to create “Sundays Best” on BET and gives preachers the license to place a preaching clip of their latest whooping acrobats on YouTube.  I’m saying all that to say that the theology goes after the low-hanging fruit rather launching into the deep to see what’s out there.

Christian evangelicals, as we all know, have dominated the political landscape coming from the liberal leanings of public theologians in a post-World War II society as we entered the 1960s.  Perhaps the “God is dead” movement and the theothanotological thought that emerged since then was enough for people to retrench so violently that names like Jerry Fallwell and the Moral Majority are household names and which secured a Ronald Reagan presidency.  Nonetheless, even till today, Christian liberals are a quiet, yet strong minority that has consistently been a part of progressive religion.

The black Christian liberals are a unique breed, and yes, in the minority.  Now yes they do exist, but they exist in a dual system.  Many people I have encountered say that they may attend a church that espouses a conservative theology, but they don’t personally believe it.  Others made the jump and joined a local congregation that may be mixed race and clearly has a liberal theology that they practice.  Or they may be like me when I was in seminary, went to a liberal downtown church and at night when to the local COGIC church because I appreciated the music better.  A dual system indeed.

Which then begs the question, why are some of these pastors who have congregations that probably identify as liberal when it comes to politics, make a hot button issue out of this one policy?  God help the people that may hear all types of vile and bigoted hate speech directed at the LGBT community and of course directly at the personhood of Obama on this coming Sunday.  May God shut their ears to the spiteful rhetoric that spews from the mouth of those who know what they do.

Jamal Bryant, oddly enough, can’t help to show his skill package when on CNN, however.

Mind you this is a brother that dropped out of college in 11th grade, got into Morehouse College, was the president of the NAACP Youth Division and was a dynamic—yes, dynamic–speaker.  Bucked the AME tradition of going to an AME seminary and graduated from Duke Divinity School with an Master of Divinity and earned his Doctorate of Ministry from Graduate Theological Foundation.  His credentials speak for themselves.

Thankfully, he shifted the conversation into the number of other social issues that are affecting the black community other than whether or not gay people should be able to get married and he did begin to address seeing this issue as a human rights issue and not one solely located in the confines of theology.

But that’s just it: this is a basic human rights issue as I see it.

If they had called on me, the Uppity Negro I would have spoke based on my personal beliefs and I would have challenged black church members to raise their consciousness and to see this as a human rights issue and not one solely located in theology. Moreover, I would have politely highlighted that as blacks we challenged racist white interpretation about biblical passages that says “slaves obey your masters.”  I would have noted that women in ministry challenge Paul’s clear mandate in his epistle to the church at Corinth that “women should remain silent” in the church setting.  I would have closed and said the liberty of God allows us to challenge the patriarchal and heteronormative ideals that are located within the biblical text.

But since they didn’t, I leave you with the words from the firefighting mayor of Newark, New Jersey, His Honor Cory Booker.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

* I have a Jamal-Harrison Bryant sermon on podcast entitled “You Have to End It” posted on November 28, 2011 in which he made a theological assertion that “God was silent” between the the writing of the Old Testament book of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew.  He said that this was known as the intertestamental period (which is true) but that it was a period of about 2,000 years (grossly wrong and false).  The period between the life of the prophet Malachi and 1 century C.E. with John the Baptist is about 400 years. It’s always been 400 years and will always be about 400 years–not two whole millenia!  

Moreover, the history of the Jews and Persian history is well documented in the Apocryphal texts in which the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church accept as canon and found in the plethora of archaeological studies.  To understand this as a period of blankness is sad miscarriage of knowledge and of one’s scholarship and duty to their congregation.

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9 thoughts on “It’s a Democracy, Not a Theocracy: How The Black Church Gets it Wrong

  1. This is a very good post that provides an important context to think about some of the “popular” black mainstream christian pastors reactions to POTUS’ affirmation of same sex marriage. And you already know that I agree with your specific assessment of Rev. Bryant so I’ll just end my comment with one word, “Amen”.

  2. “the theology goes after the low-hanging fruit rather launching into the deep to see what’s out there”

    Phenomenal word Josh. Really great piece!!! Continue to PREACH TRUTH!!!

  3. Yes!!!!! I just want to run around my house and sprinkle olive oil in the corners. There’s nothing else to say. I mean you even threw a Jonathan Walton reference in there. I was not prepared. I’ll be sharing this post tomorrow.

    Oh & um i’m not convinced JHB went to ANY classes at Duke. I see you didn’t mention Oxford… umm hmm yeah, & um that photo of Jamal tells it all. #Done

    • @Shugah

      The Oxford experience he had is built into the program he did with Graduate Theological Foundation. But he did NOT get the degree from there as he and other pastors like to say. Do not be deceived. smh

  4. Well said as always my friend!

    I personally believe the root of the problem is that the church, black and white, has made an idol out of marriage.

    Its the “final frontier” of holiness. It used to be drinking and drugs, but they can’t hold that over anyone’s head because shoot, now churches have openly recovering addicts and even AA or NA meetings at the church. (and they should) So then the church is treehugging marriage, as if they have a monopoly on it, and saying to gays and lesbians “well we still have THIS! and you heatens can’t get it so we’re better than you”

    Look at how many times these white contemporary pastors (with the hair gel) talk about their wives to excess in their sermons, in their twitter profiles, on their blogs. Sometimes I want to scream “OKAY WE GET IT YOU’RE MARRIED WHO CARES?” What then happens is you alienate single, divorced, and widowed believers by default. As you pointed out, the church is SO uncomfortable with single people, they practically shoot them down the aisle out of a cannon because they are just SURE you’re fornicating if you are single. The result, as you said is divorce between 2 people not ready for parenting or marriage, One’s wife or husband then becomes an ornament to maintainan image

  5. Doesn’t it dawn on anyone else reading this that one big motivating factor for the good Rev was just getting on TV? Would CNN have invited him if he agreed with the Pres?

  6. Re US as a Theocracy

    Then Senator Barack Obama on religion and government

    Worth reviewing given the christianist attitudes many of those who would ‘take our country back’ to God’s will? The Constitution? Dominionism lurking deep in the hearts of Christian Fundamentalism and some Evangelicals.

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