For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. 1 Corinthians 1:21, KJV
If one does a quick search of the name Jamal Bryant on my blog, they will quickly discover that from my seminary forward that Rev. Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple AME in Baltimore, Maryland has more than once has been subjected to my low-brow criticism of his preaching. I want to say from the early outset of this, that Jamal (yes, I’m going to go back and forth between his first name and last name as I see fit) is unfortunately known for his own infidelity. In the late 2000s, while I was still in seminary, word of an extramarital affair and a love-child to boot surfaced and Jamal and his now ex-wife Gizelle went through a very public divorce that kept the church in the spotlight and probably unfairly placed unnecessary stress on their children. I have purposely never really brought that into the conversation of his preaching, and I want to make it perfectly clear: I don’t think his personal life has anything to do with criticisms levied against his preaching. When bloggers, journalists and academics begin to raise ad hominem attacks, it waters down the merits of their critique as though it’s pointed directly at the person and not something that may have far-reaching effects beyond that singular person.
Oh, Jamal. Where to start?
The theological dissection of a sermon and the social and political constructs that it holds is something I do almost subconsciously, but the times in which sermons such as this make the rounds I think it’s time to put a little bit more into it. But I say that as saying I have a bias toward how I listen to sermons. Most of my friends say I’m pretty critical when I listen–and it’s true. Over the years I’ve developed a threshold in which I listen to sermons that determine whether I’m listening filtering the various themes and motives at play, or am I actually listening for my personal edification. Call it blessing or a curse, but too often the I end up hearing sermons that fall into the former category and not enough in the latter which leaves me spiritually drained at times.
I think it needs to be said to pull this conversation away from the personhood of Jamal and say that first and foremost, he is a pastor. This is usually where all the confusion happens and people faction off into their own cubbyholes of belief and perception. This is not to be confused with a preacher; these are two different concepts. I, for myself, am a preacher. I go around to churches and deliver sermons. A pastor, is also a preacher, but a pastor is one who is charged with a congregation for which they usually see themselves as responsible for theologically influencing their lives. I recall the National Press Club press conference that Jeremiah Wright held that weekday following his PBS Bill Moyers interview and how a constant refrain of his was “I’m a pastor, Obama’s a politician.” Whether people picked up on it or not, Wright was painfully clear that he was not beholden to the press, to politics or to the larger American public (per se), but that his primary responsibility was to God and the theological welfare of his congregation. I daresay, most pastors have that as their primary objective.
While most times we listen to the transcript of the full sermon to get context, I think some times we miss the context of the place itself. Jamal is preaching in his home church and to his home congregation. These are the people who publicly committed themselves to his ministry and are okay with him being their pastor. I think the fatal flaw in Wright’s press conference that day was that he was doing what pastors and good preachers do best: he was catering to the audience in front of him. If you listen to that press conference, you’ll notice that the whole time he was up speaking the audience was with him, from every sarcastic response to every smug rhetorical question he fired back at the poor woman asking questions who obviously had no idea what she had gotten herself into. The invisible audience on the other side of the cameras watching the press conference were probably looking like “wtf” having no idea why Wright was saying what he was saying and even after the sermonic introduction, still had no idea where to land any of Wright’s comments.
Neither did a lot of black people either. Even until this day, I still have people ask me about this moment in black history (yes, it has become a moment) because looking through the lens of history, Wright is on the wrong side. Rather than having a chance to be the president’s pastor (honestly, who gets that title that often in history), people still believe that Wright missed the importance of that moment to focus on himself. I have frustrated myself to no end trying to impress the point that Wright did not do what he did for his own self-aggrandizement inasmuch as he felt the prophetic unction to say what he said as a pastor, and a 21st century preacher standing in the Hebraic prophetic tradition of speaking what thus saith the Lord no matter what the cost; Wright surely saw himself as a modern-day Elijah on the run from the government (1 Kings 19-21) as well as a modern day Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20) persecuted by the government for saying what God told him to say, yet and still having a “fire shut up” inside of him that he could not keep quiet despite the consequences.
Granted, Jamal Bryant’s homiletical commentary did not carry this same weight.
Jamal’s framework is patriarchal and homophobic and that in and of itself was automatic turn off to people even trying to listen to the entirety of the sermon in order to give him the benefit of the doubt and grasp some context for him quoting the Chris Brown song’s hook “these hoes aint loyal” that has been the center of why this whole sermon went off the rails. I’m not sure whether people are having an issue that Jamal opened up about the death of boys at the hands of Boko Haram and how no one said anything, but favored the public outcry about the 274 girls taken, because I would like to put a pin in that and say Jamal has been very vocal about the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and this was the first time in which I heard him compare it at all to the plight of boys at all. Nevertheless, most of the social framework he used was overtly patriarchal and homophobic.
But so is the Bible.
My critique of the critiquers is that what else do you expect? At the end of the day, the biblical voices combined support patriarchy, they support homophobia and it supports physical oppression on many fronts; the Bible, uniformly has nothing against the institution of slavery existing! I’ve heard more theologically irresponsible sermons from pastors in smaller neighborhood churches over my lifetime than I’ve heard sermons that I disagree with from Jamal Bryant in the last six years or so that I’ve been following him. Jamal refers to men in church at times being nothing more than “sanctified sissies” (a comment that was totally cringe worthy) and dropping completely unsubstantiated statistics about the rate of young black girls identifying as lesbian at a younger age and over that of black boys identifying as gay and my mouth dropped. I was struggling to figure out 1) why that was relevant to the point being made 2) did Jamal ever take a class on gender and sexuality. The answer to #2 is probably not. Why would he be required? It’s not standard curriculum for students in Master of Divinity programs, and I’m sure he didn’t take one while he was
paying for getting his doctorate degree. So then, I was asking myself the question, is it even fair to expect him to do this if there stands a real chance he may just not know better?
What makes Jamal Bryant so complicated is that he weaves some of this anecdotal black barbershop philosophy in with some stuff you’ve heard your grandmother or aunt say over the years sitting back shooting the breeze on porches and kitchens, throw in a bit of your own embedded theology and suddenly he’s spitting the gospel truth supported by zero facts. Add to that the eisegetical work that he (and most preachers) do that really may not be true to the text at all, but exists only in their “sanctified imagination.” Again, I have no fundamental problem with that, but the job of the preacher, and the clear job of the pastor to be aware of the conjecture you are about to put forth and to be responsible about influencing the consciousness of those listeners. So while it may be true that there is a legitimate conspiracy to destroy black boys, and that by in large [black] men don’t show up in our churches on a consistent basis ready to do work and participate and engage in the ministries and the work of the larger church, to throw statistics that when black men say they’re going to church 85% of the time the whole family shows up, whereas only 50% of the time when the woman goes that suddenly the whole family goes as well is questionable statistics to the say the least.
And it certainly doesn’t justify using a loaded word such as “sanctified sissies” in the pulpit and it doesn’t give one license to refer to women as “hoes” just to quote a song accurately. At issue is Bryant directly quoting the hook of a Chris Brown song that says “these hoes aint loyal” which is self-explanatory. It’s expected from the musical “genius” that runs amok these days, but not expected from the pulpit except as something to critique or something to be condemned. If Jamal had been preaching about Rahab; if Jamal had been preaching about Gomer; if Jamal had been preaching about the woman at the well in John 4; if Jamal had been preaching John 8 about the woman caught in adultery, then I might could have seen how he used a pop-culture dog whistle to make his point–but he wasn’t preaching about any of these women, nor was he preaching about promiscuity in general, nor was he even preaching about women who lead the life of adultery, cheating or prostitution. No, Jamal opted to refer to women who cheat or side chicks as “hoes” who “ain’t loyal.”
For the record, calling them “thots” in the pulpit wouldn’t have been any better.
Having the opportunity to nuance this a bit more than my other conversations about Jamal, but not every preacher do I hold to this same standard. Jamal Bryant has these degrees behind his name from accredited institutions which means he broke the general tradition of most megachurch pastors and actually went to school. Granted, that has a lot to do with the denomination he is a part of; to ascend to the highest ranks in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church you’re more or less required to obtain a Master of Divinity degree. Many of their clergy go to the historically black and denominationally supported seminaries such as Payne Seminary and Turner Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center, but Jamal bucked tradition and went to Duke. Flatly stated, Jamal should know better. And to know better, is to do better.
I actually don’t have a solid conclusion for what do we do when we see this, or hear this. As long as churches fill up with women and men, mostly women it seems, who support this type of rhetoric, the criticism is powerless to change. People vote with their wallets in membership-based institutions such as churches. As long as members continue to give and Jamal is still able to get people to donate online and from TV, this type of homiletical rhetoric will still exist–in fact it’s what the people want. What Jamal said was a gold mine to a room full of single women. If you look at the YouTube video again, look at how many women are in the seats–and probably single women too based on how vigorous the amen corner is.
I will offer this, more as food for thought than anything else: our churches are dominated by women as far as membership, even though men probably outnumber women on the leadership roles, even if the senior pastor is a woman. Also, this issue of getting men to show up on Sundays is not just a black church issue, but an issue for churches nationwide. I posit that this is because the dominant message of Christianity that we peddle in our worship services isn’t manly enough. On Sundays when men have NFL or NBA or college sports to choose from, not to mention just another day to have off from doing anything, your average worship service across racial and denominational lines just doesn’t appeal to dominant American masculinity; it fails to hold that **insert barbell lift grunting sound** that screams masculinity.
But that’s another post for another day.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL